Secondly, the legitimacy of Afghan state institutions has not taken root. The current parliament, for example, is being reduced to a rubber stamp with Karzai’s machinations, one of which is to have 62 opposing MPs disqualified by a special tribunal appointed for this very purpose. Moreover, Karzai has neither shaken off his image of a quisling nor demonstrated panache for leadership. Under him massive corruption has transpired with his brothers and cousins taking the lead.
In other words, the American strategy in Afghanistan has little to do with Afghanistan ‘turning the corner’ and more with Obama’s internal compulsions. The chief of which is public disenchantment with the inconclusive Afghan War; changing opinion in Congress due to the debt crisis and growing cost considerations; reduced concern about Al-Qaeda after OBL’s killing and, of course, the presidential election campaign that will soon begin.
Hence, Obama’s claim that the worst is over in Afghanistan is beguiling to say the least. Not that it fooled anyone at home or abroad. The ‘isolationist’ lobby in Congress finds the cut-back too small and the withdrawal process too dilatory, while ‘interventionists’ are appalled that he is pulling out when so much remains to be done. Abroad it is being taken as an admission of defeat.
But what concerns Pakistan more than the withdrawal plan is the language in which it was couched. ‘We will not tolerate safe havens in Pakistan and we will hold you to your commitment to fight (our) enemies’, said Obama, in nearly those words. Hillary was more forthright, ‘Pakistan must fight or else forget the cash and weapons promised’. And Gates, as he leaves office, chimed in with ‘We don’t need Pakistan either to fight or to win in Afghanistan.’
The New York Times, that repository of American-Jewish wisdom, followed with a bunch of stories hinting at the ISI’s complicity in OBL’s extended sojourn in Abbottabad. An ‘intriguing lead’ from the cell phone belonging to OBL’s courier sufficed to give the story front page coverage. Reacting with exceptional alacrity, the ISPR succinctly claimed that ‘actions on the ground (by the ISI in apprehending numerous Al-Qaeda terrorists) spoke louder than the words of the NYT’.
Soon after announcing the troop withdrawal, Obama described the current US-Pakistan relationship as ‘more honest’ than before. What he perhaps meant was that the while the people of both countries had always been honest about their mutual suspicions, the truth had finally caught up with the situation. However, this is not the time for recriminations and especially not for Pakistan since it has too much at stake to indulge in suspicions and aspersions. What then are the prospects for peace?
On Afghan peace, the US continues to reiterate that the Afghan Taliban must be prepared to concede on three things: making a break with Al-Qaeda; abandoning violence; and accepting the existing Afghan constitution.
Making a break with Al-Qaeda should not be a big problem for the mainstream Taliban leadership. The latter lost its grip on power because of Al-Qaeda’s declared war on the US and its use of Afghan territory as its headquarters until both were ousted after 9/11. Abandoning violence will test their intentions with regard to reconciliation and giving up any ambition they may still harbour to regain the control they enjoyed before 9/11. But more challenging will be accepting the existing constitution. Of course, if they decide to convert to a political force and abandon their old ambitions, then accepting the constitution will be less difficult but they may still want changes that decentralise the country in favour of more power for the provinces.
The most challenging will be the permanent military presence the US seems determined to maintain in Afghanistan. Without some resolution of this issue, it is impossible to start serious negotiations or to bring any negotiations to a positive conclusion. A trade-off on this issue will have to occur at some stage for an eventual peace settlement.
For the moment, at any rate, serious negotiations seem premature. This is not just because some tough issues may have to be discussed confidentially first to see if either side is prepared to show reciprocal flexibility, but also because we have another year of war under Obama’s withdrawal plan.
The Pentagon is going to use this period to fight the Taliban while it still has the surge troops at its disposal and the Taliban will likely hold their ground and bounce back after the combat withdrawal starts in earnest next summer. So even if there are some tactical shifts on the ground, at the political level, a stalemate will most likely persist.
Yet, it would be myopic for the Obama administration to wait another year before it signals serious interest in a negotiated peace. Another year of intense fighting would mean little to the Taliban if only because they can sit it out until the going gets easier next year. It is the US that faces a serious problem with its aggressive military strategy. A year will not make much difference to the ground situation. Indeed, the US may have to concede some ground seized from the Taliban once the Afghan army takes over and is unable to consolidate those gains, as is widely accepted to happen.
So instead of prevaricating or delaying the inevitable, the US should abandon its war strategy altogether and replace it with a peace strategy. And that will not only require showing some flexibility towards the Afghan Taliban but also a major overhaul of its underlying policy – that is, a paradigm shift to a multilateral approach. Just as its unilateral military approach has failed, so will America’s political approach if that too remains essentially unilateral when stripped of its rhetoric.
Unless this shift occurs, the key regional players, notably Pakistan, will not find enough space to help Afghanistan make the difficult transition from war to peace. These persisting problems should not however deter Pakistan from rebuilding its frayed ties with Kabul. The two countries must recognise their legitimate interest in improved relations.
Pakistan’s supreme interest lies in helping to bring about reconciliation in Afghanistan. If bilateral ties move forward, it will be a lot less difficult to counteract American unilateralism. So even if a stalemate persists for the moment, there is a lot that a regional diplomacy initiative can do in the meantime to lay the ground work for an eventual peace process.
Unfortunately, that may not happen. Having lost his patience, Obama has designated Pakistan as the next battle ground for America’s War on Terror and seems eager to launch his complement of drones and Special Ops teams. To what end is clear, but to what avail, is not. Unshackling the United States from its failed policies in the Muslim world seems a task beyond Obama.
To sum up, if the veritable Afghan knot is to be untied, the irreducible minimum prerequisites for peace would be: the Afghan Taliban transform themselves into a political force; the US abandons a permanent military presence in Afghanistan; and Pakistan helps out in the Afghan reconciliation process. All these prerequisites presuppose that the principal protagonists (Afghanistan, the US and Pakistan) can be convinced to trade off irreconcilable ambitions for a pluralistic peace.