Circles within circles around the Taliban
By M K Bhadrakumar
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s attention is likely to be divided as
hosts long-awaited international deliberations in London on the war in
Afghanistan on Thursday. To be or not to be in the British capital was the
question as Brown rushed to Belfast on Monday to "talk through the night" to
save the Ulster power-sharing process from collapse.
In a manner of speaking, power sharing also forms the agenda of the London
conference, attended by some 60 countries. Cynics label the meeting a public
relations stunt by Brown at a time when two-thirds of Britons oppose the Afghan
However, the conference serves a purpose. An idea that seemed
heretic until recently has tiptoed to the center of the conflict-resolution
agenda in Afghanistan - devolving on reconciliation with the Taliban. The
United Nations put its imprimatur on the idea on Sunday, when its special envoy
to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, suggested that at least some of the Taliban senior
leaders should be removed from the UN's list of terrorists drawn up in 2001.
"If you want relevant results, then you have to talk to the relevant person in
authority," Eide said. "I think the time has come to do it."
The UN black list contains 144 names, including Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Under UN Resolution 1267, all governments are obliged to freeze the bank
accounts of people on the list and prevent them from traveling. The George W
Bush administration forced the decision on the world community.
After eight years of war and loss of thousands of lives, Washington has changed
course. As Robert Gates, the US secretary of defense said last week: "The
Taliban ... are part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point."
In an extraordinary interview timed for the London Conference, the commander of
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, General
Stanley McChrystal, said: "As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there's
been enough fighting."
"After eight years of war, it's clear that domestically many [Western]
political leaders are having to answer questions, this [war] has gone on a long
time and it's no better than it was in 2004, so why are we maintaining it, will
it get better?" he told the Financial Times on Monday.
Echoing Eide, McChrystal underscored that "the possibility for everybody to
look at [is] what's the right combination of participation in the government
[in Kabul]". It is important that all parts of the population have an absolute
stake in the government, he said. "I think any Afghan can play a role ... It's
the return of al-Qaeda we don't want."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai would use the London platform to "announce his
intent to implement a reintegration policy [towards the Taliban] and then move
forward to implementation, and I'm hopeful and very optimistic that the
international community will completely back that," McChrystal predicted.
From various accounts, the Karzai plan pits the main protagonists in the
insurgency - the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban, former mujahideen leader
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the so-called Haqqani network - within five concentric
circles. The first circle includes Mullah Omar, Sirajuddin Haqqani and
Hekmatyar; the second circle slots some 15-20 insurgent groups; the third
comprises 60-70 individuals who include provincial commanders; the fourth
brings together some 700 individuals; and the fifth circle brackets around
20,000 to 25,000 "foot soldiers".
The protagonists in the first and the second circles will be engaged in a
political and strategic agenda of "reconciliation" at national level, whereas
those in the outer circles could be "integrated" through provincial-level
initiatives. The Karzai government will spearhead the implementation of the
At a trilateral summit meeting with his Turkish and Pakistani counterparts in
Istanbul on Monday, Karzai formally discussed the plan with Pakistan President
Asif Zardari and his accompanying Inter-Services Intelligence chief. The Turks
are working behind the scenes to bring about a better understanding between
Kabul and Islamabad. Karzai revealed in Istanbul that he would ask the London
conference to support his move to remove Taliban names from the UN black list.
Karzai and Washington find themselves on the same page. Simply put, Washington
counts on Karzai to bell the cat. Karzai counts on Washington to acquiesce with
his leadership. The first point on their common agenda is envisages that now
that the US thinks differently about the Taliban, the international community
might as well do so.
Secondly, The US is caught in a bind. In order for reconciliation with the
Taliban to proceed, the militants must be removed from the UN black list. To
this end the Security Council - Russia and China in particular - must be
brought on board. Karzai will seek a mandate in London to approach the Security
Third on their agenda, the Security Council must also formally endorse Karzai's
reconciliation plan once it gets adopted as the international community’s
collective wish. The US alone cannot bankroll the "rehabilitation" or
"integration" of thousands of Taliban cadres and their families; it costs a lot
of money and the international community should share the burden. After all,
this is about global security.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Britain will be the US's key partners for holding
reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Separately, Washington has said it hopes
to negotiate a "status of forces agreement" with Kabul regarding the US
military presence in Afghanistan.
In sum, the London conference is getting set to witness a display of "smart
power". If it works, a substantial drawdown of US combat troops becomes
possible in time for President Barack Obama's re-election bid. But the big
question is whether or not it will work.
Leaving aside the Taliban, who may well have minds of their own, the countries
that could act as spoilers are mainly the regional powers - Pakistan, Iran,
India, Russia and China. These potential spoilers may not be able to be subdued
into a single "grand bargain", so individual agreements may become necessary.
India, which gives primacy to its so-called "strategic partnership" with the
US, is the least troublesome. It favors the American military presence in the
region and wants NATO to fight on. But Delhi will work robustly to ensure that
Kabul remains India-friendly.
Pakistan is in a category by itself insofar as it not only seeks a strategic
partnership with the US but one that is at a par with the US-Indian nexus.
Besides, its special interests need to be safeguarded in Afghanistan. Pakistan
has excluded India from regional formats working on Afghanistan.
Islamabad is in a privileged position as it holds the option to bring the
"irreconcilable" Quetta shura (the top Taliban council) to the
negotiating table, or, alternatively, claim helplessness. How it chooses to
play depends largely on the US's ability to maintain a balanced relationship
with India and Pakistan. Pakistan rejects any US-Indian strategic tie-up in the
Indian Ocean. In short, Washington faces a tough call to get Pakistan to
cooperate optimally while stringing India along.
Iran falls in a different category insofar as while Tehran has expectations
regarding a normal relationship with the US, it also looks for recognition as a
regional power. Tehran seeks a broad-based government in Kabul that ensures the
welfare of the Shi'ite communities and it expects assurances regarding Iran's
own security. But Tehran does not confront the US in Afghanistan, although it
is boycotting the London conference on account of frosty relations with
Most certainly, misgivings remain regarding any medium-term US military
presence. China and Russia visualize Afghanistan's stabilization in terms of
the country getting rid of foreign occupation, regaining its sovereignty and
becoming a genuinely neutral country.
The fact remains that the US, British and Saudi intelligence agencies have in
the past used the Islamist forces in Afghanistan for geopolitical ends.
Significantly, Moscow held a special meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization regarding Afghanistan on Monday in the run up to the London
However, there is a lot going on behind the scenes. The US is promoting
India-Pakistan rapprochement, Delhi is willing to move in tandem with
Washington's wishes and some anticipate a thaw in India-Pakistan ties. The US
has also reduced the shrillness of its rhetoric against Iran.
Russian-American relations are at a sensitive juncture with the two countries
inching toward a new arms control agreement. True, Beijing has reason to feel
upset over recent US moves on arms sales to Taiwan, Google’s decision pull out
of China and Obama's decision to meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader. But China also has high stakes in regional stability in
Central Asia and South Asia.
Meanwhile, apart from hosting the Afghan and Pakistani presidents in Istanbul
on Monday, Turks gathered together Iran, Russia and China, Tajikistan, Saudi
Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A sprinkling of NATO and European Union
officials was thrown into that mix, along with an aide to the US special
representative for AfPak, Richard Holbrooke.
Originally, Turkey toyed with the idea of hosting an Organization of Islamic
Conference meeting on Afghanistan. But something seems to have gone wrong in
that enterprise. Turkey probably ended up doing slightly better by facilitating
a last-minute opportunity to ``find a single voice’’ at the London conference.
President Abdullah Gul is traveling to Delhi on February 7.
Clearly, the focus of the London conference has shifted from the original focus
on the Afghanization of the war. NATO's troop surge has become a sideshow.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday ruled out any deployment of
additional combat troops. That eases pressure on Germany too. The Karzai plan
for reconciliation with the Taliban has instead become the centerpiece.
However, just like in Bonn eight years ago, the London conference is an
exclusive gathering of "victors", while the vanquished Taliban remain excluded.
The only difference is that the victors who gather on Thursday have been badly
mauled in the past eight years and are terribly fatigued and almost bled white.
They are determined to search out the vanquished and to talk real peace.
Karzai may outline a five-year reconciliation plan. Evidently, the London
conference will only set the ball rolling in an engrossing game that promises
to stretch to the final lap of Obama's second term, should he get that far.
Yardsticks of success and failure do not apply to a cliffhanger. Brown may be
the only winner at the present stage.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.