The Taliban wins not simply by not losing but also because President Karzai seems to have made up his mind to strike a deal with it through the process of reconciliation.
It is abundantly clear, as of now, that there will be two winners and two losers in the Afghan war. The Taliban, and hence Pakistan, will emerge the gainer; The U.S., and hence India, will come out on the losing side. The Taliban wins not simply by not losing but also because President Karzai seems to have made up his mind to strike a deal with it through the process of reconciliation. Pakistan benefits by the Taliban remaining undefeated on the battlefield as well as through the Karzai-Taliban political deal, for which the Afghan President needs its good offices. This is true despite the fact that there is not much love lost between Pakistan and the Taliban. David Ibsy, an American strategic analyst, in his new book, Afghanistan: graveyard of empires, makes a pertinent observation. He says Pakistan wanted to create a ‘strategic depth' for itself in Afghanistan, but has ended up conceding a ‘strategic depth' to the Taliban, as well Al Qaeda, in Pakistan.
The Americans are losing by not winning. They are groping for a policy on Afghanistan that would enable Mr. Obama to keep to his pledge to begin withdrawing his troops by July next year with at least a semblance of success for the strategy which his commander on the spot Gen. McChrystal dragged him into. Nobody, not even the military, claims that the Marja operation a few months ago has been anywhere near success. Marja was supposed to be a forerunner to a bigger operation in Kandahar, a kind of appetiser before the main course. By now, Gen. McChrystal has admitted that the Kandahar operation would be delayed by several months. Democrats and Republicans alike are getting impatient with the steady and mounting American casualties and drain on the treasury. The review that Mr.Obama has scheduled for the end of the year might have to be brought forward; in any case, it will be the third such review. The military will predictably put the necessary gloss on its assessment. The American public will hope that the review does not result in another military surge. They must be dreading these reviews!
Mr. Karzai wants to survive, physically as well as politically; why should he not want what politicians want everywhere? He has apparently concluded that the U.S. and its reluctant coalition partners cannot win and might not stay engaged for long, certainly not in the present strength and not much beyond July 2011. From his perspective, it would make good political sense to come to an understanding with the Taliban, whose cadres are after all fellow Afghans and with whom he did work at one time. If, for this, he has to seek Pakistan's help, so be it. After all, he did refer to Pakistan as Afghanistan's conjoined twin brother! Thus, reconciliation trumps reintegration, the preferred option of the Americans. The peace Jirga has empowered him to move ahead with his strategy; he at least has one and a clear one at that. The only concession to the Americans Mr. Karzai made at the Jirga was to include a demand in the declaration that the Taliban cut ties with Al Qaeda.
The Taliban issued a statement about a year ago that it had no quarrel with the West. It might make a few more gestures of a cosmetic kind to make it easier for Mr. Karzai to come to an agreement with it on power sharing and would also help the U.S. and its coalition partners accept the deal, however reluctantly. No one should have any illusion, however, of the Taliban giving up its core ideology of Islamic fundamentalism. What about the Afghan people? From many accounts, they have no liking whatsoever for the ideology or methods of the Taliban. Its indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, resulting in the deaths of mostly Muslims, have made it quite unpopular. The Taliban, unlike the Hamas or Hezbollah, does not engage in socially beneficial activities such as running clinics and schools. But the Afghan people are so disillusioned with the lack of governance and corruption of the present regime that they might just be willing to give the Taliban one more chance, especially if it was to be only a part of the governing coalition and not the sole party in the government. Hence, Mr. Karzai too will gain at the end.
(Incidentally, corruption is not only on the Afghan side; the scam involving American private security firms making tens of millions of dollars has compelled the U.S. government to set up a special task force to inquire into it.)
Where does that leave India? Not in a very comfortable position. Perhaps India will be worse off than the U.S., since the Americans are thousands of miles away and in any case they have no problem with the Taliban; their only concern is to degrade and defeat Al Qaeda. By repeatedly and publicly urging the U.S. and the coalition not to abandon Afghanistan and to remain engaged, we have not given ourselves much cushion to follow other options. True, our development effort has earned kudos from all quarters except from Gen. McChrystal, who went out of his way to implicitly sympathise with, if not condone, Pakistan's attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan. Quoting Afghan and international intelligence officers and diplomats, a report in The New York Times of 16 June is unequivocal in asserting that the LeT continues to track Indian development workers and others for possible attacks. Describing the LeT as a creation of Pakistan's military and intelligence services as a proxy force to confront India decades ago, the report says the LeT is an instrument for Pakistan to counteract ‘India's influence in the country'. Here is something Pakistan can do to reduce the trust deficit.
Proactive action needed
Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, in an address to a think tank in Delhi on 13 June, mentioned two extremely important principles while talking about the future course of action. She said neighbours and regional countries must be consulted and included in the picture and that Afghanistan's neighbours must not interfere in its internal affairs. This is significant and needs to be followed up proactively. This writer and other more knowledgeable experts have called for returning Afghanistan to its traditional posture of neutrality which would include pledges of non-interference by all its neighbours through a declaration to be adopted at an international conference after due consultation and preparation. The final package would include regularisation of the status of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Karzai might not show too much enthusiasm for this approach because he might interpret it as a reflection on himself and also because at present he might rate his chances of remaining in power much better through the process of reconciliation. Nonetheless, there is enough congruence of interests between the U.S. and India, the two on the losing side, to propel them to explore the possibility of moving in this direction. One might expect the Russians, as well as other neighbours of Afghanistan, to be supportive of the idea of a compact of non-interference. Pakistan and the Taliban, on the other hand, would show the least enthusiasm for it. Those who believe that they are winning remain convinced they would continue to win and that their gain would be permanent; hence they disdain all talk of concessions and compromises.
There should be enough incentive for India to follow up on what the Foreign Secretary said on June 13. The Americans might not be in a mood to favour any initiative which would involve talking to Iran, and Iran will have to be part of any exercise touching on the future of Afghanistan; but the U.S. would, at least ought to, see merit in this proposal and be persuaded to take a slightly longer view. We should start the process with Russia, China, France, Central Asian states, and obviously Afghanistan. The safest thing, diplomatically, would be to ask the U.N. Secretary-General to consider appointing a special envoy for the purpose in carrying out consultations. It is precisely when the picture looks dark that some proactive action needs to be taken.