In Afghanistan: fighting over the terms of a settlement

January 31, 2010

karzai londonAt last week’s London conference, two of the great truisms of warfare punched their way to the surface. The first is that wars are fought as much on the home front as on the battlefield. With public support for the war in Afghanistan ebbing away, the United States and its allies in NATO have shifted from seeking outright victory to looking for an exit strategy that will allow them to start bringing home their troops next year.  Rather as the British did after their two failed invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century, they are sending in reinforcements in a display of military might which they hope will secure better terms in an eventual settlement.

The other truism is that if you can’t win outright victory on the battlefield, then you have to negotiate with your enemies. President Hamid Karzai set the ball rolling by announcing he would hold a peace council to which, according to an Afghan government spokesman, the Taliban leadership would be invited.  Karzai has made such suggestions before, and it is by no means clear the Taliban leadership will send representatives. What was different this time, however, was the context.  Karzai’s suggestion no longer met with the same resistance from war-weary governments, who stressed that it was up to the Afghans themselves to lead the process of reconciliation.  He also coupled his call for a peace council with an appeal to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to bring peace to Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia is a trusted interlocutor between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership; Pakistan is the only country which still has some measure of leverage over them. Thus Karzai’s call for a loya jirga, though not dramatic in itself, became emblematic of a broader shift towards seeking a political settlement to end the war.

What happens now is so complicated and so delicate, that no one can predict the outcome. Just as western governments have little clear idea about who might buy into a political settlement and on what terms, nor do the insurgents themselves. Contacts with various insurgent groups are expected to follow many  different tracks,  so that everyone — on all sides — is going to be watching what everyone else does to try to maximise their advantage.

The warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose men play a powerful role in the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan, has shown some signs of flexibility, according to the Wall Street Journal. In a video leaked to the WSJ, he said that “we have no agreement with the Taliban – not for fighting the war, and not for the peace.”

“The only thing that unites the Taliban and [us] is the war against the foreigners,” the paper quoted him as saying. “Unlike in previous videos, where Mr. Hekmatyar used a Kalashnikov rifle as a prop and expressed support for al Qaeda, in the latest tape, recorded in late December and provided to The Wall Street Journal by his aides in Pakistan, he assumed a professorial tone, wearing glasses and a black turban as he spoke in a quiet, soft voice.”

A spokesman for Hekmatyar suggested last week that President Barack Obama’s commitment to start drawing down troops in 2011 could be a possible step towards talks. ”We do not see a hindrance to the negotiations provided a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces is set,” said spokesman Wali Ullah. 
“With Mr Karzai and (other) Afghans we have no problems.”

The Afghan Taliban in the “Quetta shura” — named after the Pakistani city where Washington says it is based — will keep a close eye on any signs that Hekmatyar could switch sides. At the moment they are in a strong position, but this — argues Ahmed Rashid in The New York Review of Books – could give them an incentive to negotiate to try to extract concessions before the influx of U.S. troops and any breaking of ranks in the insurgency weakens their hand.

“Despite their successes, the Taliban are probably now near the height of their power,” he writes. “They do not control major population centers—nor can they, given NATO’s military strength and air power. There are no countrywide, populist insurrections against NATO forces as there were against the coalition forces in Iraq. The vast majority of Afghans do not want the return of a Taliban regime despite their anger at the Karzai government and the general international failure to deliver economic progress. Many Afghans believe that as long as Western troops remain, there is still the hope that security can return and their lives change for the better.

“Thus the next few months could offer a critical opportunity to persuade the Taliban that this is the best time to negotiate a settlement, because they are at their strongest.”

The Afghan Taliban have been insisting in recent statements that they are an Afghan nationalist movement which represents no threat to the west, possibly signalling a willingness to break with al Qaeda – a crucial precondition set by Washington for inclusion in any political settlement.  According to a UN official, representatives of the Quetta shura secretly met with the UN’s representative for Afghanistan this month to explore the possibility of talks.

Saudi Arabia has insisted that the Taliban must sever relations with al Qaeda before it is willing to mediate in any Afghan peace deal.  But as discussed here and here, it has the potential to play a powerful role in any negotiations.

Pakistan, which nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s to extend its influence over Afghanistan and bring stability to a country torn apart by civil war, has the leverage to bring them to the table — though it would be wrong to assume it can tell them what to do. Even when in power in Kabul, the Taliban remained independent, refusing for example to recognise the Durand Line, the British colonial frontier separating Afghanistan and Pakistan. In its contribution to any settlement, Pakistan will also want to make sure its own security interests are taken care of — including the recognition of the border, a limit to India’s growing influence in Afghanistan and an end to the violence unleashed by the Pakistani Taliban on its side of the border.

Even assuming a settlement could be reached with Taliban leader Mullah Omar,  questions remain about far he can convince all of the insurgents in the field fighting under the Taliban name to accept it.  While some analysts say that many insurgents still feel an intense loyalty to Mullah Omar, others point to the fragmentation of Islamist militant groups that has happened in recent years — with more extreme splinter groups breaking away from the leadership — to suggest that even if he were to agree a settlement, not all Taliban fighters would accept it.

“Even if Mr. Omar did agree to sit down at the table – in Riyadh, Islamabad, Dubai, or at the tribal assembly proposed by Mr. Karzai – it is not clear that a decision by the Taliban high command to support the government would erode the insurgency in the restive south,” writes Sonia Verma at The Globe and Mail. ” In Kandahar and Helmand, there are signs that the battle is increasingly being fought by pockets of breakaway fighters who would rather renounce their allegiance to Mr. Omar than lay down their weapons.”

Finally, of the three big insurgent groups fighting in Afghanistan, there is the Haqqani network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son. Based in Waziristan, it is seen as close to al Qaeda, making it an unlikely candidate for a political settlement.  Haqqani has been scathing in the past of any notion of a dialogue with Karzai’s government, although he too has insisted his interest is in fighting for Afghanistan rather than in promoting global jihad.

Navigating through the competing interests of these different militant groups is going to be hard for all sides — not just the Afghan government and its western allies, but also for potential mediators like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and indeed for the leaders of the insurgency themselves. And that is before you take account of “spoilers” like al Qaeda, which must already have its own plans to make sure it does not lose its sanctuary on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  And then, of course, come the rivalries between different countries with a stake in the region — including between India and Pakistan and between the United States and Iran, to name but two of the biggest among many.

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