Before Disaster Strikes

Another high-profile, low-output meeting on Afghanistan has been held. On February 3-4 Prime Minister David Cameron met the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan at Chequers, his country residence, for trilateral consultations. A Downing Street curtain-raiser added the gloss that for “the first time, we will bring together the political and security establishments from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, with foreign ministers, chiefs of army staff, chiefs of intelligence and the chair of the Afghan High Peace Council attending the meeting.”
Hopes soared sky-high with this spirited announcement. But the actual deliberations were conspicuous by unimaginative reiterations of statements worn threadbare and, in particular, the refrain that the peace process must be Afghan-led and -owned. The final communique was horribly out of step with ground realities, as was evident from the unachievable target of a peace settlement within six months. Any Afghanistan-related meeting without the Taliban is like staging Hamlet without the villain, Claudius. On Wednesday the Taliban spokesman rejected the outcome of the summit.
No one can dispute that a durable settlement can only emerge through an intra-Afghan dialogue. This is the standard formulation that has been repeated ad nauseam at every Afghanistan-related meeting in recent years. None of the high-powered delegations that have participated in these glittering get-togethers have explained how the process can be jumpstarted.
The problem lies in persuading all the Afghan parties to sort out their differences at the negotiating table. The Taliban, for one, have fractured, which makes any initiative for the restoration of enduring stability in the war-ravaged country that much more difficult. It is unlikely that all the groups will agree to a ceasefire and participate in any peace process.
There was a time when Mullah Omar’s word was law. The striking example of this was the deweaponisation of 75 percent (and for a brief period, 90 percent) of Afghan territory controlled by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. Similarly, all it took was a single edict from the amir-ul-momineen – a fanciful title that Mullah Omar still takes seriously – to eradicate poppy cultivation, the economic mainstay of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
But these are events from a bygone era. It is no longer certain whether the man who was once the supreme leader of the Taliban still wields the same influence among the men out in the battlefront. Even if Mullah Omar eventually agrees to talk to the Karzai regime, it is doubtful whether he will be able to persuade the splinter groups to fall into line. Last March Mullah Zabiullah, a senior Taliban commander, conceded that the movement was confronted with an unprecedented leadership crisis.
Like all small-minded men, Mullah Omar lays an exaggerated emphasis on never altering his decisions. He brought ruin to his country by stubbornly sheltering Osama bin Laden despite Pakistan’s relentless efforts to persuade him to surrender the arch-terrorist to a place where he could be brought to justice. It is still uncertain whether he has learnt his lesson and is now willing to sever all links with Al-Qaeda.
Furthermore, the space for negotiations does not exist so long as Omar continues to believe that he is the amir-ul-momineen and, therefore, the undisputed leader of Afghanistan for the rest of his life. The Afghan constitution has no relevance and any settlement has to be on his terms as elaborated in his Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Azha messages last year. All Afghans, regardless of their ethnicity, would have a say in national affairs but within the narrow groove of the Shariah as defined by the obscurantist worldview of the Taliban.
But this did not deter Prime Minister Cameron from claiming at the post-summit joint press conference: “Now is the time for everyone to participate in a peaceful, political process in Afghanistan.” Closer to the truth is that if this “process” ever gets off the ground there is no telling how long it will last and towards what direction it will head.
Despite the emphasis on an intra-Afghan dialogue, no effort has been made till now on starting the negotiations. All that the Chequers communique says is that the participants “supported the opening of an office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations between the Taliban and the High Peace Council of Afghanistan as part of an Afghan-led peace process.” This again, like the call for a final settlement within six months, is wishful thinking because the Taliban have, time and again, refused to negotiate with the Karzai regime. Here is where the problem gets deeper.
On February 4, The Washington Post reported that Karzai had initially dug his heels in and had insisted that the Doha office should be established only after a written agreement between the Taliban and Kabul that the premise would not be used for any “political purpose” other than for direct talks with the Afghan government. Furthermore, the Taliban negotiators would have to present documentation proving that they were genuine representatives of Mullah Omar.
Karzai subsequently climbed down from this untenable posture after his meeting with President Obama in Washington on January 11. He agreed that the Doha office could also be used for negotiating a prisoners-swap arrangement between the US and the Taliban, alongside talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban. But no sooner had he returned to Kabul than Karzai reneged on this understanding, because he feared being left out in the cold should the Americans and the Taliban negotiate a comprehensive agreement for restoring peace in Afghanistan. It is, therefore, uncertain whether the Doha process envisaged in the communique will ever materialise. Karzai has yet to react to the statement on Wednesday by Mullah Omar’s close confidant, Zabiullah Mujahid, that the negotiations will be between the Taliban and the Americans.
It is unclear precisely what Karzai wants. In an interview to The Guardian and the ITV channel, released during the summit, he said that the biggest threat to Afghan peace did not emanate from the Taliban but from “meddling foreign powers.” He also embarrassed his hosts by saying that the situation in the southern Helmand province had deteriorated after the deployment of British troops there.
Important segments of Afghan opinion are convinced that Karzai is only obsessed with ensuring that his successor will be from among his proteges – a man who will not press criminal charges against him and his family for alleged corruption. Karzai, it is believed, has reaped a fulsome harvest of illicit gains from the post-9/11 turmoil in the country and now yearns for a safe exist. He has accordingly proposed a new law for the 2014 presidential election. The eligibility requirements for candidates are stringent to the extreme and will automatically disqualify many Afghan leaders. This has generated bitter resentment in Kabul.
Under the circumstances, chaos looms large in Afghanistan. The countdown for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country has begun. Within a few months, the ill-equipped, ill-trained and ethnically imbalanced 352,000-strong Afghan armed forces will be responsible for security. The rapid disintegration of the ragtag army, as has happened on three occasions since the 1970s, is a possibility and portends turmoil. The fallout, compounded by the economic meltdown, will primarily be on Pakistan.
It is in Islamabad’s interest to use whatever influence it still has with the Afghan groups to promote a durable settlement. But till now all that it has done is release a few Taliban prisoners in its custody. Though this has been acknowledged in the Chequers communique, the gesture means nothing, because a freed captive is compromised and is a spent force as far as Mullah Omar and his associates are concerned. This is what I learnt from five years of close interaction with him and the Taliban leadership in the period that their writ prevailed like a hideous nightmare over most of Afghanistan. If the brewing disaster is to be averted, bold and imaginative measures have to be taken.