The brutal assassination of the former Afghan President Burnahuddin Rabbani who was chairing the High Peace Council set up to bring about internal reconciliation in Afghanistan dramatises all that is wrong with the country’s present state and its future prospects.
President Karzai, increasingly doubtful that a solution to the Afghan imbroglio can be imposed through external intervention, has been exploring an internal way out through an intra-Afghan reconciliation process. US will and finances to sustain its Afghan engagement have been visibly depleting. America has already publicly conceded that a military solution in Afghanistan is not realisable. The NATO allies are suffering from political exhaustion there. This is hardly propitious for a successful outcome of the Afghan war from the western perspective.
President Karzai’s relationship with the Americans is tense. He distrusts them even though he depends on them for his survival. The US, in turn, has ceased to own Karzai fully because of his perceived inadequacies and failings, but it cannot disown him either for lack of a viable alternative. In this situation Karzai has tried to reach out to the Taliban- his fellow Pashtuns- to explore some entente with them as the end game in Afghanistan nears.
In Karzai’s calculation some success in the reconciliation process would transfer the political initiative to him and give him a power base independent of the Americans. His freedom of manoeuvre is, of course, limited so long as US/NATO forces occupy Afghanistan, conduct military operations there and train and equip the Afghan National Security Forces to combat internal and external security threats. Karzai’s bargaining power with the Taliban, in fact, derives from US military deployment in Afghanistan.
In the background of this complicated balance of conflicting interests, calculations and ambitions, US and NATO, especially the British, see the reconciliation process as a marker for their exit route. It is a political tool with multiple functions: it signals a scope for power sharing with the adversary, it can serve to divide the Taliban by persuading those willing to compromise to respond to western overtures, it can keep the negotiating track open even if progress is slow, and it provides a platform for some important Islamic countries to intervene as intermediaries.
Rabbani’s assassination is a powerful rebuff to the reconciliation strategy. The 70-member strong High Peace Council that Rabbani presided was Karzai’s conspicuous investment in this strategy. Rabbani’s ethnic background as a Tajik, as a former head of the Northern Alliance and therefore a symbol of a potential cross-ethnic political understanding, gave the reconciliation strategy an ostensible intra-Afghan rather than an intra-Pashtun stamp. This wrapping was important in view of the opposition to this strategy by several powerful non-Pashtuns elements within the Afghan polity.
While it is not clear how much breadth and depth the reconciliation process had developed in reality, the outlook now has become heavily clouded. How can the reconciliation process proceed when Taliban elements are stepping up their attacks against key regime figures and penetrating well protected areas to demonstrate their reach and daring, in collusion no doubt with elements within the regime’s security apparatus? President Karzai’s brother has been killed, a NATO outpost has been truck-bombed, the British Council office has been attacked, and much more provocatively, the US Embassy in Kabul has been struck. These acts of defiance not only call into question the premises of the reconciliation policy, they also expose the weakness of the western strategy of a controlled withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The US now understands that Taliban’s military defeat would require dedication of manpower and resources over too long a period of time, an option not only no longer available politically, but even not necessary to exercise to protect any non-negotiable US national interest. The aim is to degrade Taliban’s fighting capacity sufficiently either to induce it to negotiate a political settlement that respects certain botttomlines, or enable US/NATO to reduce their level of engagement to politically and financially manageable proportions by Afghanising the conflict.
President Obama’s drawdown strategy in Afghanistan presupposes a lowering of the Taliban threat. In the asymmetrical war being conducted, the Taliban do not have to match US/NATO reach and power. A few spectacular Taliban acts can have a political and psychological resonance far beyond their actual import. Rabbani’s assassination and the attack on the US Embassy, the secured fortress from which US power radiates, magnify the power, resilience and the determination of the Taliban and make the problems the US and the Karzai regime face look worse than they might be. The person of Rabbani can be replaced, but the promise of the reconciliation process has already faded.
The core problem is Pakistan. The safe-havens of the Afghan insurgents are located there. Those who sheltered Osama bin Laden for years will not deny shelter to those seen as kith and kin by some and strategic assets by others within the Pakistan establishment. The US now openly accuses the ISI of complicity in the attack on its Embassy in Kabul, which, incidentally, clinches the charge that the ISI colluded in the earlier assault on the Indian Embassy there. The US wants Pakistan to delink itself from the Haqqani group, which means giving up a crucial leverage vis a vis the US and a tool for securing its future interests in Afghanistan.
Pakistan sees itself as the country most vitally interested in shaping Afghanistan’s future. For 30 years it has intervened in Afghan affairs politically and militarily. It was the staging ground for the mujaheddin offensive against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and after their departure was entangled in the civil war there. It was then complicit in unleashing the Taliban into Afghanistan, and has hosted them after their ejection from Afghanistan by the Americans. With the US neglect of Afghanistan after the Taliban ouster, poor governance there, the obscurantist mentality of the Afghan tribes, the lawless areas across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the inexorable rise of religious extremism in Pakistan itself, Pakistan is now deeply embroiled in Taliban’s resurgence within Afghanistan.
It is unable to reconcile its ambitions in Afghanistan, prodded also by the perceived threatening Indian presence there, and US demands to combat those very Afghan elements that are the instruments of its ambitions there. Pakistan’s aversion to any reconciliation process in which it is denied a central role is a factor to contend with.
India’s position on the reconciliation strategy has evolved from frontal opposition to any accommodation with the Taliban to supporting re-integration and eventually to endorsing it as an Afghan-led initiative premised on the acceptance of key provisions of the Afghan Constitution. However, any genuine reconciliation in Afghanistan in the present circumstances seems almost impossible. If factitious reconciliation occurs essentially to provide a cover for US/ NATO to withdraw prematurely owing to the compulsions of an electorally-dictated political time-table, India cannot but have concerns. The extent of US’s long term commitment to Afghanistan remains unclear. The clarity with which the US now sees Pakistan’s pernicious role should lead to robust corrective action, but Pakistan remains stubbornly defiant knowing American quandaries make it reluctant to ratchet up levels of coercion.
There is no light yet at the end of the Afghan tunnel.
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary(firstname.lastname@example.org)