Looking for an Exit in Afghanistan

Two Afghan National Police keep watch on the outskirts of Herat near the border between Afghanistan and Iran, on 13 December 13, 2012. SOURCE: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images Two Afghan National Police keep watch on the outskirts of Herat near the border between Afghanistan and Iran, on 13 December 13, 2012. SOURCE: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Two Afghan National Police keep watch on the outskirts of Herat near the border between Afghanistan and Iran, on 13 December 13, 2012. SOURCE: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

“I have little hopes about the peace process, as the two sides have totally different agendas and objectives,” says 45-year-old Ilyas Khan Shinwar, one of the many Afghan refugees residing in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province.

Like thousands of other refugees, Ilyas opted for voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan under a UN program in 2006, but he and his family could not live in his hometown, Naad-e-Ali, in southern Helmand province. Helmand has been one of the epicenters of fighting between Taliban and NATO forces for more than six years.

Ilyas, who managed to establish a small fruit supply business in the suburbs of Quetta, told The Majalla: “All Afghans wish for peace in their country. And if it happens, no one will be happier than us. But keeping the ground realities in view, it seems to be [a] more-than-tough ride for both sides.”

He remains skeptical about US attempts to negotiate a peace settlement with its Taliban opponents to end the bloody war in Afghanistan that has raged for more than a decade. He thinks that the Taliban might have changed a lot, but not to the extent that they are ready for a power-sharing agreement with their rivals, especially with President Hamid Karzai and his cohort.

Gulrez Khalid, another middle-aged Afghan refugee from Kandahar, and who has been based in Quetta for the past 17 years, agrees with Ilyas. “Power-sharing is not in their [the Taliban’s] blood,” he says. “They want the whole of Afghanistan under sole leadership of Mullah Omar, which understandably will not be acceptable for America.”

Ilyas and Gulrez are not alone in doubting the fate of the peace talks. A majority of analysts agree that negotiators have a difficult and unpredictable terrain to travel.

Mission (almost) impossible

The suspension of talks last month, first over the Afghan government’s opposition to the embassy-like nature of the Taliban office in Doha and its flying of the flag of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” and then due to President Karzai’s objection to direct talks between the US and the Taliban, shows how difficult and unpredictable the process can be. Diplomatic and political circles are hopeful that the process will eventually resume despite the row over the Taliban’s Doha office and President Karzai’s objections. However, there are many obstacles ahead.

First and foremost, the fate of a long-term security deal better known as the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement, under which the US would be allowed to maintain its military bases and keep thousands of troops in the war-stricken country even after the 2014 pullout, has yet to be determined. Not only has the Taliban repeatedly rejected outright the presence of even a single US soldier on Afghan soil after the withdrawal, but so has the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar-led Hizb-e-Islami, an Islamist group with strong roots in northeastern Afghan provinces.

Many analysts believe that this could be a make-or-break point, as it is a matter of survival for both sides. “This will be the last condition the Taliban and other resistance forces will ever accept,” says Brig. Mahmood Shah, a Peshawar-based expert on Afghan and tribal affairs who has served as the chief of security in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas (FATA). “[The] Taliban’s entire struggle has been against foreign forces and foreign occupation. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for them to accept US boots on Afghan soil,” he added.

Similarly, if the US gives way on this point, it would simply mean that it will leave Afghanistan exactly where it was before the US intervention. Most parts of Afghanistan would come under the control of the Taliban, while northern Afghanistan—except Kunduz, the only Pashtun-dominated province in the north—would be divided by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. The end result would be a fierce civil war that would not only engulf the war-stricken country, but would also destabilize neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

In the case of a complete pullout of foreign forces, security analysts predict that a weak Karzai government, without the backing of NATO troops, would not be able to resist a Taliban attack on Kabul for more than six hours.

Iran, whose current involvement in Afghanistan is low, would be propelled to back its old ally, the now-defunct Northern Alliance that included the Shi’ite political and military group Hizb-e-Wahdat.

“Destabilized regions always turn out to be safe havens for terrorist groups,” Brigadier Shah argues. “If Afghanistan witnesses yet another civil war, then it will again become the heartland of Al-Qaeda and other militant groups, which will be a potential threat to regional and international security.”

Points of contention

Another major obstacle is the US precondition that the Taliban accept the current Afghan government and constitution, which the Taliban maintains is un-Islamic and illegal. Inevitably, the US will also try to persuade the Taliban to accept presidential elections being held next year.

In this context, it is important to understand the difference between a Taliban-style Shura (consultation) system and the current setup in Afghanistan led by President Karzai. Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, was never elected to the status of Amir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful) by the people of Afghanistan; he was selected by the Taliban Shura. This system is in some ways very similar to the Iranian system, where the supreme leader holds the final say regardless of the elected government that happens to be in power.

Asked whether Mullah Omar will ever run in a presidential election, Aslam Khan, an Islamabad-based politics expert, says, “Absolutely not. . . . The Taliban militias work on the basis of a bait [following] mechanism, where everyone must have an unshakable trust in the supreme leader. This is not the case in Western democracy, where everyone can vote and contest elections.”

Not only do the Taliban have no experience with elections, sharing power has always been an issue for them as well. They have been offered a partnership by Hizb-e-Islami in the struggle against foreign troops over and over, but they have repeatedly rejected it. There is only one circumstance where the paths of the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami can cross, even for a joint struggle: if Hikmatyar accepts the leadership of Mullah Omar.

This begs an important question: If Mullah Omar is not ready to launch a joint struggle with a group that has the same agenda, how would he share power with Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, General Faheem, Rasheed Dostum and other rivals?

Almost 70 to 75 percent of the Afghan National Army (ANA) is comprised of troops from the Uzebk, Tajik and Hazara communities, whereas Pashtuns, who make up around 50 percent of the total Afghan population, are not more than 15 percent. At the level of officers, their share is even lower: only 8 to 10 percent of ANA officers are Pashtuns.

The Taliban consider the national army a tool of foreign occupational forces and demand its dissolution. Strategically, the US will not accept this. Aside from security concerns, it would be a bitter pill for the Obama administration to swallow, as a huge amount of US taxpayers’ money has been spent on training and equipping the ANA.

“Here, too, America appears [stuck] between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Brigadier Shah observes. “Afghanistan is not only the home of Pashtuns, but it is equally the home of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and other ethnicities as well. America cannot leave them at the mercy of Taliban.”

Brigadier Shah thinks that the US will have to ensure that other communities share power with Pashtuns if it wants to leave a peaceful Afghanistan. “But this is no doubt a Herculean task, given the track record of the Taliban and other armed groups,” he contends.

The Taliban’s particular views on the role of civil society, women, female education, art, culture and other social activities are more obstacles that need to be settled before the proposed pullout of US and international forces. Some civil society and human rights organizations have emerged during the past decade in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul. Many are opposing negotiations with the Taliban, as their survival will be at endangered if the Taliban returns to power.

Karzai understandably appears to be upset by the prospect of direct talks between the US and the Taliban, as he has no bargaining chips to use and no way to influence them. He does not represent any communal or armed group and is totally dependent on US forces. “President Karzai, who is trying to stay in office for the third consecutive term through Loya Jirga [grand assembly], understands that,” says Brigadier Shah. “That’s why he is pressing for talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.” Brigadier Shah added that he does not see Karzai remaining in the picture, even in the event of a partial withdrawal.

Karzai’s dilemma is that he does not have a genuine power base, and lacks the backing of any of Afghanistan’s major factions. Nor is the ANA loyal to him. The so-called national army is a conglomerate of various ethnic groups that fought the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001. These groups are still very much loyal to their respective ethnic leaders.

“Unfortunately, Karzai has no bargaining chip to exploit, compared to the armed groups belonging to the defunct Northern Alliance who, to a great extent, represent their respective ethnicities,” Brigadier Shah said. “Karzai’s survival relies totally on the presence of US troops on Afghan soil. That’s why he seems to be frustrated,” he adds.

The incentives

Despite the tough terrain, there are a few factors that may get the difficult and unpredictable task accomplished, if only partially.

The international recognition that will only come with a settlement is very tempting to the Taliban. International legitimacy was a persistent problem for the Taliban government between 1996 and 2001. Only three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—recognized it. Security and political analysts believe that even if the Taliban installs itself in Kabul once more, without a settlement legitimacy will remain an issue that haunts their government.

“They are not the Taliban of 1996 or 2001. Their attitude has changed a lot,” says Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based defense and security analyst. “They have recognized the fact that, even if they are back in power, without a settlement with the US and other ethnic groups in Afghanistan the population will continue to suffer from a civil war and ultimately go against their government,” argues Sehgal, who is also the editor of the Defence Journal of Pakistan, a well-regarded defense affairs magazine.

Second, he said, the Taliban are also aware that without foreign investment, aid, mutual cooperation with the international community, and internal stability, their government will be totally paralyzed.

Another positive development is that Pakistan has reactivated its once-dormant contacts with Northern Alliance leaders. That relationship went sour after the installation of the Taliban government in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan in 1996.

A senior Pakistani foreign office official claims that the response of Northern Alliance leaders has been “positive.” The official, speaking the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the record, told The Majalla: “Both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance agree on the wholeness of Afghanistan. They understand that in the event of a civil war, Afghanistan will virtually be split into various semi-autonomous and autonomous regions.”

Pakistan, too, wants a national government in Afghanistan because civil war in the country will have destabilizing effects. A Muslim (and nuclear-armed) neighbor of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been grappling with a wave of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. “A stable and peaceful Afghanistan means marginalization of external factors in Afghanistan. Internal factors will remain there, but will be much easier to tackle,” the official maintained.

“Pakistan can play a key role vis-à-vis talks. If the international community agrees to give due share to Pashtuns in the next Afghan government, then Pakistan must use its influence on the Taliban and its good contacts with National Alliance leaders to reach an agreement,” he opined.

Pakistani foreign office spokesman Aizaz Chaudry has already confirmed that his country supports the inclusion of all the concerned elements in the Doha talks. In addition, he alleged that Saudi Arabia and China are also using their back-door contacts to woo the Taliban and their rival groups to reach a settlement.

Both Sehgal and the anonymous foreign ministry official agree that the US has limited options, especially if the Taliban and its Afghan rivals reach an agreement independently. If this happens, the US could be forced to remove its troops from Afghanistan completely—even the trainers it wants to maintain after it has pulled out the rest.

The Taliban, in contrast, have a little more room to maneuver, but not much. They have suspended talks because they think they have an edge over the US. And they want to exploit this “edge” to get more and more concessions, the foreign ministry official says. “But they have not closed the chapter, and will soon return to the table, as both the US and the Taliban have no other option.”

Ikram Sehgal agrees: “No doubt this is a difficult and unpredictable [path], but the most suitable solution to a decade-long war in Afghanistan.”


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