Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Too many butchers spoil the cow
Several years ago President Hamid Karzai likened balancing Afghanistan’s various internal pressures and the demands of external allies and foes with walking while holding a fragile dish. With no end in sight to the U.S.-led war now in its 10th year, he must feel as if he is juggling the entire dinner service.
For years Karzai has said that peace talks with the insurgents was key to the solution of the Afghan conflict and termed them as a priority since last year, but he also has to take on board the frequently conflicting interests of all the players.
The result is best summed up by an old Afghan proverb: “Too many butchers spoil the cow”.
The key stakeholder is Washington which has the bulk of some 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan fighting a war that Barack Obama has called the country’s top foreign policy priority.
The U.S. insists that insurgent leaders must renounce violence — and al Qaeda — accept the new Afghan constitution and lay down their arms as part of any peace deal. Other players, however, either demand otherwise or oppose any talks — as do their Afghan proxies and other opportunists who see their survival in Afghanistan’s chaos.
They want just enough peace to keep the Americans’ hopes up, but just enough fighting to keep the funds flowing, was a line a Western friend once said about those Afghan warlords.
The Taliban, who are expanding their advances on the battlefield, publicly insist on the withdrawal of all foreign forces before any talks can be held with the government, but they too seem to be softening their stance on other issues.
With reports of unofficial talks and contacts between the government and some insurgents, the Taliban seem recently to be trying to ease concerns in the region and the West about any impact of their return, speaking of diplomatic and commercial ties as well as of not allowing Afghan soil be used for attacks against any country – as al Qaeda did to launch the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
They have also distanced themselves (or at least not claimed responsibility) for several incidents in recent months – including the assassinations of two government officials, the public execution of a woman, the abduction (and subsequent release) of a Japanese journalist and the kidnapping of a British aid worker, who was killed in a botched rescue operation this week.
Given that shift – however imperceptible – many now wonder if it isn’t time for Washington to ease the preconditions it has for talks. Many in the new 70-member Afghan High Peace Council, tasked with exploring the chance of dialogue, see Washington’s stance as too tough and unrealistic given there is nothing new in the terms for the Taliban.
Afghans love a good conspiracy theory and many believe the White House is not keen for stability in Afghanistan as it has wider regional goals.
Given the preconditions, Matt Waldman, a British expert on the Taliban, questions Karzai and Washington’s intentions of genuinely pursuing a negotiated, political solution to the conflict. “It’s not clear that they are.”
But there are some Afghans who believe the U.S. failure to stop the resurgence of the Taliban, rising casualties among foreign forces and the cost of the war in general may force politicians to revise their policies and soften preconditions.
They also point to Afghanistan’s history and recall how past invaders such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the British Empire and the former Soviet Union all suffered defeat during their Afghan adventures.
Karzai may continue to walk a delicate line with a fragile dish in his hands, but his so-called allies should stop forcing him to also tread over eggshells.