What does the Taliban Attack on Kabul Portend (III)?
Najmuddin A. SHAIKH
As I was writing this last instalment of my analysis of the Afghan situation we heard of President Obama’s secret visit to Kabul to sign the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement with President Karzai and to make a prime time Television broadcast to the American nation. What should be noted is that the agreement is termed a legally binding “executive agreement” i.e. an agreement that has not been ratified by the US Senate and therefore has a much lower legal status in American law than a treaty. It talks of 10 years of support for the Afghans but mentions no specific amounts for security or economic assistance. In return the Afghans are required to improve governance, eliminate corruption, protect human rights etc.
The timing was important. On the first anniversary of the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed by American commandos in the Pakistani city of Abbotabad, Obama wanted to be able to say that one of the principal purposes of the war in Afghanistan had been accomplished and he could therefore safely stay with his announced intent to withdraw American forces and hand over security to the Afghan security forces by 2014.
The intent was also clear. Say to the American people as the American election campaign intensified that. “This time of war began in Afghanistan and this is where it will end.” He could portray himself as the President of peace who was bringing to an end the decade of war that had blighted America and to assert that “As we emerge from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home, it’s time to renew America
To avoid the charge that Afghanistan was being abandoned, he pledged that beyond 2014,suppor will be provided not only to build the Afghan forces but to accomplish “two narrow security missions-counter-terrorism and continued training”. As a measure of reassurance to the region and to the Afghans, he added that “we will not build permanent bases nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains”
The Obama visit has probably done him a great deal of good in terms of electoral politics back home but from the perspective of this analysis of the prospects for reconciliation, the notable feature of Obama’s speech was the reference to reconciliation where he acknowledged that his administration “in coordination with the Afghan government” has been in “direct discussions with the Taliban” and they can be part of the future if they renounce violence and abide by afghan laws. He added, and this many read as a strong message, that those who refuse to walk the path of peace will “face strong security forces, backed by the United States and our allies.”
So how will this affect the current state of play on the reconciliation process?
For the moment it appears that apart from the Hikmatyar Group, the smallest and, to my mind, the least significant of the “Armed Opposition” factions the Karzai administration has not been able to locate or talk in any substantive way with the other groups be they the Haqqani network in the east of the country or Mullah Omar’s Taliban in the South.
The talks that have taken place have been between the Americans and the Taliban after a long and searching scrutiny by the Americans to determine that they were in fact talking to genuine representatives. This itself suggests that despite all the intelligence resources deployed by the Americans and NATO allies not very much is known about the Taliban. One must therefore take with a pinch of salt the rumours that there are divisions within the Taliban ranks and rumours about the ruthless elimination of such Taliban It is clear however that the Taliban approached the talks in Qatar with a certain measure of wariness. They repeatedly emphasised that the now suspended talks with the Americans in Qatar were not for reconciliation but were primarily for the exchange of prisoners-the Americans releasing five persons from Guantanamo in exchange for the one American GI that the Taliban are known to be holding. This could support the thesis that the Taliban in entering into talks faced some internal opposition.
On the other hand one can conjecture that the Taliban leadership, which authorised the talks in Qatar had substantive negotiations for reconciliation in mind. We would not, otherwise, have seen the team of five Taliban leaders moving their families to Qatar and taking up long-term residence away from the reach of dissident Taliban or other elements opposed to reconciliation. Why were the talks suspended? Was it purely because the Americans were having problems getting Congressional clearance for the release into Qatari custody of the five Taliban or was it because the Americans demanded that in return for this demonstration of American sincerity the Taliban should issue a statement renouncing ties with the Al-Qaeda? Grossman visited Qatar before reaching Pakistan for the US-Pak bilateral talks and the “Core Group” meeting. Nothing has been said about a meeting with the Taliban but one can assume that some contact direct or indirect was established and is being kept confidential.
One can assume that the Taliban want a greater indication of the ultimate American objectives in Afghanistan before they publicly renounce Al-Qaeda. After all their recent appeal on their website for funding will have little resonance with donors in the Gulf if they renounce Al-Qaeda. And they can afford that loss only if they are assured that there is a genuine prospect of their demands being met. The Obama speech and his assertion that America seeks no permanent bases may be found reassuring.
There is no doubt that the negotiations in Qatar will resume and that over a period of time despite current Taliban statements they will accept the Karzai administration as the negotiating partners. Pakistan has already issued statements at the Prime Ministerial level asking the Taliban to talk. In the core group meeting of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States in Islamabad on the 26th and 27th April it has been agreed that a subgroup of experts will be set up to consider ways and means of providing safe passage to the Taliban desirous of participating in peace talks that presumably will be intra-afghan. Afghan deputy foreign minister Jawed Luddin as the Afghan representative at the core group meeting said, “We need to be able to find them, those who are willing to talk wherever they are…”We need to provide … a safe passage and an environment where they feel safe and confident that they can engage in peace talks without any consequence.” Apparently agreeing with this Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Jalil Jilani said, “The formation of the group exploring safe passage was a tangible accomplishment.”
Between this statement of intent and the actualisation of the proposal there may be a considerable time gap but certainly the Taliban and Haqqani leadership will feel that Pakistan’s public statements and the agreement reached in the core group meeting will necessitate a more positive approach on their part. Also they have probably studied as carefully as possible the Strategic Partnership Agreement between Karzai and Obama. The Americans made serious concessions on night time raids and on Bagram Prison to reach agreement and that meant America was serious about providing support to the Afghan government for at least a decade after the foreign troop withdrawal and that such support would include a residual military presence for providing air support to the ANSF and for counter terrorism operations.
It is of course not at all certain that all the Taliban or the entire Haqqani network will find this acceptable. It will take time particularly since some hardliners may argue that the increasing incidents of “green on blue” incidents would make the Americans chary of an exposed presence in any other than very secure bases and would make their Special Operations forces shy away from joint operations.. But Taliban reluctance will not be the only hindrance.
There is very little chance that the political opponents of Karzai will accept that he and his team alone should negotiate with the Taliban. The unfortunate death of Mullah Burhanuddin Rabbani has removed a figure in which the opposition could have reposed confidence. At least they would have found it difficult to question his credentials. His son, Salahuddin Rabbani has been appointed as head of the High Peace Council but he does not command the same credibility. There will therefore have to be intra-afghan talks in Kabul to decide upon the Afghan negotiating team. In these negotiations there will also have to be agreement on what could be conceded to the Taliban but this will also raise the question of the demands from members of the opposition that there should be much greater autonomy for provinces and areas than is currently envisaged in the constitution. Some may argue that while the constitution may remain unchanged its provisions should be so interpreted as to permit greater delegation of authority to local officials locally elected or selected. This could become a major difficulty.
The Afghan people will be right to worry that these obstacles may well become insurmountable and may condemn Afghanistan to a further period of instability.
Lastly President Karzai has been talking quite frequently in the past month about his own desire to step down in 2013 rather than waiting till 2014 when his term legally ends. His argument for doing so is logical. If he steps down the Presidential elections can be held while foreign troops are still present and can provide an additional layer of security and such an early election will ensure that two major events-the complete withdrawal of foreign troops and the election will not be telescoped in 2014. He also says however that his team meaning both his advisers and his political allies are not agreeable.
The Americans and their allies have made it clear that they do want Karzai to step down in 2014 when according to the constitution says his term will end and when he will not be eligible for re-election but will they feel confident that a premature stepping down will not lead to further political turbulence? Karzai has ruled by compromise, by keeping major leaders from all ethnic groups on his side. Will his successor who, because of the demographics will have to be a Pushtun, be able to play the political game with the same skill? Will this unleash new rivalries at a time when forces in Kabul would need to be united in their pursuit of reconciliation with the Taliban?
These again are questions of concern to the ordinary Afghan who is desperately hoping that somehow peace and stability will come to his country. It is difficult to suggest that President Obama’s dramatic dash to Kabul and the agreement he concluded there will assuage in any substantive way these doubts and concerns