Doing it right


Afghanistans Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul is in Islamabad. He arrived Thursday and would be leaving sometime later today. Rassoul has had meetings with the civilian and military leaders of Pakistan and the visit has been billed as part of high level attempts by Islamabad and Kabul to work out a solution to the Afghan problem in the run-up to the February trilateral meeting in Washington, the first of its kind.

For over a year Islamabad and Kabul have been trying to sort out differences and work out a bilateral strategy which is viable and can be sold to other state actors. The year 2010 saw high-level visits on both sides and officials insist that things are moving ahead.

Sounds good, except that it is unclear what the nature of the progress is and whether the multiple non-state actors that have challenged the states in the region and beyond are prepared to be reintegrated.

There is Al Qaeda (AQ). By the very nature of its ideology and intent, it cannot be interested in any reconciliation or reintegration. There is the Afghan Taliban. They have indicated that there is no question of any negotiations unless foreign troops leave Afghanistan. There is the Pakistani Taliban; some of them provide support to the Afghan Taliban while others are fighting the Pakistani state. The Pakistani Taliban is also linked to AQ through several sectarian groups. The command lines seem diffused with multiple groups operating separately as well as, when required, in tandem. While AQ is linked to groups on all sides, linkages of Pakistani groups with the Afghans appear tenuous.

The states, Pakistan and Afghanistan, can of course work out an understanding which is what they intend, and are trying, to do. But how do they deal with the groups? Who are they prepared to talk to and who is to be put down and operated against?

Rassoul talked on Thursday about the Afghan governments reintegration process. Whoever accepts the Afghan constitution and the governmental structures, as they exist, is welcome to participate in the politics of Afghanistan. This approach implies that acceptance of the legitimacy of the political, economic and social processes in Afghanistan by any group(s) would automatically result in reconciliation and become the basis for reintegration.

Is that likely to happen? Has some ground been covered? How many groups accept the legitimacy of the existing politico-legal structures? Some groups, like Gulbudin Hekmatyars Hezb-e Islami are amenable, but what about others? Previous efforts to negotiate, largely covert, havent worked; nor have such overtures by Afghanistan and the United States been honest. The attempt was to sow dissent among the Taliban. That didnt work and is unlikely to.

There is also another issue: could Afghanistan singly or in combination with Pakistan convince the United States to start withdrawing district by district and province by province for the strategy of reintegration to work? The Taliban leadership has made clear that they are not prepared to deal with foreign governments and their armies. If the US could be made to withdraw from Taliban areas, would the Taliban be prepared to share power at the local level before that model could be replicated at the higher tiers of politics and government?

Yet another important question relates to the exact extent of operational and ideological linkages between the Taliban and AQ. This is important to determine the endgame because if the Taliban is still linked to the AQ ideology then the conflict could drag on for many more years unless the states could decisively defeat the groups.

If, on the other hand, the Taliban is only concerned with the withdrawal of foreign troops and prepared to give guarantees that, as a political entity it is not interested in allowing any group to use Afghanistans territory for terrorist activities, then the states have a basis to deal with them. In fact, in that case, it would be important to expedite the process of pulling in the Taliban because that could help the states formulate a viable strategy to deal with the holdouts.

However, for any such strategy to work, some pre-requisites must be in place. One, the states may not be winning but they must be seen to increase the cost for the groups. That is where cooperation becomes so important. The only way to do so is for Pakistan and Afghanistan to agree on the fundamental need to deal with the threat on the basis of a mutually inclusive approach.

The decision to create a two-tiered joint commission for cooperation at multiple levels, including military and intelligence, is a good initiative and was long in waiting. Also welcome is the decision to establish a consultation mechanism between the Planning Commission of Pakistan and Afghanistans Ministry of Economy to identify areas of cooperation in the socioeconomic spheres. It is important, however, to make these bodies work.

Two, the effort to negotiate must target the top Taliban leadership. Creating divisions among the Taliban ranks, while appearing to be tactically smart, is unlikely to yield strategic results. It is much better to talk to the central figures on the other side than to negotiate with a plethora of groups running their own agendas. One of the key reasons for the success of the Taliban, when it ruled 95 per cent of Afghanistan, was its ability to bring disparate groups together regardless of how it did that. That ability may now be used for the purposes of reconciliation leading to reintegration.

Three, Pakistan must realise that a relatively peaceful Afghanistan would be a state where ethno-linguistic fault-lines do not become the basis for conflict again. This means that while it is important for Islamabad to back the Pashtun majority in Afghanistan, such support should not be at the cost of genuine political representation of minority ethnic groups.

Four, Afghanistan has to accept that while it would, and should, be free to deal with other states, as it deems fit, such dealings cannot ignore Pakistans legitimate security concerns.

None of this will immediately address Afghanistans problems, or for that matter Pakistans, but this is the irreducible minimum before the two sides can begin to move in the right direction. Dr Rassoul is a nephrologist by training, even though he has spent a large part of his life dealing with issues of security and foreign policy. He knows that dialysis cannot be a substitute for healthy kidneys.

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.