By Dr. Raja Muhammad Khan
Sequel to the pronouncement of US forces’ exit plan from Afghanistan by President Obama on December 2, 2009, ‘London Conference on Afghanistan’ was held on January 28, 2010. British Government hosted the conference along with UN and Afghanistan. The basic objective set for the conference was to transfer the security responsibilities of Afghanistan to its own security forces from the ISAF and to entice the warring factions; the Taliban, to end the violence. The agreed strategy was “Instead of demonising the Taliban, we now contemplate the possibility that some of them could become part of the solution, an Afghanistan run by the Afghans themselves.” A reintegration fund was established to allure the Taliban to give up militancy and join peace process. As per the former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the primary objective of the fund was to, “provide an economic alternative to those who have none other than participation in the insurgency.”
In a way, through London Conference, President Hamid Karazai sought the formal approval of international community for the start of reconciliation process with Taliban and other warring factions in Afghanistan. The Americans, though agreed to this new initiative, however, remained incredulous of the reconciliation and its outcome for them. The main consideration remained with the US policy makers was, ‘if at all Taliban are to be reintegrated into the main stream, including Afghan Government functionaries, then what did US get by ousting them in 2001 and waging a prolonged war thereafter’? Since January 2010, there has been no let-up in the US and NATO military operations, killing many Afghans. The occupation forces even could not subdue the Taliban after launching frequent offensive including Marjah Operation launched in February 2010.
The repetitive failing of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, have eventually forced them to re-evaluate their rigid policy of not reconciling with the ground realities. It was in the same context that 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.
Over the period, the reconciliation process has gained more support from almost all stakeholders as well as the international community. 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 William Hague has visited Pakistan and appreciated the role played by Pakistan in curbing the scourge of terrorism. He too emphasised on the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. 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 Karazai 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.
In the same backdrop, the newly appointed US Military Commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has also supported the reconciliation process. General Petraeus, has recently replaced General Stanley Mac Crystal, who was sacked by President Obama on being critical to the US political leadership. Indeed, General Mac Crystal has the strong urge for the negotiations with the Taliban for a durable peace in Afghanistan. In an interview with the Financial Times on January 25, 2010, the former commander of the ISAF said that; “the Taliban can contribute and help in the future to run the country.” He further said that, “a soldier Vcaoura he had been enough fighting and there is a need to find a political solution.” This realistic feeling was of a commander who knew the real situation on the ground.
While undergoing through his confirmation process, 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”.
More recently, there have been reports that President Karazai has met some of 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. Nevertheless, had there been a truth in these reports, why should President Karazai be stopped from meeting the Afghan nationals, particularly those who contributed a lot in the pulling out of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. What, if they now oppose US, after all US is also an occupying power, not very different from the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, 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 shape the 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 the field and then negotiated once they are in 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 be 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, in which over 15000 troops (US, NATO and ANA troops) participated in the 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, and more body bags despatched to their hometowns, 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, in the Afghan war theatre with a lot of bewilderment in his mind. In the first phase, he has to disprove the visualization of General Stanley Mac Crystal that NATO and US forces are losing the Afghan war. To change this perception, he would depend on the much talked and long awaited summer offensive in Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold. The operation if conducted would be a serious setback to the reconciliation process, started by President Karazai. 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. Apart from the Afghan masses, President Karazai would even not support this operation, as it would undermine his own authority. Therefore, the General should re-evaluate the feasibility of this summer offensive.
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.
Secondly, The General must have a precision whether to support or otherwise, the reconciliation process among the various groups in Afghanistan. For an honourable exit of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, he must bear in the mind that this the only way forward. The common Afghan is now sick of the repeated foreign invasions/ occupations and factional fighting continuing since late 1970s. Moreover, US too cannot afford a prolonged war. It has spent trillions of dollars on overseas wars and earned a bad repute for its generations even. US soldiers are involved in horrendous killings of Afghan and Iraqi innocent people. Therefore, they must stop this carnage here and go back. What all-Afghans want is the peace and employment, which US failed to, give them?
Thirdly, there still exists indistinctness in the mind of General, whether to follow the timeline for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan (July 2011) as spelt out by President Obama in December 2009. Rather than an immediate “switching off the lights,” follow a gradual withdrawal process for the exit from the Afghanistan. This would fulfil the demand of the Taliban, who want pulling out of foreign troops from their homeland before reconciliation and reintegration into the government is made possible.
Fourthly, US hierarchy must understand that presence of India, a geographically non-contiguous country; create more complications than ever before. In the garb of reconstruction, Indian leadership wants to colonize the Afghan people and their homeland. This fact would be more pronounced once NATO and U.S decide to leave the Afghan soil. General Petraeus must know that except a few leaders of the Northern Alliance, Afghans are highly allergic to Indian role in their country. India is indeed part of Afghan flux, therefore, its leaving Afghan soil prior to U.S, and NATO forces pull-out would be most essential. Otherwise, India would play its old game of fuelling the infighting between Pashtuns and Northern Alliance.
Fifthly, though the General himself has acknowledged that Pakistan has a very significant role in the Afghan peace, as Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of same society, hence, Pakistan’s contributions should not be relegated to accommodate the interests of others. Pakistan’s solemn effort is to establish peace and stability followed by economic prosperity in Afghanistan. “Pakistan cannot wish anything for Afghanistan, which it does not wish for itself.” Indeed, the roots of the current internal instability in Pakistan can be traced to the prolonged instability in Afghanistan. Once Afghanistan stabilises, Pakistan would get stability as a routine matter.
Moreover, by now everyone is convinced that Afghan stability would come through the process of reconciliation among its various groups including Taliban and Northern Alliance. The New US General and the Commander of ISAF, General David Petraeus must have these things in mind to precede further in a fiddly situation like Afghanistan. Having clarity and brevity about aforementioned facts would give the General a series of new successes, rather meeting the fate of his predecessor, General Stanley Mac Crystal.
The writer is an analyst of international affairs.