The foreplay of an Afghan settlement
By M K Bhadrakumar
When "well-placed Pakistani and Arab sources" sing like magpie robins, you
never get tired of hearing them. There is a lot of variety to their songs. The
magpie robin gives voice to a range of motifs: loud songs to establish
territory and pair formation; soft, aggressive songs to defend territory; or,
haunting resting melodies.
Remember how such well-placed sources sang without a break from the mid-1980s
in the run-up to the Geneva talks all the way to February 15, 1989, when the
last Soviet soldiers, led by General Boris Gromov finally managed after 10
years to leave Afghanistan on foot over the Hairatonbridge across the Amy Darya
River? Well, they are singing again.
But they are very combative - less bird-like and more like kung fu
masters ready to do battle. Are they establishing territory or merely defending
it? Most certainly, these are not haunting resting songs.
Highly tendentious themes have appeared in rapid succession over the past week:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in talks with the Taliban's Quette shura
(council) about a "comprehensive" Afghan settlement, with the latter
participating in government; Karzai is also talking with the Haqqani network
thanks to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This follows the ISI
setting up a meeting "on the Afghan-Pakistan border in the spring" between
Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani, and the ISI escorting Sirajuddin's brother and
uncle to Kabul. The Haqqanis realize that the time has come to "make the
transition from the IRA to Sinn Fein" and that "This is the end of the road for
al-Qaeda in Waziristan", as diplomatic sources have been reported as saying.
A calibrated media offensive has appeared, the principal objective of which is
to underscore that the Taliban are gaining the upper hand politically. The
intention seems to be threefold. First, to scare the daylight out of the
non-Pashtun groups which believed from day one that the idea of accommodating
the Taliban in the Afghan power structure would be extremely dangerous.
If the non-Pashtun groups could be sufficiently incited to agitate, they would
exert big pressure on Karzai regarding the "sell-out" to the Taliban. The
discord would tear apart the tenuous coalition that Karzai heads, and a sure
casualty could be the High Council that the Afghan president is erecting as his
bridge leading toward the Pashtun camp in Pakistan bypassing the Punjabi-led
Second, the media offensive projects the veteran mujahid Jalaluddin Haqqani and
his son, Sirajuddin, onto the center stage. A "senior Pakistani official" even
claimed that talks are going on between Haqqani, Karzai and the US government -
"The ice has broken".
An impression is being created that while the Quetta shura may remain
important, its stature as the principal interlocutor in the insurgency has
eroded while the Haqqanis surged as the main military threat to the US forces
on the battlefield. That is to say, there can be no enduring peace unless the
Haqqanis are engaged in talks by the Americans as their key interlocutor.
Third, this sort of media expose creates confusion regarding the nascent
reconciliation process. It puts Karzai on the defensive vis-a-vis his
non-Pashtun allies, embarrasses moderate elements within the Taliban leadership
and forces them to resort to grandstanding and intransigence that ultimately
could derail the reconciliation process.
In short, this entire media blitzkrieg aims at aborting the sort of
"Afghan-led" reconciliation process that Karzai is conceiving.
The reconciliation process is at an extremely vulnerable "embryonic" stage, to
use the words of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) representative
in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill. Last week, while talking to reporters in
Washington, Sedwill said, "There are significant [Taliban] leaders who seem to
be weary of the fight and seem to be willing to contemplate a future within the
mainstream." But, "Essentially, we're at the embryonic stage. The channels of
communication are open. I wouldn't, at this stage, say that we've reached the
point of real negotiation."
The context becomes very important from yet another angle. A new level of
equilibrium or maturity has lately appeared in Washington's equations with
Karzai. Washington has manifestly edged closed toward Karzai in recent days,
putting behind the period of alienation and drift. The controversy over the
issue of "corruption" has tapered off. Again, Washington accepts the conduct of
the Afghan parliamentary elections and is preparing to deal with the emergent
power alignment involving the new parliament and Karzai.
The Barack Obama administration seems to have decided to work with Karzai when
the search for a political settlement is shifting gear.
Detractors and debunkers of Obama's war see things differently. The former US
Central Intelligence Agency operative-turned-critic, Michael Scheuer, says,
"The game is over and we are looking for a way out. Obama won't be able to hold
his base for 2012 if he is not out [of Afghanistan and Iraq]".
However, we cannot be so very prejudiced as to overlook that there is a
consistent streak in Obama's political personality. Laurence Tribe, the
renowned professor who became Obama's intellectual mentor at Harvard, once
summed up nicely, "Overall, Obama has ... a problem-solving orientation. He
seems not to be powerfully driven by an a-priori framework, so what
emerges is quite pragmatic and even tentative. It's hard to describe what his
presuppositions are ..."
All indications are that Obama is acutely aware that the war isn't going too
well. If anything, author Bob Woodward further provoked Obama into a
"problem-solving orientation" with revelations in his latest book Obama's Wars
of rifts in the administration over Afghan war policy.
No doubt, Obama's video teleconference with Karzai on Monday had a "hands-on"
purposive approach. He firmed up a most crucial leg of any Afghan settlement,
namely, formalizing the US commitment of long-term support to the Kabul
government embracing the post-settlement era.
Obama and Karzai agreed that a new US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Declaration
would be ready by the time a NATO summit takes place in Lisbon in November.
They linked this to the other key topic at the NATO summit, namely, "transition
to Afghan lead security responsibility by 2014", as the White House readout put
it. The White House said on Wednesday that Obama supported Karzai's efforts at
opening peace talks with Taliban leaders, but "this is about Afghanistan. It
has to be done by the Afghans."
On the other hand, US-Pakistan ties, which have always been difficult, have
come under new pressures. The US has sharply escalated drone attacks on
Pakistan's tribal areas. Two "hot pursuit" incidents provoked Pakistani attacks
on NATO convoys and the closure of the Torkham border post from Pakistan into
Afghanistan, but no one is losing sleep in Washington or Brussels.
A Voice of America commentary rhetorically asked, "Have the [Pakistani] attacks
brought supply shortages to NATO troops in Afghanistan?" It went on to answer
with a derisive "No", quoting General Joseph Blotz who commands the
International Security Assistance Force:
We do have plenty of supplies
and stocks within Afghanistan. We do have access to transport and logistics
through other border crossing points ... and, yes, we need to look for other
options and the other options are, you know, getting in the necessary supplies
and logistics through border crossing points with neighboring countries in the
north... where we get in actually almost as much supplies as through the border
crossing points with Pakistan, so there are alternatives.
sum, the US message is getting to be somewhat blunt: the Pakistani military has
little choice but to cooperate. Again, regional players may have differences
with the US strategy in Afghanistan, but the Obama administration keeps the
back-channel to Iran, is actively consulting Russia, and has restrained New
Delhi from making precipitate moves. Equally, it is preposterous that Beijing
would contemplate goading the reluctant Pakistani military into the high-risk
enterprise of "strategic defiance" of the US in the Hindu Kush.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has so far ignored the Pakistani attempt to
draw the US into the unrest in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. On
Thursday, the Wall Street Journal flashed details of a White House report that
is being forwarded by Obama to the US Congress which in unusually plain
speaking says that the Pakistani military is playing a double game in the
"The Pakistan military continued to avoid military engagements that would put
it in direct conflict with Afghan Taliban or al-Qaeda forces in North
Waziristan [tribal area in Pakistan]. This is as much a political choice as it
is a reflection of an under-resourced military prioritizing its targets."
We are witnessing the foreplay of an Afghan peace settlement. No doubt about
it. As a perceptive Guardian commentator put it, the issue is no longer about
peace talks but as to when the fighting will stop. And Pakistan is reiterating
its claim to be the key arbiter of any peace talks and has asserted its
seamless capacity to be a "spoiler" if it is spurned.
A charming thing about magpie robins is that they can incorporate fragments of
other bird calls into their songs. Remember how their songs kept frustrating
the Geneva talks and prolonged the Soviet agony in Afghanistan?
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.