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A royal mess

As the US troop drawdown begins, talks over Kabul's future appear to be headed nowhere

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, July 08, 2011

As the US troop drawdown in Afghanistan begins amid news of a mini-surge of 'special troops' being relocated from Iraq to Afghanistan, negotiations over Kabul's future appear to be headed nowhere.

The major obstacle is the conflicting, and at times mutually exclusive, concerns and objectives of major stakeholders. The interests of a predominantly non-Pashtun Afghan civilian and military establishment, the interests of the United States that flow from an imposing approach eager to circumvent even President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan's longterm considerations for its safety in the border regions, and of course its paranoia with what it perceives as a growing Indian footprint in Afghanistan. This cocktail of conflicting interests and competing approaches is sure to keep the pot boiling, with the month of June having been the deadliest in terms of foreign troop casualties (which according to the I-casualties website soared to at least 289 by end June 2011, compared to 711 for the entire 2010).

Let us look at three recent events which underline the fragility of the situation and the vulnerability of the incumbent government in Kabul. On June 28, Taliban militants attacked the heavily guarded Hotel Inter-Continental in Kabul, an assault that ended only after Afghan security forces called on their international allies for help. This attack came hours after the head of the Afghan central bank resigned and fled to Washington, where, on June 27, he went public in denouncing the government of President Karzai for its failure to clean up a smoldering banking scandal that involves a number of big guns of the current system.

Earlier, on June 23, a special court that had been commissioned to examine allegations of fraud during last year's parliamentary elections declared that it was invalidating the mandates of 62 members of the 249-member parliament. That decision essentially suspended the assembly's work until the lawmakers are replaced. These dramatic but alarming events prompt basic questions about Afghanistan's underlying stability, and also put a big question mark on the reconciliation process that the United States is pursuing right not.

In last week of May, weekly Der Spiegel magazine reported that Germany had hosted two rounds of talks between "mid-ranking officials from the Obama administration" and representatives of Mullah Omar. It said the talks centred on the possible establishment of US military bases in Afghanistan after it withdraws combat troops, an idea already snubbed by the Taliban, but now being negotiated with the Afghan government, which has referred the matter to its parliament.

The American pointman for the region, Marc Grossman, is desperately looking for genuine interlocutors, particularly those who could get the reclusive Mullah Omar on board the reconciliation process. On the other hand, Gen Petraeus, who oversaw the surge last year, and was a reluctant supporter of the drawdown beginning this July, believes the Taliban need a little more hammering before they could submit to talks dictated by the United States from a position of strength. Petraeus, the new secretary of defence, and many others also have a different view on Pakistan. They believe they could work around the country which shares a 2,560km border with Afghanistan, and which is the major conduit for Afghan and US-NATO troops' food and fuel supplies. The Karzai government, on the other hand, hopes to gain access to Taliban via the High Peace Council, led by Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani. For this, Karazai, until his latest outburst against alleged "Pakistani shelling of Afghan villages and security posts", had hoped to coopt Pakistan as well into the "outreach-strategy". One would hope that Karzai's anger does not derail the series of bilateral consultations that are aimed at finding common ground for lending some substance to the reconciliation process.

But, at the moment, what matters more than the Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral pursuits is whether the United States a) can develop a consensus within, and b) gives President Karzai and other Afghans a free hand in creating space for reconciliation and a real drawdown in the insurgency.

The divisions in Washington became visible within hours of Obama's announcement in favour of cutting down troops in Afghanistan, which costs the US and its allies about $2 billion a week (at least a million dollars per foreign soldier). It is clearly the State Department and the White House pitched against the deeply entrenched Pentagon-CIA lobby, with no clear strategy in sight.

Why should the Taliban step forward for talks if they are not sure of what might befall them two months down the lane? What is there on the table for them as a bait? Neither the US nor the Afghan government has put on the table what may be considered as an incentive for the militants. Also, why should the amorphous Taliban compromise their current position when they believe that the major objective the US establishment is pursuing is to fragment the insurgency and then use one faction against the other. Underlying this strategy is the belief that the Taliban are divided with no central authority. That is why the US pressure on Pakistan to decapitate and neutralise the Haqqani network, while it would like to open communication channels with Mullah Omar's fighters.

Diplomatic sources look at the recent border incursions by Afghan Taliban into Bajaur and Upper Dir areas also as a "motivated campaign" to pressure Pakistan into a crackdown on militants in North Waziristan. Some officials present at a recent ISAF meeting headed by Gen Petraeus called this campaign a "reverse North Waziristan" - a phrase the outgoing chief commander also used with reference to the border skirmishes. The Pakistani shelling is also directly related to these "mercenary attacks" and are easy to interpret; cynics in Islamabad argue that these cross-border attacks from Afghanistan are meant to stretch the Pakistani army even further, engage it at more fronts, thereby creating a situation which the US-led international community can use to make a case for intervention in Pakistan.

At the moment this may be far-fetched but not impossible. It requires both Islamabad and Kabul to watch out and keep the tempers down, rather than escalating the situation through verbal rhetoric. The overriding self-interest of the sole Superpower can turn things topsy turvy if something goes against its plans. And right now, not much is going its way. One would hope that the financial crunch at home would dissuade the US establishment from throwing money at tribal chiefs and drug lords for buying peace. By doing so since the launch of the Operation Enduring Freedom, the Americans have ended up corrupting the Afghan sociopolitical landscape beyond redemption. The looming danger is that if they cannot do it by money this time, they will be tempted to do it by force to claim victory against a reticent but determined Taliban force. And that may not augur well for the region.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk