The endgame is nigh

The news about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s reported meeting with Pakistan-based Taliban commander Sirajuddin Haqqani in Kabul has led to all types of speculations in the region as well as the world. According to Al Jazeera, Mr Haqqani was accompanied by Pakistan’s army chief General Kayani and ISI chief Shuja Pasha. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have denied this. In a recent visit to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke said that it was “hard to imagine” any reconciliation with the Haqqani network. His assertion is based on the fact that the Haqqani network is believed to be close to al Qaeda. Its ties with the Afghan Taliban, however, suggest that it would not have undertaken such a major initiative without the blessings of Mullah Omar. CIA Director Leon Panetta has disclosed that he was aware of reports that Pakistan was assisting the Afghan government in negotiating with the militants, but said that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that “there is a real interest among the Taliban, the militant allies of al Qaeda, al Qaeda itself, the Haqqanis, TTP and other militant groups”.

To understand why the militants are not interested in negotiating with the Afghan government, we have to revisit the American policy on Afghanistan. When the US first invaded Afghanistan, it tried to eliminate the Taliban through the use of ‘shock and awe’ tactics, involving the use of air power. Since nothing could survive such attacks, the Taliban were forced to break and run. They either went underground in Afghanistan or took refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas. To their disadvantage, the US-led NATO forces never had enough boots on the ground to begin with. Even with the new surge of American troops, there are not enough soldiers to fight the Taliban throughout Afghanistan, given that the insurgency has steadily spread from the south and east to the rest of the country. The troops surge was meant to weaken the Taliban and then bring them to the negotiating table. But the exact opposite is happening. The US never anticipated that the war would be this hard or slow, which reflects the inherent flaws in their Afghan strategy. Right now the Taliban are in a stronger position and not willing to talk unless the foreign troops withdraw. The US and NATO are losing political will, which is the most important factor in any interventionist war. Their approach to reconciliation with the Taliban was that their foot soldiers, who are not so ideologically motivated, would be reintegrated into the mainstream. But as there is no real incentive for these foot soldiers to talk to the Afghan government, now it seems that President Karzai has shifted his hopes from the US and NATO delivering anything to help a post-withdrawal Afghanistan to an accommodation with Pakistani help. This is a grave indictment of the Bush-Rumsfeld policy and ambition to remain the policeman of the world post-Cold War. Karzai is now relying more and more on Pakistan in a nimble demonstration of realpolitik. This has its own advantages as well as disadvantages.

Will a compromise between the Taliban and the Karzai regime be long lasting or is there another civil war on the cards? Unless there are cast-iron guarantees given by the Taliban of not destabilising the democratic dispensation in Kabul, there is no chance of a genuine ‘reunion’ between Karzai and his “angry brothers”. Pakistan, too, must keep in mind how we cannot avoid a spillover of the war next door, as we have seen in the past. We badly need peace in our neighbourhood so that we can recover from the descent into chaos that has already gripped the country.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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