Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
The contours of an Afghan settlement
For all the talk of seeking a political settlement of the Afghan war with the involvement of the Taliban, it has not been clear even broadly what a final deal will look like. Will the Taliban, who control or exercise influence over large parts of the country, take charge in Kabul ? Will the United States simply and fully withdraw all its forces from the country? What happens to President Hamid Karzai who has been actively seeking reconciliation with the hardline Islamists ? What about the regional powers, not just Pakistan which obviously will play a central role because of its ties to the Taliban, but also Iran and India, both with rising stakes there along with the Russians and the Chinese to a lesser extent ?
Selig Harrison, director of the Asia programme at the Center for International Policy, explores some of these questions in a must-read piece in Foreign Policy headlined “How to leave Afghanistan without Losing.”
As the title suggests, America’s exit strategy should be based on the premise that while the Talban will have to be accommodated in any settlement, they must be contained. Disengagement from Afghanistan does not mean surrender to the Taliban, Harrison argues, even though the austere Islamist group has virtually fought a coalition led by the world’s most powerful military to a stalemate. And the key to the containment strategy rests with Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Six of the seven regional powers with a stake in Afghanistan share the U.S. goal of preventing the return of a Taliban dictatorship in Kabul. These include such unlikely countries as Iran, Russia, China, and India besides the central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan all worried that the extreme version of Islam espoused by the Taliban can only have negative consequences for their own countries, the author argues.
The one country that supports a Taliban return to power, is Pakistan, which helped install and sustain the regime that ruled from 1996 to 2001. Although given the manner in which militants groups inspired or tied to the Afghan Taliban have turned on the Pakistani state in recent years, you would have to think that security planners in Islamabad may have their own concerns of a fully resurrected Taliban just over the border.
Harrison suggests the following steps
- U.N. diplomatic initiative designed to get the regional neighbours to join in a multilateral agreement providing for the military neutralization of Afghanistan and for sustained regional support as the country stabilizes. The agreement would set a timetable providing not only for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO combat forces within three years, but also for the termination of U.S. military access to bases in Afghanistan, including air bases, within five years.
- In conjunction with the disengagement process, the agreement would set in motion U.N.-brokered peace negotiations. The Taliban has long demanded a disengagement timetable as the precondition for peace.
- The focus of peace negotiations should be on the nature and degree of the power to be ceded to the Taliban in its Pashtun strongholds rather than any power sharing in Kabul. Harrison says such a approach may receive Pakistani support also, and points to remarks made by Islamabad’s leading strategist on Afghanistan, former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan, at a meeting in Washington in June, suggesting a shift in focus. Khan spoke about the Taliban wielding Taliban “important regional influences where they should be accommodated.” He specified Khost and Paktia as examples of provinces where Taliban control might have to be accepted, and implied that Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani had explored such arrangements with President Karzai in meetings this year.
So in effect, a post-war settlement would look something like this : Karzai in power in Kabul and the Taliban controlling local strongholds. Harrison says it is not a de facto partition that former U.S. ambassador to India Robert Blackwill proposed a few months ago, but rather a shift to a loose federation, similar to the model that prevailed under the pre-1970 monarchy. The provinces under Taliban rule would have a significant stake in stable relations with Kabul as a source of foreign aid for dams, roads, and other economic infrastructure projects.
The obvious question to ask is why would the Taliban agree, especially when they believe their hand to be strong ? Already as U.S. generals themselves admit, the Obama administration’s announcement to begin a unilateral pullout from July 2011 has emboldened the militants further. They see no reason to negotiate with a retreating army.
On the other hand, you could ask even if the Taliban were to sign off on the deal what stops them from launching attacks to widen their sphere of influence or allow their territory to be used as a base for transnational militant activities ? The U.N.-brokered neutralization agreement would have to bar the use of the Taliban provinces for transnational terrorist activities, place limits on the size and character of the local militias maintained by the Taliban, and rule out the development of local air forces. “So long as Kabul has a monopoly on air power, the use of the Taliban provinces as bases for terrorism could be combated and a devolution of power need not mean the breakup of the Afghan state,” Harrison says.
Then again, can you really get all the regional players on the same page ?Are India and Pakistan about to end their battle for influence in Afghanistan ? An unstable Pakistan, facing economic meltdown following the most devastating floods since its creation, and a deadly internal militancy, is especially vulnerable and more likely to try and shore up its long-term allies Taliban than enter into an agreement that limits their power .
But above all,as Harrison says, the biggest obstacle may come not from Pakistan, but the “Pentagon mind-set” which sees power projection as an end in itself. So America cannot simply withdraw, it must main a military presence and that so far as the Taliban are concerned, would be a deal-breaker. Harrison says of the 74 U.S. bases in Afghanistan, including airfields, are designed solely for counterinsurgency operations and might be expendable in a neutralization accord. But the mammoth airfields at Bagram and Kandahar are projected to grow in the years ahead — ambitious new construction projects continue at both places
Furthermore, the US Congress is considering funding requests, totaling $300 million, to establish new bases at Camp Dwyer and Shindand, close to the Iranian border, and Mazar-e-Sharif, near Central Asia and Russia. All this feeds into the widely held perception in regional capitals stretching from Beijing to Moscow that America is not about to disappear from the region – far from it, it might be turning its presence in Afghanistan even more permanent and strategic.
With such distrust of American’s military objectives, it’s difficult, then, to visualise regional powers including such an implacable foe as Iran lining up behind a U.S. promoted settlement of Afghanistan.