UK News

Insights from the UK and beyond

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

In Afghanistan: fighting over the terms of a settlement

Photo

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."

  •