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Updated: June 24, 2013 01:01 IST

In Afghanistan, back to the future

Vivek Katju
Comment (18)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The Hindu

Such is the measure of America’s strategic desperation that it has accepted the Taliban’s vague assurances and gone to great lengths to accommodate the outfit

Notwithstanding President Hamid Karzai’s anger and the deep resentment in Kabul at the Taliban conduct during the opening of their Doha office on June 18 and the statement issued by them on that occasion, there is little doubt that talks between the United States and the Taliban will take place sooner rather than later. When tempers cool, Mr. Karzai will also realise that he cannot defy the U.S. beyond a point for, where will he turn for funds, if nothing else, to keep the administration such as it is and the Afghan security forces going? In any event, the initiative is now with the Taliban and its friend and mentor Pakistan and they stand to gain even if the talks do not get off the ground for some unforeseen reason.

The U.S. has already gone to great lengths to accommodate the Taliban and Pakistan. Such is the measure of its strategic desperation that contrary to its earlier position, it has accepted the Taliban’s vague assurances regarding Afghan territory not being used to foment violence outside the country. Also, for many months the U.S. and its European partners had almost given up on the reconciliation process and the focus was on a credible Afghan presidential election so that an effective and cohesive political leadership, post-2014 and post-Karzai , could take on the Taliban insurgency. No statement or comment since June 18 mentions the political process as mandated by the Afghan Constitution at all.

U.S. approach

In order to assess how far the U.S. will go in this direction and how much pressure it will bring to bear on Mr. Karzai, it would be instructive to turn to its approaches towards the Taliban in the 1990s.

The Taliban effectively captured Kabul on September 26, 1996. That evening in Islamabad, at a dinner hosted by our High Commissioner, at which this writer was present, a senior U.S. diplomat was one of the guests. He was obviously following the success of the Taliban in Kabul with a sense of satisfaction. He was completely unfazed by the nature of the Taliban, including its theological orientations.

Two months later, the U.N. Secretary General called a meeting of countries with “interest and influence in Afghanistan” in New York. At that meeting the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Robin Raphel, called the Taliban “a significant factor in the Afghan equation and one that will not disappear anytime soon.” In a pointed message to those who considered the Taliban creatures of Pakistan, she said, “... they are Afghan; they are indigenous; they have demonstrated staying power”. Notwithstanding the disquiet expressed by many influential U.S. women groups on Taliban attitudes on gender issues Ms Raphel stated “the real source of their power has been the willingness of many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, to tacitly trade the unending fighting and chaos for a measure of peace and security, even with severe social restrictions.” It is especially noteworthy that the Taliban record on human rights was characterised thus. Why? U.S. officials at that time were particularly focussed on evacuating Central Asian hydrocarbons through pipelines across Afghanistan and Pakistan, and clearly felt that only the Taliban could create stable conditions in Afghanistan to make this possible. Human rights then as now have never come in the way of hard national interest.

Ms Raphel also advised all countries to engage with the Taliban and put that suggestion in practice a month later when a Taliban team led by Mullah Muttawakil visited Washington ostensibly at the invitation of a U.S. oil company. The State Department strongly lobbied with many embassies, including our own, to receive the Taliban team. The Taliban team was received by a middle level diplomat. They said that they should be considered Afghans. They also said that they were not against India. This was at a time when they were hosting training camps where members of terrorist groups operating against India were also being trained.

The U.S. attitude towards the Taliban changed in 1998. Why?

Osama-bin-Laden reached Afghanistan from Sudan a few months before the Taliban captured Kabul. He developed a close nexus with the Taliban leadership, especially Mullah Omar. In 1998, the al Qaeda attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and it became apparent that Osama was using Afghanistan as a base to plan his attacks on western targets. It was only then that the U.S. began to be unhappy with the Taliban and, even then, its ire was not against the Taliban per se but against their connection with the al Qaeda.

Prior to 9/11, the U.S. gave the Taliban every opportunity to give up the al Qaeda and make peace. Following 9/11, the U.S. allowed the Pakistanis to virtually nurture the Taliban provided they handed over members of the al Qaeda. The Pakistanis obliged and hundreds of low level al Qaeda operatives were given by them to the U.S. In return, Pakistan got strategic space and more than $11billion.

By 2004 the Taliban, with Pakistani assistance, had gained sufficient strength to begin operations in Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency had begun. It was allowed to gain strength because deep down some influential sections in Washington subscribed to the Raphel Taliban Doctrine. An exhausted U.S., after the elimination of Osama, is essentially attempting to revert to that doctrine.

Karzai’s challenge

In the 1990s, the Taliban and Pakistan could not fully achieve their objectives largely because of Ahmed Shah Massoud. Mr. Karzai is no Massoud but he can meet the current challenge even now if he abandons the narrow politics he has pursued since 2001. More than ever, he needs the skills of the Panjsheri leaders, Abdullah and Qanooni, the analytical capacities of the former Intelligence Chief, Amrullah Saleh, the courage of the Hazara leader, Mohaqiq, and the tenacity of the Uzbek leader, Dostum. Along with them he needs to travel, with all its risks, especially to Pashtun areas to warn against the long-term dangers the Taliban represent to Afghanistan’s future. Perhaps this is too much to ask of Mr. Karzai.

The Afghan situation will certainly figure prominently in Secretary of State Kerry’s discussions in Delhi. The Indian leadership cannot confine itself to the pious principles contained in the government’s statement of June 21. It must forthrightly inform Mr. Kerry of India’s misgivings about the Taliban and that India will act to protect its interests in Afghanistan, along with like-minded countries. We must especially underline that India will not allow itself to be excluded from international diplomacy over Afghanistan, as was the case in the 1990s. Following the Kerry visit, India must urgently hold consultations with Russia, Iran and the Central Asian states on developments in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are part of the Afghan landscape but their vision of the country’s future is flawed for it is exclusionary, not inclusive of Afghanistan’s diversities. Our diplomacy while remaining realistic and flexible must not be oblivious of this basic aspect.

As for the U.S.: Faustian bargains cost lives and much more. But that is mainly for the U.S. public to consider. On their part, U.S. policymakers will have to ponder over the reasons for the strategic reverses, if not defeat, of their country in Afghanistan. Is it because of a continuing ambivalence on Pakistan and the lack of a clear, specific and sustained Pakistan policy or are the reasons Afghanistan specific? The Af-Pak concept has clearly failed.

Meanwhile the Taliban are out of the shadows and Pakistan is back at the centre of international diplomacy on Afghanistan.

(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan)

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I think we are exaggerating the matter!! We should recognize u.s. last effort to maintain peace in Afghanistan by mainstreaming Taliban in political arena as nothing has been achieved by decades of bloodshed in Afghanistan. One more point U.S. has attached certain conditions for talks to happen between high peace council and Talibans!! My one friend raised the issue of interest of Pakistan in Afghanistan. I acknowledge every country has the right to protect it's interest but only through legitimate means not through illegitimate means!!

from:  Raunak
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 01:33 IST


India has remained a victim of terrorism since ages, but have never
learnt to shield against an ogre of terrorism and protect their
sovereignty. God has given territorial protection to
subcontinent from all four sides, yet there were always intruders who
forcefully or taking advantage of severance actors from within had
made their head way and in actual fact destroyed India thus bringing
it in today's shape. All this can be attributed to the people of
central India, because of who’s the bickering and patrician of mother
land came in to effect. But no one seems be learning a lesson out of
all those envision may be physical or ideological.Today subcontinent
has been brought at a stage where its patrician can never be undone.
Now coming on present security challenges which have been indicated by
Mr Puri, these threats are not only to India but to complete region,
Pakistan being first on the line to be confronting, that way any one
can feel the buffer effect that is being provided to India by
territory of Pakistan and its armed forces fighting against the same
ideology that being followed by them just to protect their territorial
sovereignty and covertly providing defense to India. Yet Indian
security scholars are up to strengthening Afghan militancy by naming
them war torn zone, America is fighting their all out war on terror
against them, knowing fully well! the day they will leave the
terrorist syndicates will form up again to become danger to entire
world.

from:  Raja Qamar Iqbal
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 00:07 IST

It is unfortunate to note that the US is always responsible, one way or
the other, for the rise of unscrupulous terror outfits. The rise of
Taliban with active support from Pakistani sources is bound to be a
source of trouble not only for India but for the entire Asian continent,
including the West. China-India-Russia co-ordination only can bring
about peace in this continent.

from:  Ramani P
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 21:16 IST

Mr Kerry is making the right noises but India–US relations are not
going lift up with right noises alone. It will be Afghanistan that
may make or break the relationship. It is clear to everybody, and
certainly to US policymakers, that the US has been roundly defeated
by the Afghan Taliban, to which its ‘ally’ Pakistan contributed in no
small measure. Pakistan is USA’s own business. If the US wants to
persist with the fiction that Pakistan can do no wrong and must be
supported under all conditions, then there is a point beyond which
India shall not be able to go along with the US. We in India have
been clear for a long time that Pakistan under Musharraf and Zardari
played a double game throughout (2001 onwards) and even now it seems
Mr Sharif’s government is intent on pushing the Haqqani network into
the negotiations, when they get under way. If US entertains the
Haqqani network at the negotiations, then nothing can save the US
from complete humiliation.

from:  V. C. Bhutani
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 20:18 IST

For the second ( or rather third if we include the British) time, Afghanistan has seen the back of superpowers. Taliban is now a joint headache of India, Russia and China.

from:  Ramachandran
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 16:52 IST

"Pakistan is back at the centre of international diplomacy on Afghanistan" says it all.

Indian foreign policy establishment is obsessed with Pakistan. They cant stomach Pakistan's role even though they know full well that excluding Pakistan from Afghan entangle wouldnt produce lasting peace. They know every attempt to leverage Afghan soil against Pakistan would only destabilize the whole region but that doesn matter.Point is how to damage Pakistan by hook or a crook.

Even Afghans/US/EU acknolwdge that but Indian pundits are blinded by their hatred of Pakistan and cant see realities on ground.

Moreover, they fail answer a simple question, if India has right protect its interests in Afghanistan then why Pakistan shouldnt be allowed to protect her interests. They also fail to acknolwedge that india's problem in Kashmir started long before Taliban came.

from:  Faiz Khalili
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 16:41 IST

The real villain in this piece is Pakistan and its support and nurturing of terror outfits that want to bring the Taliban back into power in Afghanistan. Pakistan originally supported the Taliban as they were born there in the Afghan refugee camps. Pak also supported elements of Al Qaeda. So the dollars sent to Pakistan by the USA have been wasted. This financing of Pakistan must be stopped by the USA, the Pak militant camps must be completely eliminated.

from:  Vipul
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 16:23 IST

The game plan to bring back Taliban , basing on its vague
assurances ,into mainstream governance circumventing Afghanistan
governments concerns and fair elections,is a mere round-tripping of
more than a decade old saga by the U.S. and Pakistan.

India as a strategic player in the region should voice its concerns
openly along with like minded nations and stand for a matured and
pragmatic ideology.
from:  Havish Madduri
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 14:40 IST

Just one more in the long list of failures USA is facing. First in Iraq,then Afghan now they want to go into Syria. USA is a threat to the humanity and such will needs to be dealt collectively by the rest of humanity if it continues with such rogue behaviors.

from:  Janarddan
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 14:30 IST

If the occupation forces under the guise of UN are allowed to conduct an election, it would be another ruse like 2009. Elections in Afghanistan are a very difficult proposition. Turkey and Malaysia command universal respect in Afghanistan, and can be accepted as impartial observers, they can step in to help with the logistics and being a referee. Pakistan, Iran and China have considerable influence in Afghanistan but they also have considerable opposition in Afghanistan.

Hamid Karzai is simply not a part of any equation in Afghanistan, a pro-America Pashtun just does not have a constituency in Afghanistan. Karzai had better not burn his bridges with Pakistan, in less than 18 months he would fly over Pakistan to save his own life.

from:  Tipu Qaimkhani
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 14:25 IST

Pakistan is the nucleus of Afghan problem. Afghan problem will remain as
long as powerful section of Pakistani army hangs on to its
fundamentalistic streak!

from:  Harish
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 12:23 IST

As far as I remember for 100% sure when 9/11 happened I saw in news displaying Osama bin laden letters in which Osama says "I am not responsible for these attack and U.S is pointing finger at me". The letter was having Osama signature. But I never saw people or media talking about this. Rather I saw tapes in media where he is telling that I am proud of what I did. This is contradictory to what he said in his first letter.

What U.S do is to confuse people to such an extent that, we will never be able to find what the real truth is .e.g. Osama was killed and his body was thrown in Ocean.

from:  Irshad Mehmood
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 11:46 IST

Again a master-piece article from our former ambassador. Only Pakistan
and Taliban get advantage of this US blunder. God help this world from
deeds of future Pakistan-Taliban nexus.

from:  Vineeth V
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 10:36 IST

The US had come to Afghanistan with a bang to start the war against terror and is now leaving it with a whimper without completing its much touted mission. The US's talks with the Taliban will prove to be counterproductive. This is its self-serving move .After its departure ,the Taliban will leave no stone unturned to upstage President Karzai. As the writer stated, in this situation India will have to work out its own strategy to protect its all interests in Afghanistan and to remain at the centre of the international diplomacy on this country in order to stop Pakistan from calling the shots there.The US failed to rein in Pakistan because of the former's ambiguous Pak-Af policy.

from:  Tarsem Singh
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 09:58 IST

In the aftermath of 9/11, the US brought down the then ruling Taliban government which had allowed the country to become an export centre of terrorism. There was universal approval for the US action, but the scenario changed rapidly because many regional players funded and helped the revival of Taliban and other allied organisations. Hamid Karzai (supported by the US) was a Shia, and that engendered intense hostility. For this and other reasons regional powers fought a proxy war of attrition against US and Hamid Karzai. These opponents succeeded to some extent. Tragically none of these parties acted in the true interests of the people of Afghanistan. The US alone spent a trillion dollars (military and civilian) in that country during these years. So why is the Afghan economy in shambles, and the people devastated?

from:  Anvar Naveed
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 09:08 IST

The US is a "democracy" and is run by lobby groups. The moot question
is, "Which lobby group wants to return Afghanistan to the Dark Ages of
the Sharia? Why?" Is it the same lobby group that
deflected the Western Alliance to Iraq from Pakistan after attacking
Afghanistan, and deflects public anger to a defunct, mythical Al Qaeda
after every act of Saudi-Wahabi Terror? Is it the same lobby group
that gave Islam its first European State after the vicious bombing of
civilians in Belgrade? Or turned Iraq against Iran in a protracted and
meaningless war?

from:  S. Suchindranath Aiyer
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 03:36 IST

Risks and Gains are most for Pakistan in the Afghan equation. For the
US its just another war in a distant land they can always forget
about. Repercussions of a Taliban controlled Afghanistan are minimal
to nil for the US. Pakistan stands to gain or lose the most from it.
For India it is a question of solving the Kashmir issue diplomatically
with Pakistan. How will any terrorist group fuel anyone's anger and
resentment against India if not for the Kashmir issue? India has
enough systemic problems of its own to meddle in beyond the Hindukush.

from:  Sabil K
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 03:22 IST

Such a good article! It answers all about the US policies and their
policymakers.

from:  Mohit Bagadia
Posted on: Jun 24, 2013 at 02:04 IST
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