The onus is on the generals in Rawalpindi to effect the hardcore Taliban leadership's reconciliation and, as a quid pro quo, Washington recognises Pakistan's “legitimate interests” in Afghanistan.
A battle-hardened Soviet journalist told me in a convivial conversation in Moscow circa 1989 that he wished to metamorphose into a fly and perch on Unter den Linden, Berlin's grandest boulevard — as in a Franz Kafka novel. Mikhail Gorbachev had just arrived in East Berlin on October 7 as the guest of honour at the gala parade to celebrate 40 years of communist rule in East Germany. By then, he had become communism's leading agnostic. My good friend's journalistic instinct was to eavesdrop on Mr. Gorbachev's improbable conversation with his East German counterpart, Erich Honecker. Mr. Gorbachev's hard-hitting message, overshadowing East Germany's birthday celebrations, was “life punishes those who come too late.” Indeed, Mr. Honecker was forced to step down 11 days later, the Berlin Wall was breached on November 9 and, within a year, the German Democratic Republic was no more.
Diplomatic engagements can be deceptive. The politics of reconciliation with the Taliban has all along been deceptive — and remains so. Indian journalists interpreted that the visiting U.S. Special Representative, Richard Holbrooke, ruled out the participation by the dreaded “Haqqani network” in the Taliban leadership in any Kabul set-up. Yet, he merely said he could not countenance circumstances under which the Haqqanis will become amenable to reconciliation — that is, it is up to the U.S.' sub-contractors in Rawalpindi, the Pakistani military leadership, to show otherwise.
Yet, a day later, the U.S. administration added another son of Jalaluddin Haqqani to its blacklist of Afghan fugitives. On the contrary, only three days earlier, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked, while on a visit to Islamabad, about the Haqqanis, she refused to be drawn into the minefield. Indeed, on an earlier visit to Islamabad, Mr. Holbrooke's own reaction to a query whether there could be any reconciliation between Haqqani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai was: “Who knows?” At the Kabul conference on Afghanistan last week, Ms Clinton repeated the mantra: “We are also closely following the efforts to reintegrate insurgents who are ready for peace. There have been positive steps since last month's consultative peace jirga [in Kabul]. President Karzai's decree establishing the Afghan peace and reintegration programme has created a useful framework, but progress will depend on whether insurgents wish to be reintegrated and reconciled by renouncing violence and the al-Qaeda, and agreeing to abide by the constitution and the laws of Afghanistan.”
Clearly, the onus is on the generals in Rawalpindi to effect the hardcore Taliban leadership's reconciliation and as a quid pro quo, Washington recognises Pakistan's “legitimate interests” in Afghanistan and regards its military as “essential” to bring stability to the Afghan region — and accordingly, renders substantial aid to that country. Which is why, as Mr. Holbrooke underlined with a touch of unintended irony in New Delhi, “Improved U.S-Pakistan relations are not bad for India.” Another aspect of the U.S. doublespeak is that Washington is helpless about what transpires between Mr. Karzai and the Pakistani military leadership regarding the Taliban's reconciliation. This incredible alibi enables Washington to distance itself publicly from the Pakistani military's ongoing efforts to mediate a reconciliation agreement with both the Haqqani and the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar groups, which are on the U.S. “wanted” lists. Are we to believe that when the ISI diligently goes about identifying who among the Taliban leadership are “reconcilable” enough to be brought into the loop, the Americans and the British — their spy engines et al — are simply standing back and watching? This charade is wearing thin.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen (who came alongside Mr. Holbrooke to Delhi last week), would like India to focus on its military-to-military cooperation with America and, of course, to work hard with the U.S. to counter China's “assertive … territorial claims [and] aggressive approach to the near-sea areas recently.” His demarche buttresses Mr. Holbrooke's advice that India should not needlessly worry about the future of Afghanistan, where New Delhi too would have a role to play. Interestingly, Mr. Mullen suggested that India's priority should be to work with the U.S. to contain alleged Chinese expansionism, which he claimed was a shared concern. Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Mullen's demarche makes sense. India, after all, belongs to the Pentagon's Pacific Command, whereas Pakistan falls under the Central Command.
The U.S. isn't quite the helpless onlooker at the ISI's subsoil manoeuvrings to reconcile the Taliban. Mr. Holbrooke travelled to New York on July 6 specifically with the mission of negotiating the removal of select Taliban members from the U.N. anti-terror blacklist. In effect, he acted as a facilitator for the Pakistani military, which insists that dropping the Taliban from a list of individuals targeted with travel and financial sanctions is a first step to convince it to end its insurgency and strike a peace deal with Mr. Karzai. Of course, Mr. Holbrooke's mission was frustrated, thanks to stalling by Russia, which maintains that there is insufficient evidence to remove the Taliban from the U.N. list. In effect, the Russian Foreign Ministry snubbed Mr. Holbrooke's mission. In a forceful lengthy statement, Moscow said: “According to our estimates the military-political situation in Afghanistan so far unfortunately does not offer an objective basis for a positive review… In this regard, we have serious misgivings about the attempts of the Afghan leadership, with the backing of representatives from a number of western states, to foster talks with Taliban leaders and build a mechanism of ‘national reconciliation' on this basis.”
It added: “We continue to insist that the possible pinpointed and careful work on the return to civilian life of repentant Taliban members should under no circumstances be substituted by a campaign to rehabilitate the Taliban as a whole and by the revival of a spirit of tolerance towards the terrorist ideology preached by the Taliban, which opens the possibility of its leaders' return to power and the restoration of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even more, we are against the use for these political purposes of the procedures of the sanctions regime approved by UNSCR 1267 (1999).” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated Moscow's stance in his statement at the Kabul conference.
Like an avalanche, U.S. officials, past and present, are descending on New Delhi. Washington's angst is palpable. It is apprehensive that India might join hands with Russia and Iran — and China — in putting roadblocks on the path in which the U.S-British-Pakistani caravan is travelling. Where is the caravan headed for? It is heading toward an El Dorado where bloodshed ceases in Afghanistan so that the western troops can stay in that country in peace and tranquillity ad infinitum. Mr. Karzai speaks of the end of foreign military presence in Afghanistan in 2014, whereas the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation think differently. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote some time ago: “Our mission will end when — but only when — the Afghans are able to maintain security on their own … Afghanistan will need the continued support of the international community, including NATO. It is important we send a clear message of long-term commitment … To underline this commitment, I believe that NATO should develop a long-term cooperation agreement with the Afghan government.”
India needs to have foresight and clarity of mind. At stake are not only Afghanistan's neutrality but the region's long-term security environment. Mr. Lavrov has made it clear that Russia opposes the open-ended western military presence in Afghanistan. The U.S. is constructing a sprawling $100- million military base near Mazar-i-Sharif, which needs to be operational the latest by early 2012. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to build new military facilities in Afghanistan so that the GI can maintain his familiar lifestyle as in Okinawa, Subic Bay or Yongsan. The new base in Mazar-i-Sharif is a key link in the “string of pearls” along the soft underbelly of Russia and China that the U.S. is tenaciously kneading in the Central Asian region — military facilities and “lily-pads” alike. The U.S. diplomacy is astutely tapping into the visceral fears of the Central Asian countries over a militant Islamist upsurge in the region in the aftermath of the Taliban reconciliation, which will be interpreted by jihadis all over — North Caucasus, Ferghana, Xinjiang or Kashmir — as the defeat of a superpower in the Hindu Kush.
Meanwhile, the recent Afghan-Pakistan transit agreement, brokered by Washington, brings dramatically close to realisation the U.S.' Great Central Asia strategy. Russia has invited Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan for a summit in Sochi in August. Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Mullen have come at a most crucial juncture in regional politics — to mollify India over the Pakistani role in the geopolitics and persuade it to integrate into the U.S. regional strategies. The last thing Washington wants is a resuscitation of anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. A fly buzzing around Vijay Chowk could easily tell that the politics of Taliban reconciliation is getting to be very serious.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)