Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Between the surge and the talks

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi
The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK , and a former editor of The News

There were few surprises at the London conference on Afghanistan , except perhaps Iran 's decision to stay away on the grounds that the meeting's main purpose was to back the American troop surge.

Co-sponsored by Britain , Afghanistan and the UN, the conference aimed to launch a political track to accompany the military strategy announced last month by President Barack Obama. This was the sixth international conference since the military intervention of 2001 and took place against the backdrop of three strategy reviews by the Obama administration.

After a grim year in Afghanistan that saw record casualties, falling public support in America and Europe for the war and a tainted election that weakened President Karzai's authority, the conference was designed to inject momentum into the West's floundering Afghan project.

Attended by over 65 countries, the conference on Jan 28 sought as much to reassure Western publics that there was a way out of the war as to show international solidarity for Afghanistan .

The main consensus reached in London was around a plan for the transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces within five years and a pay-for-peace reintegration initiative to lure low- and mid-level Taliban out of the insurgency with jobs and other incentives to join the mainstream.

The dominant theme at the conference was reconciling with the Taliban. President Karzai announced plans for a process of reconciliation to include the Taliban leading to a peace jirga. The final communiqué, however, referred only to reintegration. This raised the question whether the outreach to the Taliban marked a change in course by the US-led coalition towards pursuing a political solution or just served as an appendage to a military strategy.

The strategy fashioned at the London conference to "align civilian and military resources" exposed several contradictions or inconsistencies:

* Between Western countries' need to tell their war-weary publics that they were seeking to wind down their military engagement and the conflicting message to the Taliban that US-NATO forces were not about to abandon the fight.

* Between a military surge and the planned acceleration in the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces.

* Between British prime minister Gordon Brown's five-year timeline to complete this transition and President Karzai's pronouncement that this could take 15 years.

* And, most significantly, between the military surge and political reconciliation. This raised the question whether the plan to escalate the war, instead of persuading the Taliban towards reconciliation, would give them an incentive to continue fighting – at a time when the movement is at its strongest since 2001.

Why would the Taliban switch allegiances if they felt their side was winning and give up fighting if they were being bombed?

The conference was unable to resolve these policy tensions. The muddled approach indicated uncertainty rather than a clear direction. It also reflected differences among coalition members, as also within the US administration itself. The latter was vividly illustrated by leaked cables from Washington 's envoy in Kabul , Karl Ikenberry, who questioned the wisdom of the surge and the inadequacy of Karzai as a strategic partner.

Significantly, no consensus has yet emerged on the issue of pursuing a negotiated settlement to dissipate the eight-year-old conflict by reaching an accommodation with the Taliban. This means that beyond the goal to reintegrate Taliban foot soldiers the international effort does not yet have a shared vision of a dialogue with Taliban leaders. Washington 's thinking on this issue has certainly been changing. Like the view of several coalition partners, notably President Karzai himself, many American officials believe that for the war to end, talks will ultimately have to take place with the insurgents for a political settlement. But the US has not reached the point where it is prepared to publicly acknowledge this or openly move in this direction.

This is evident from the stream of statements from US officials that followed the London conference, especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sought repeatedly to distinguish between reintegration and reconciliation. She made it plain that the US "will be pursuing military action, going aggressively against the Taliban….but (supporting) an opportunity for those who choose to leave the fighting to re-enter society."

The US has also continued to press Pakistan to undertake kill-or-capture actions against the Afghan Taliban in North Waziristan and those belonging to the so-called "Quetta Shura."

Behind Washington 's public posture and its ramped up military effort is a policy debate that has been underway in the administration and with close NATO allies about the timing and modalities of talking to the senior commanders of the Taliban.

So far the view that has ascendancy in this debate is one that advocates an approach of surge now, talk later. This argues that until coalition forces are able to bolster their position militarily and talk from a position of strength, the Taliban will have no incentive to negotiate. Therefore, the surge and "reintegration" plan should first reverse the momentum, split the foot soldiers from the leadership and weaken and divide the Taliban before transitioning to "reconciliation."

Another view purportedly sees the present as the most propitious time to open negotiations. The Taliban have been confronted with the challenge of the surge, but with fighting yet to intensify. It is precisely because the Taliban feel that they are strong that they can be tempted to engage in the political process.

Similarly there are differing views on modalities: who to involve, what role to assign Pakistan and Saudi Arabia , and how to proceed. Internal debate on these questions in Washington is said to be informed by the consideration of wanting to stay firmly in the driver's seat whenever this process unfolds.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, it has already signalled that it can play a vital role in mediating with the Taliban once there is clarity about how and when to proceed. Interestingly, the debate within the government is how proactive Pakistan should be at a time when Washington 's thinking is still evolving and its decisions have yet to firm up on substance, timing and process.

The view that has prevailed for now is to wait until Washington has made up its mind and decided on a political framework for talks with the Taliban. The obvious question raised by this wait-and-see approach is how in the meantime Islamabad will deal with US expectations of cooperation with its military escalation strategy which will place it at odds with its potential role as an interlocutor with the Taliban.

While daunting challenges lie ahead in resolving the tensions in the US-led international effort in Afghanistan , there is an important aspect of the evolving situation that has attracted little attention in the media. This is India 's growing discomfiture over the emerging trend towards accommodation with the Taliban and the West's quest for an orderly exit from Afghanistan . Delhi 's worry over reconciliation – notwithstanding its foreign minister's feeble effort to signal conditional support – puts it at variance with the growing international consensus on the issue.

India could not have been pleased by the London Conference's failure to make headway in establishing the so-called regional stability council to coordinate efforts in Afghanistan . Pakistan 's insistence that only "immediate neighbours" should be included in such a framework, as well as Iran 's non-participation, meant that this part of the conference agenda fizzled out. Coming after Turkey agreed to Pakistan 's request to exclude India from the regional meeting it hosted, this development would also have left Delhi deeply worried.

India could react to this by trying to muddy the waters in Afghanistan once it sees that the reconciliation process could gather pace. This will only add to the many obstacles that lie ahead in stabilising the worn-torn country. The most pressing challenge, however, is to square the many circles that have persisted beyond the London conference and map out a viable – and agreed – strategy that offers Afghanistan a real chance of peace. (The News, Pakistan)

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