Flawed Afghan road map

Courtesy:- Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Plans are underway to convene a ministerial-level meeting of ‘Core Group’ countries – Pakistan, US and Afghanistan – on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York later this month.

Other than reiterate previous declarations this trilateral meeting will do little to advance prospects of finding a negotiated end to the long running war in Afghanistan. For this to happen, the present US emphasis on a tactical military campaign has to decisively shift to a political strategy that can establish a meaningful peace process. But there is little sign of this given the dynamics of the American presidential election, only two months away now.

US officials insist that President Barack Obama wants efforts towards Afghan ‘peace and reconciliation’ to continue irrespective of the election. But political constraints have halted even tentative US diplomatic moves. Exploratory talks between American and Taliban representatives, suspended earlier this year, have yet to resume.

More importantly no framework or road map for a peace process has yet been evolved. Nor is the US clear about its strategy even as a number of transitions approach in Afghanistan. Time is already short to align the 2014 security transition ending Nato’s combat mission and the political transition that will result from Afghanistan’s presidential election with a serious peace process that can become the necessary accompaniment for both.

American officials concede there is little time to spare to bring multiple and intertwined transitions in sync as only 28 months are left to December 2014. But this acknowledgement is not matched by urgency to move on the political track. This is despite the fact that Nato’s planned security transition – transferring responsibility to Afghan forces – is at its mid-point. But a peace process is not even at start point. The pullout of around 32,000 US ‘surge’ forces is also due to be completed later this month.

Pakistan has been asserting that the drawdown plan is out of step with movement on the political front and that the two processes must begin to converge if the 2014 transition is to be peaceful and orderly. The closer this deadline gets, the harder it will be to negotiate. This argument has sometimes been interpreted by officials in Washington as indicating that Pakistan has a conflicted or contradictory stance on the US military pullout. This is not correct. What Pakistan has repeatedly stressed is the need for sufficient progress in peace talks ahead of 2014 to insure against the risk of turmoil and instability in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. This is an argument for accelerating efforts for peace talks not for delaying the pullout of Nato forces.

Bolstering Afghanistan’s stability in the several transitions that lie ahead requires that Washington, Kabul and Islamabad agree on a comprehensive strategy to deal with these and make progress on Afghan ‘reconciliation’ to underpin it. But the American focus remains on tactical issues such as the ongoing Administration debate on whether to declare the Haqqani network a terrorist organisation and on continuing the fighting.

The Obama administration has still not been able to bring its military fully behind the goal of seeking a ‘negotiated peace’. Visiting US military leaders continue to convey scepticism to their Pakistani counterparts about talks with the Taliban. In similar vein, a recent article by the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, published in the Washington Post, omitted any mention of the ‘reconciliation’ goal, and dwelt instead on gains in the war effort.

But this narrative of progress does little to address the uncertainty surrounding the various transitions that loom in Afghanistan. First, doubts persist about how the presidential election – ahead of the security transition – will proceed in spring 2014. There is no assurance that the election will not be marred by intensified violence or controversy over ballot fraud, similar to what happened in 2009 when Hamid Karzai was re-elected president. The recent shakeup in Karzai’s government may be part of pre-election manoeuvring but it is also a sign of future political disarray.

Lack of adequate preparations for a fair, orderly as well as inclusive poll that also encourages insurgents to join the political process can become a lost opportunity. Far from reinforcing a smooth security transition a messy election will risk unsettling it.

Then there are growing question marks about the security transition. The sharp rise in ‘green-on-blue’ attacks – Afghans shooting Nato servicemen – arouses doubt about the viability of transferring combat responsibilities to Afghan national forces. Already this year, 53 Nato soldiers have been killed by their Afghan counterparts in 35 incidents. These now average one a week. General Allen recently attributed most of these to “personal grievances” but also acknowledged that 25 percent of “insider attacks” represented Taliban infiltration. Karzai however ascribed them to “foreign spy agencies.”

Whatever the motivation, the rising “insider” threat and increased infighting among Afghan forces raise the question of whether these forces can survive the 2014 withdrawal as a coherent and capable entity especially if the political transition fails and no broader political settlement is in sight. The recent US suspension of training local Afghan police recruits has added to the overall uncertainty.

There is wide consensus that the indispensable pillar on which a peaceful Nato withdrawal and successful transition rests is a negotiated political solution that emerges from a fruitful Afghan peace process. An American official was recently cited in the media as affirming that Washington’s policy “heavily depends on a political solution.”

But US diplomacy towards this objective remains stymied both by continuing tensions in its strategy as well as American election politics. For their part Taliban spokesmen have been signalling readiness to resume the dialogue with American interlocutors. But they continue to rule out engagement with the Karzai regime. The most recent iteration of willingness to return to negotiations came in an August interview broadcast by a Japanese TV network from Qatar with Sohail Mansoor, a former diplomat in the Taliban government. He claimed that several confidence-building measures were agreed with American negotiators including the transfer of five Taliban detainees out of Guantanamo and opening a Taliban office in Qatar. Talks could reopen if the US abided by this agreement. He also said a ceasefire can be part of the package of negotiations.

US officials however characterise this claim to be based on a misunderstanding. What was agreed they say was a framework for a number of CBMs, including the prisoners’ transfer, an office in Qatar and a Taliban statement denouncing international terrorism. But the modalities and sequencing still had to be worked out when the Taliban called off talks in March. Subsequently, Taliban negotiators declined to meet the US special representative Marc Grossman when he travelled in June to Doha with a revised proposal.

Ambassador Grossman is now expected to visit Islamabad in mid September for talks on Afghan ‘reconciliation’. When he does, Pakistani officials will want to assess how serious Washington is in developing a realistic diplomatic strategy for negotiations and on what terms it would be prepared to shift from fight to talk especially as the coming winter months offer a diplomatic window when the fighting season closes.

Despite their many differences Pakistan and the US have a shared interest in averting the possibility of chaos in Afghanistan and cooperating to ensure that the multiple transitions ahead unfold in a complementary and mutually reinforcing manner and not at odds with each other. This means a serious conversation needs to take place on ways to prepare the political ground for meaningful peace talks. It also means drawing up a framework that specifies who does what to advance this objective and an understanding on their sequencing and timeframe for implementation. Even if this strategy has to wait for the American election to be executed it should be forged sooner rather than later. ‘Core group’ meetings can endorse but not hammer out such a strategy. For that quieter, bilateral consultations are necessary which focus on practical ways forward rather than affirmation of general principles in repetitive communiqués.


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