Talking the walk
2012 opened on a hopeful note for the Af-Pak region leaving behind a difficult year punctuated by serious turmoil in Afghanistan and a major crisis in bilateral ties between two principal actors in the war on terrorism. The crisis in the relationship, still not over, has nonetheless obliged both sides to review an acrimonious and distrustful alliance which hopefully will help impart a measure of clarity in their respective positions on the Afghan scene.
The Americans seem to have finally recognised the merit of diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, till recently a despised enemy, in shaping the closing chapter of the Afghan endgame. Vice President Joe Biden’s remarkable statement that Taliban were not per se the enemy, in clear contradiction of the decade long direction of the US war effort which had systematically targeted them, testifies to a positive evolution in Washington’s thinking. The resilience of the Taliban in the face of a far superior hostile force seems to have compelled the deduction that more war would not lead to the creation of an environment conducive for the timely and dignified western withdrawal from Afghanistan. The realisation that continued conflict, as opposed to a negotiated settlement, would henceforth be detrimental to America’s long term interests in the region may have accelerated the shift.
The US has not so far publicly resiled from its declared position that any real peace process must be preceded by the insurgents agreeing to abandon violence, break with Al-Qaeda and abide by the Afghan constitution. At the same time, it is understood that the acceptance in advance of these seemingly unexceptionable demands would obviate the need for any negotiations. It makes better sense, which the Americans too would appreciate, that these terms would more appropriately comprise a part of the final agreement and not a precondition for the talks. How can the Taliban be expected to lay down arms when ISAF is still carrying them?
The Taliban have matched the evolution in the American approach. Back channel contacts between the two sides, sporadically reported in the media, have resulted in the Taliban decision to open a political office in Doha, to serve as the locus of the anticipated dialogue with the Americans. The previous Taliban demand of complete ISAF withdrawal prior to the commencement of negotiations is no longer being insisted upon.
The government of Hamid Karzai, following initial reservations, has signalled support for the opening of the Doha office provided it is used only for facilitating intra-Afghan talks i.e. between him and the Taliban. Undeniably a politically correct position but runs foul of the realities on the ground. There are two principal protagonists in Afghanistan, the US and the Taliban; the rest would have to learn to operate through them. After having successfully resisted a superpower for over a decade, the Taliban would be singularly ill-advised to negotiate the endgame with its proxy. By the same token, despite the fact that but for Pakistan they would have faced severe depletion, the Taliban would be averse to Pakistan’s interlocution on their behalf. For obvious reasons, they would want to negotiate directly with the US.
Scepticism continues to be voiced as to the viability of this process. According to latest reports, some Taliban spokesmen have denied any decision to negotiate with America. One would tend to interpret these denials in the context of shadow boxing which routinely precedes the onset of serious talks. It should also be remembered that the adversaries have been engaged in deadly combat for the last decade. In such situations, posturing usually marks the shift from conflict to negotiation. The token demand for the release of a handful of prisoners from Guantanamo should not be too hard to meet. If this is what is required to enable the Taliban to claim victory before their cadres, so be it. The addition of these numbers to the Taliban ranks will barely have any impact on the conflictual equation. The Taliban were clever enough to ask for a purely symbolic gesture which is easily doable.
The main imponderable is the continuing divergence in the perspectives of the White House and the American military which, reportedly, remains wedded to the idea of a decisive military victory in Afghanistan. While conflict will not end during the currency of the negotiations its intensity would have to be modulated to avoid a complete breakdown. President Obama’s firmness in sticking to the deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, despite the sectarian showdown, and the recent unexpected surge in the US economy should make him sufficiently self-assured to insist on affixing his imprint on the Afghan endgame. His failure to ensure the withdrawal of the surge troops before November would most likely cost him the election.
Where does Pakistan fit into all this? The answer to this question is likely to be shaped by the developments in our relations with the US currently under review, which we shall leave for next week.
The writer is Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United Nations and European Union. He can be contacted at [email protected]