Page 1 of 2 A fatal flaw in Afghan peace process
By M K Bhadrakumar
With the reported intra-Afghan talks under the mediation of Saudi Arabia in
Mecca on September 24-27, attention inevitably shifts to the hidden aspects of
the "war on terror" in Afghanistan - the geopolitics of the war. Canadian Prime
Minister Stephen Harper, who has committed to pulling out Canadian troops from
Afghanistan in 2011, let the cat out of the bag last week when he said that
some Western leaders wrongly believed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
troops could stay there forever.
"One of the things I disagree with some other Western leaders is that our
[NATO] plan can be somehow to stay in Afghanistan militarily indefinitely,"
Harper said during a televised election campaign debate in Ottawa. What lends
particular importance to Harper's statement is that he has shifted from his
that Canada wouldn't leave Afghanistan until that country was able to cope for
He stressed the importance of a timeline for the NATO presence in Afghanistan,
"If we are to truly pacify that country and see its evolution ... we won't
achieve such a target unless we actually set a deadline and work to meet it ...
If we never leave, will the job ever get done?" Harper revealed he had made
this point to both US presidential candidates, Democratic Senator Barack Obama
and Republican Senator John McCain.
The Saudi role in mediating the intra-Afghan talks will bring to the fore the
geopolitics of the Afghan war. This is already evident from the contradictory
reports regarding the talks in Mecca.
There is acute embarrassment in Kabul that any premature leak may only help
undercut further the credibility of the political edifice housing President
Hamid Karzai. Kabul took the easy route by refusing to acknowledge that any
talks took place during the Iftar in Mecca.
CNN broke the story in a London datelined report on Monday quoting
authoritative sources that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted high-level
talks in Mecca between the Afghan government and Taliban who "are severing
their ties with al-Qaeda".
The quibbling by the Kabul spokesman is typically Afghan. Can a get-together in
the nature of the Iftar, the meal that breaks the fast during the Muslim
holy month of Ramadan, be construed as "peace talks"? The answer is "yes" and
"no". On one plane, the gathering was a "guest celebration", as explained by
the colorful former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and a Guantanamo Bay
detainee, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who sat in the important religious meal in Mecca.
But on the other hand, the hard facts are the following. Saudi Arabia is a
leader of the Sunni Muslim world. It was one of the handful of countries to
have recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It was the Saudi king who
hosted the religious meal, which was attended by Taliban representatives,
Afghan government officials and a representative of the powerful mujahideen
leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Former Afghan Supreme Court chief justice, Fazel
Hadi Shinwari, was among the government representatives at the Iftar.
The Afghan army chief of general staff, General Bismillah Khan, also "happened"
to be in Saudi Arabia at this time.
Furthermore, as CNN put it, quoting sources, the meal in Mecca took two years
of "intense behind-the-scenes negotiations" to come to fruition and
"US-and-Europe-friendly Saudi Arabia's involvement has been propelled by a
mounting death toll among coalition troops amid a worsening violence that has
also claimed many civilian casualties".
Besides, media reports have spotted that behind the Saudi move lingers the
recognizable shadows of the controversial former Saudi spy chief and nephew of
the king, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who is an old "Afghan hand", having headed
Saudi Arabia's al-Mukhabarat al A'amah (General Intelligence Directorate)
during the 25-year period from 1977 until shortly before the September 11,
2001, attacks on the US. Some even say Turki secretly negotiated with Taliban
leader Mullah Omar in 1998 in a vain attempt to have Osama bin Laden extradited
to Saudi Arabia.
Above all, there has been a spate of statements in recent days underscoring the
futility of the war in Afghanistan. Karzai himself has invited Mullah Omar to
step forward as a presidential hopeful in elections slated for next year.
Britain's military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Mark
Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times newspaper of London that the war against
the Taliban cannot be won. He specifically advised the British public not to
expect a "decisive military victory", but to prepare for a possible deal with
the Taliban. "We're not going to win this war. It's about reducing it to a
manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed
by the Afghan army," the British commander said.
The British army top brass is not known to speak out of turn. His stark
assessment followed the leaking of a memo detailing a gloomy statement
attributed to the British ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, that
the current war strategy was "doomed to fail". To say the least, the timing of
these statements is highly significant. According to the influential Saudi
newspaper Asharq Alawsat, British intelligence is ably assisting the Saudi
efforts at mediation.
Longtime observers of the Afghan civil war will recollect the tortuous
diplomatic and political peregrinations culminating in the Geneva Accords in
April 1988 that led to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Informal
negotiations began as early as 1982. That is to say, claims and counter-claims,
constant streams of denials, statements attributed to faceless or anonymous
sources, even stony silence if not outright falsification - all this promises
to be the fare in the Afghan bazaar in the coming weeks.
However, what is beyond doubt is that inter-Afghan peace talks have finally
begun. There is a readiness to admit that the legacy of the Bonn conference in
December 2001 must be exorcised from Afghanistan's body politic and stowed away
in history books. The recognition seems to have dawned that peace is
indivisible and victors must learn to share it with the vanquished.
Several factors have contributed to this realization. One, the seven-year war
is in a stalemate and time favors the Taliban. Two, the US is increasingly
focused on the bailout of its economy, which leaves little scope both in terms
of time and resources for Washington to indulge in the extravaganza of
undertaking on its own open-ended wars in faraway badlands. Three, the US is
having a hard time persuading its allies to provide troops for the war effort
and even faithful allies like Britain seem fatigued and appear uneasy about the
US's war strategy. Four, whatever little popular support the puppet regime in
Kabul headed by Karzai enjoyed so far is fast declining, which makes the
current setup unsustainable. Five, the Taliban have gained habitation and name
on the Afghan landscape and no amount of allegations regarding Pakistan's
dubious role can hide the reality that the Taliban's support base is rapidly
widening. Six, the regional climate - growing instability in Pakistan, tensions
in US-Russia relations, NATO's role, Iran's new assertiveness, including
possible future support of the Afghan resistance - is steadily worsening and
the need arises for the US to recalibrate the prevailing geopolitical
alignments and shore up its political and strategic assets created during the
2001-2008 period from being eroded.
Against such a complex backdrop, Washington could - and perhaps should - have
logically turned to the United Nations or the international community to
initiate an inter-Afghan peace process. Instead, it has almost instinctively
turned to its old ally in the Hindu Kush - Saudi Arabia.
The US and Saudi Arabia went a long way in nurturing al-Qaeda and the Taliban
in their infancy in the late 1980s and almost up to the second half of the
1990s. Al-Qaeda turned hostile in the early 1990s, but the US's dalliance with
the Taliban continued up to the beginning of the first term of George W Bush as
US president in 2000.
It is possible to say that Washington has no real choice at the present
juncture but to turn to the Saudis for a helping hand. The Saudis precisely
know the Taliban's anatomy, how its muscles and nerves interplay, where it is
at its tender-most, where it tickles. The Saudis undoubtedly know how to engage
the Taliban. Now, they can almost do what Pakistan, which had similar skills,
was capable of doing until it began losing its grip and its self-confidence and
became increasingly worn out. Islamabad tended to linger in the shade and watch
as the Taliban began taking its performance seriously and didn't seem to need
Washington is also unsure to what degree Islamabad can be trusted with the
central role in any such sensitive mission to finesse or harness the Taliban.
All said, while President Asif Ali Zardari is a predictable figure who can be
trusted to dance to just about any American tune, far too many imponderables
remain in the post-Pervez Musharraf power structure in Islamabad for the US to
be confident that it holds all the controlling strings.
Arguably, the Saudis, too, would have their own sub-plots in the Hindu Kush,
given the al-Qaeda factor and al-Qaeda's unfinished business in the Middle
East, but, on balance, Washington has to pitch to a mediator whom the Taliban
leadership and mujahideen leaders like Hekmatyar and sundry other commanders
will listen. A final clincher is that the Saudis have no dearth of resources to
bankroll an intra-Afghan peace process and money is power in today's