Afghanistan: The Obstacles to Peace

Commentary | January 17, 2012

The announcement that the Taliban will be opening an office in Qatar should be a cause for some reflection. The US and its allies are politically exhausted and economically drained by the war in Afghanistan. They no longer seek a clear victory; they want to avoid the impression of defeat. The policy of "reconciliation" obfuscates the reality of their political and military failure in Afghanistan.

Reconciliation means restoring friendly relations, causing to co- exist in harmony or making someone accept a disagreeable or unwelcome thing. But then, the issue is not one of ending the estrangement between the Taliban and its opponents, whether inside or outside the country, as they did not have friendly relations in the first place.
Co-existence means existing in mutual tolerance despite different ideologies and interests. In the case of the Taliban is it the intention to accept the Taliban as they are, without seeking any change in their political and social conduct? Are the Taliban, in turn, willing to tolerate the existence of a polity in Afghanistan that is politically, legally and socially structured on relatively secular ideas?
And, finally, accepting a disagreeable and unwelcome thing connotes an absence of any other viable option, not freely choosing one out of several alternatives. Therefore, how can the strategy of "reconciliation" be projected as a positive political initiative, as is being done at present?
Our thinking should not be affected by misleading terminology. The spin of "reconciliation" allows the West to conceal the reality of fatigue in fighting the rising insurgency in Afghanistan and wanting to extract itself from the quagmire there with a reduced stigma of failure by projecting the conflict as one essentially between opposing Afghan factions, with the solution lying in creating conditions in which differences between them can be bridged and peace restored in the country.
The idea is to distract attention away from western intervention being principally responsible for the conflict in Afghanistan and transfer the main responsibility for war and peace in the country on to the quarrelling Afghan factions. This would explain the accent on the process of reconciliation being supposedly Afghan-led. 
However, understanding the motives behind the "reconciliation" policy does not make it any the less confusing in some of its essential aspects. While the British and the Germans have pressed for "reconciliation" as a necessary ingredient of any political solution to the Afghanistan conflict, the US, with greater political and military stakes in it and more division in thinking between the military and the diplomats on strategy, has been more ambivalent.
Today, however, the Americans seem more on board, with a clear message emanating from Washington that while "reconciliation" may neither be the most desirable policy nor one that will necessarily work, there is no better alternative in view. This only confirms how thin and uncertain is the basis of the reconciliation strategy. The US President apparently is determined to bring down the expenditure on the Afghanistan war from the present US $ 110 billion annually to US $ 4 to 5 billion that the US spends on aid to Egypt and Israel for the maintenance of peace in that volatile region.
Sensing the obvious danger to his own position of western overtures to the Taliban and distrustful of his western allies, President Karzai has wanted to remain central to the reconciliation process by taking ownership of it and appointing Burhanuddin Rabbani to lead it from his side. With Rabbani's assassination, Karzai has lost the initiative in directing the process. His first reaction was to call the process off and propose direct talks with Pakistan as he held the latter responsible for Rabbani's elimination. He has, as was to be expected, protested against the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar as, apart from granting a form of international recognition to this group and raising its negotiating status vis a vis the legitimate government of Afghanistan, it removes the reconciliation process from Karzai's control all the more. He has, of course, been compelled to give his assent eventually, but the earlier claim that the process has to be Afghan- led, a stipulation that has figured in the declarations of various international conferences on Afghanistan, including the last one at Bonn, will now seem less tenable.
With the on-going manoeuvrings on giving the Taliban an address outside Pakistan, how the Pakistanis conduct themselves on the issue will need watching.
The top leaders of the Taliban are in Pakistan, and so long as they operate from its territory and their movements, contacts and communications are monitored locally, and their security assured by Pakistani agencies, the end- game in Afghanistan cannot be played behind Pakistan's back or to its exclusion.
US-Pakistani relations have, however, deteriorated very sharply after the recent killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by a NATO attack on a border post inside Pakistan. NATO convoys through Pakistani territory remain suspended, the US has lost the use of the Shamshi air base and the Pakistani government is drawing up new and tighter rules of engagement for a reduced number of US operatives in the country. Intense public anger has been whipped up against the US through the media by the Pakistani establishment.
In this situation of mounting distrust between the US and Pakistan, Pakistan is likely to become more intent on pursuing its strategic goals in Afghanistan and less accommodating vis a vis the US which is seen to be drawing closer to India.
Indeed, the contradictions between the US and Pakistan interests and policies in Afghanistan are likely to become more pronounced. In this context, the newly declared India- Afghanistan strategic partnership is bound to have goaded Pakistan into thinking of a countervailing strategy, even if it has reacted officially to this development with uncharacteristic self- control publicly.
If there is need for a coherent and constructive Pakistani approach to the Afghan problem, in addition to the complicating factor of a down slide in US- Pakistan relations, there is mounting political disarray in Pakistan itself, with mounting confrontation between the civilian government and the armed forces. The political turmoil in the country is not likely to end soon because of its structural roots.
In this background, the "reconciliation" strategy that the West wants to pursue is short term in scope. Over the longer term, for the strategy to succeed, it has to be accompanied by reconciliation of several other differences. The mounting differences between the US and Pakistan would have to be reconciled; those in the Pakistani polity that are pitching the Army and the Judiciary against the President would need reconciliation; Pakistan's strategic goals in Afghanistan would need reconciling with Afghan independence and sovereignty; an intra- Afghan reconciliation has to occur on the basis of adherence to some minimum rules of civilised conduct by all parties; the divergent interests of Afghanistan's neighbours would have to be reconciled in specific areas; and, finally, US interests in the region need to be reconciled with the legitimate interests of others, including those of Iran, Russia and China.
The quick-fix "reconciliation" being attempted at Qatar can become unglued unless it is bound together by a more transparent effort to reconcile differences and promote commonalities of interests across the region as a whole.
- Author is a former Foreign Secretary of India


Photo: "Afghan women voice concerns to coalition" (CC BY 2.0) by DVIDSHUB