The world’s attention is focused on the American air attack on two Pakistani check posts that resulted in the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers and officers and serious injuries to another 13.It is a tragedy that given the many incidents of the last year – notably the raid on the Pakistani city of Abbotabad to kill Bin Laden and the exponential increase in Drone attacks – may be the final straw on the camel’s back and may bring about an irrevocable break in US-Pak relations…
But to see whether this is likely to happen and if it does what this would do to American strategy for the region and for the American plans for combat troops withdrawal by 2014 but the retention of a presence on Afghan controlled bases of personnel for training and for air support of Afghan led combat missions it is necessary to first take a look at the situation within Afghanistan.
The principal areas that need to be focused on are (a) the prospects for reconciliation after the assassination of Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani by a so-called Taliban negotiator (b) the much delayed announcement of the Afghan forces taking charge of security in additional areas. (c) the results of the Loya Jirga summoned by President Karzai to debate the plan for the Strategic Framework Agreement with the Americans that would allow them a presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of 2014 and (d) the current security situation and the state of ethnic tensions.
There is no doubt that Prof. Rabbani during his lifetime made valiant efforts to move the reconciliation process forward. But the truth of the matter is that it had moved only imperceptibly. The only successful effort at negotiations with the Taliban came when German intermediaries were able to arrange for the Americans to meet with a Tayyab Agha who it was known had in the past been close to Mullah Omar but whose ability, many years later, to represent the Taliban leader had not been conclusively established. The meetings he had with the Americans may have perhaps moved the process further but his apparent insistence on secrecy was violated when Afghan sources close to the Presidency made public the fact that such meetings had been held. Tayyab Agha apparently did not return to Pakistan after these disclosures. It is not known where he is now but what seems clear is that his role as a potential interlocutor has come to an end. It is significant in this context that Mr. Tayyab Agha was a member of a Taliban delegation attending the Conference in Teheran from which Prof. Rabbani returned post haste for his ill-fated meeting with the man who assassinated him, but neither Prof. Rabbani nor any members of his delegation made any effort to meet Tayyab Agha. In other words he was dismissed in the perception of those Afghans responsible for seeking reconciliation as not representing the Taliban to whom they wanted to talk.
Prof. Rabbani and his colleagues did visit Pakistan and I have no doubt that they sought to meet with Taliban leaders who are in hiding here but there is no indication that his efforts or those of his colleagues had any success.
Within Afghanistan, the High Peace Council admittedly in disarray now after Prof. Rabbani’s tragic death, had not in the first six months even been able to set up its offices or to determine what terms and conditions it would offer to such of the Taliban as decided to renounce violence and stop opposing the government. What we hear now however is that the British in the areas under their control have started a reconciliation programme of their own under which any Talib wishing to stop opposing the government would be given a monthly stipend of $150 and allowed to retain his weapons.
This of course runs contrary to the stated American/Afghan condition that the reconciled Talib would be one who renounced violence, retained no connection with international terrorist groups like the Al-Qaeda and accepted the Afghan constitution. It is a reversion to a programme that Mr. Michael Semple had attempted some three years ago on behalf of the British and who for his pains was thrown out of the country by the Karzai administration. Does this mean that the ISAF forces are giving up on reconciliation and attempting instead a modified form of reintegration?
In the immediate aftermath of the Rabbani assassination President Karzai’s people went blue in the face accusing Pakistan of having masterminded the attack on Rabbani. Karzai then in his usual dramatic fashion went on to say that since he could find no address for the Taliban he would talk only to Pakistan about reconciliation.
A couple of days ago Mr. Stanekzai who as an official of the Karzai administration and the man who was seriously injured when the Rabbani assassination took place has said that Afghanistan is ready to start negotiations with the Taliban as soon as they have an office outside Pakistan or Afghanistan where they can be contacted. Despite the talk earlier that the Turks had agreed to allow the Taliban to set up an office in Turkey and subsequent reports that the Qataris too had offered to host such an office no progress appears to have been made in this direction.
So will reconciliation move forward? Much will depend on what the Karzai administration is able to do internally and what it can do to repair the damage that has been done to Pak-Afghan relations by the unwarranted allegations that Pakistan was somehow complicit in the murderous attack on Rabbani. There has to be a realisation on both sides that reconciliation is essential not only for the well being of Afghanistan but also for Pakistan. Without an equitable reconciliation the danger of civil war looms large and that would mean a fresh influx of refugees into Pakistan at a time when its fragile economy cannot possibly cope with the economic or political consequences of such an influx.
Perhaps one of the elements in this complex situation that the Afghans should draw attention to is the constant reiteration by the Tehrik-e-Taliban-TTP of the fact that they owe loyalty to Mullah Omar and by logical extension that what they would hope to achieve is an exercise of Mullah Omar’s authority over the areas of Pakistan that they control or will acquire control of once the Afghan refugee influx gathers force. Yet another is that unlike Mullah Omar who emphasises the nationalist motivation for the struggle against foreign occupation forces the TTP makes no bones about its connections with the global ambitions of the Al-Qaeda or their support for the Uzbek, Chechen and other insurgent groups that have been given shelter in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Apart from repairing relations with the Pakistanis, Karzai has to work on persuading the now powerful minorities to recognise that the long-term interests of Afghanistan require a reconciliation. He has also to fight the elements that have benefitted from the turbulence in Afghanistan to set up extremely profitable drug and crime cartels and for whom the return to stability of Afghanistan will be anathema.
In the next few articles I will examine the other elements of the situation in Afghanistan before moving to what is likely to happen in US-Pak relations and how this will impact the regional situation.