By Dr. Raja Muhammad Khan
At the concluding session of the G-20 Summit, held at Toronto, Canada, President Obama declared the Pakistan’s Afghan settlement efforts as “useful”. Without making a direct reference about the parties taking part in the reconciliation process, the US President said that, “conversations between the Afghan government and the Pakistani government, building trust between those two governments, are a useful step”. While giving a tacit approval of the reconciliation process, President Obama emphasized on the political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. He even gave implicit approval for the inclusion of Taliban in the process of reconciliation. Indeed, Pakistan has long been emphasizing on the reconciliation of all Afghan groups including the Taliban for the establishment of a broad based government in its neighbourhood. Pakistan perceives that, reconciliation is the only way for a durable peace in that country.
Although much delayed, but the process of reconciliation has at last initiated and now being supported by most of the stakeholders. The United Kingdom has also supported the reconciliation process. Its Army Chief during a recent statement fully backed the process. The British Foreign Minister, Mr Hague has visited Pakistan and appreciated the role played by Pakistan in curbing the scourge of terrorism. After all, war is not the solution of any issue. The decade old war in Afghanistan has not led to a solution of the issue. Continuation of an indefinite war is in the interest of neither the US and NATO nor the Karzai administration. Therefore, there is no need to make it an issue of the prestige as far as the US hierarchy is concerned. After all this war is proving to be longest drawn war in the history of U.S and economically insupportable. Wars are fought to attain certain aims and objectives in the shortest possible time. If staying in the region is the ultimate aim, then, US may linger on it indefinitely. However, it will have to satisfy the domestic audience, once the families of the US and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan are continuously receiving the dead bodies of their loved ones back home.
With the same perception, the newly appointed US Military Commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, apparently supported the reconciliation process. General Petraeus, has recently replaced General Stanley Mac Crystal, who was sacked by Predident Obama on being critical to the US political leadership. During his confirmation hearing, in front of the Armed Services Committee, General Petraeus told the Chairman of the Committee, Senator, Carl Levin, that, “Pakistani involvement in some form of reconciliation agreement, I think that is essential”. He further told the Committee that, “Clearly, we want to forge a partnership or further the partnership that has been developing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those countries are always going to be neighbours. And helping them develop a constructive relationship would be an important contribution”.
There have been reports that President Karazai has met the key Taliban elements like Sirajuddin Haqqani in connection with the reconciliation among the various Afghan groups. However, these reports did not get official confirmation, as General Petraeus referred his telephonic conversation with Afghan President during the senate confirmation, who denied any such meeting in the recent days. The new military commander in Afghanistan has boldly accepted the fact that, it was on the U.S requirement in 1980s that Pakistan established a linkage with notables of Afghanistan to form Mujahedeen against the former Soviet Union. Therefore, if those connections are still intact, there is no harm in that. After all Pakistan and Afghanistan are two neighbours, who share common culture, traditions and above all the same religion.
Yet another acknowledgement made by General Petraeus on the Pakistani contributions is that, “We can facilitate the dialogue, participate in the dialogue, be an honest broker, we are friends to both. We are enormously enabling both. Pakistan is in a tough fight. One of its fights, by the way, is to keep our lines of communication open.” According to a BBC report, Taliban has refused to negotiate with the Afghan Government until the withdrawal of the foreign forces from the Afghan soil. These were indeed the apprehensions of President Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta, while the news of the reconciliation was spread all around.
After a deliberate analysis of the statements of various US officials, it appears that still US intends using the policy of ‘stick and carrot’ for the solution of Afghan issue. As in the past, the new General also wants to maintain an upper hand, even if the reconciliation process goes on. The General think that Taliban should be first defeated in hpw the field and then negotiated from the position of weakness. As he indicated that, “Now, whether that is possible, such an agreement, I think is going to depend on a number of factors that will play out over the course of the summer, including creating a sense among the Taliban that they are going to get hammered in the field and perhaps should look at some options”. Such strong threats may not acceptable to Taliban, therefore, would lead to further fuelling the already fragile situation.
It seems that US has not learnt a lesson from the Marjah Operation, launched in February 2010. Over 15000 troops participated in a small town of the Marjah, but met complete failure. There was no gain by the US and NATO forces in that. As a face saving through a secret patch-up, Taliban allowed the photo session of US forces landing at a small plateau in that town. Now, if General Petraeus is planning a similar operation in Kandahar, he must understand that, the fate of that operation would not be very different from the Marjah Operation. At this critical juncture, the hammering of Taliban in the field would not be possible for US. Rather, this would be a futile exercise, might results into killing of innocent Afghans, as it has been happening since October 2001.
There is yet another confusion boggling the mind of General Petraeus. Theoretically, he supports the policy of President Obama regarding the US withdrawal of troops from that country commencing from July 2011. However, practically, he is not convinced. As he highlighted that, “I support the policy of the President. As the President has stated, July 2011 is the point at which we will begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government will take more and more responsibility for its own security. As the President has also indicated, July 2011 is not a date when we will be rapidly withdrawing our forces and switching off the lights and closing the door behind us.”
In order to support his own point of view, the General feels that still a considerable time is required before the security responsibilities can be taken over by the Afghan forces themselves. As he elaborated, “It is going to be a number of years before Afghan forces can truly handle the security tasks in Afghanistan on their own. The commitment to Afghanistan is necessarily, therefore, an enduring one and neither neither the Taliban nor our Afghan and Pakistani partners should doubt that”.
General Petraeus has joined his new assignments, the Afghan war theatre with a lot of bewilderment in his mind. In the first phase, he has to disprove the thought process of General Stanley Mac Crystal that NATO and US forces are losing the Afghan war. To change this perception, he would depend on the summer offensive in Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold. The operation if conducted would be a serious setback to the reconciliation process, started by President Karzai. It would rather be a counterproductive effort, leading to the addition in the Taliban strength. Otherwise, Taliban Movement is taking the shape of Afghan National Resistance Movement against oppressive foreign occupation. The General should bear in mind that irrespective of his military power, Taliban could be neither subdued nor defeated. Could they defeat them in last ten years? Rather, Taliban became more powerful than they ever were. Therefore, the wisdom demand that General Petraeus, otherwise a mature professional soldier should analyse the ground realities in Afghanistan, before deciding for a major military operation in that country.
The General must support the reconciliation process, as this is the only way leading to an honourable exit of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Moreover, he must follow the timeline for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan through a gradual process, rather immediate “switching off the lights.” Though he acknowledged himself, the role Pakistan would be very significant in the Afghan peace, as Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of same society, hence cannot be separated. Therefore, Pakistan’s contributions should not be relegated to accommodate the interests of a non-contiguous country, like India. It should be remembered that except a few leaders of the Northern Alliance, Afghans are highly allergic to Indian role in their country.
Dr Raja Muhammad Khan is PhD in International Relations from Karachi University. Presently he is teaching at National Defence University, Islamabad. His area of focus is South Asia, Central Asia, Af-Pak, Iran and The Middle East.
He is a regular contributor to www.oly.com.pk