M.K. Bhadrakumar

To what extent the U.S. and the U.K. are acting in concert with Pakistan to sabotage Hamid Karzai's initiative is difficult to judge but all three protagonists seem to be on the same side.

With just a fortnight left for the “jirga” or tribal council to be held in Kabul, the prospects do not look good. Pakistan is determined to torpedo the Afghanistan government's plan to work out a societal consensus for ending the war through the traditional means of a consultative assembly. The convening of the jirga, for May 2-4, was a pledge made by President Hamid Karzai in his inaugural address last November. The idea has been viewed favourably by the bulk of the Afghan society. On the other hand, western powers, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, acquiesced in manifest reluctance.

To what extent the U.S. and the U.K. are acting in concert with Pakistan to sabotage Mr. Karzai's initiative is difficult to judge but all three protagonists seem to be on the same side of the fence. Their concerns appear to converge on a single point — a successful jirga would take the wind out of their sails and put the Afghans in the driving seat and, in the process, Mr. Karzai might succeed in unifying the national opinion behind him.

For sure, the jirga can prove a turning point. Mr. Karzai proposes to invite 1200-1400 representatives from various walks of life — tribal elders from every district, members of Parliament, women, civil society, etc. Masoom Stanekzai, national security adviser and confidant of Mr. Karzai, entrusted with the planning of the jirga, said in a recent interview that the event would give shape to a peace process that is acceptable to the entire country, including all political and ethnic groups. “We don't want a peace that undermines the rights of some. The jirga is about rallying broad support behind the whole policy.”

Second, he said, the jirga would be asked to endorse a government plan for the reintegration of insurgents in line with the decision taken at the London Conference of January 28. Third, it would set the ground rules for holding talks with the insurgents.

Mr. Stanekzai said the government hoped to get endorsement for its three basic principles for holding talks with the Taliban — that the Taliban would sever all links with the al-Qaeda and other extremist groups; abide by the Afghan Constitution; and recognise that in a plural society, all groups have equal rights. As he put it: “We don't want to go back to the era of the Taliban.”

Fourth, the jirga would discuss “what people expect from the government, the international community, and NATO forces,” to quote Mr. Stanekzai. Herein probably lies the bitter pill for the western countries — the jirga may well choose to discuss a timeline for the vacation of foreign occupation of Afghanistan.

It is not difficult to see why Pakistan is opposed to Mr. Karzai's peace plan. Its strategy aims at a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan incrementally, whereas Mr. Karzai's plan intends to precisely prevent such a calamity. His plan will inexorably expose that the militia, despite robust ISI backing, remains unacceptable politically to the majority of the Afghans. What unnerves the Pakistani military leadership is that Mr. Karzai, who hails from a powerful Pashtun tribe, intends forging a peace process which will underscore Afghanistan's plural society.

Mr. Karzai's plan refuses to envisage any centrality for the Inter-Services Intelligence in the peace process. Actually, most Afghans resent the ISI's diabolical role in their country and Mr. Karzai himself does not really need its help to get in touch with the Taliban. The Afghans have always had their own native networking. Even at the height of the conflict in the end-1990s, Northern Alliance leaders kept up their contacts with the Taliban. Mr. Karzai is equally well placed to contact the Taliban as many elements within his coalition maintain communication channels with the insurgents.

The ISI, on the other hand, insists on its being the sole channel for contacting the Taliban so that Pakistan can dictate the terms of any political settlement. This strategy will go awry if Mr. Karzai's jirga succeeds and leads to a genuine pan-Afghan peace process of national reconciliation in line with the Afghan traditions of conflict resolution, and results in the formation of a broad-based government under his leadership. Thus, a systematic disinformation campaign has been let loose to tarnish the image of Mr. Karzai for “appeasing” the Taliban. Many gullible foreigners promptly lapped up the ISI's dissimulation.

The recent arrest of the number 2 in the Taliban hierarchy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has virtually snapped an important communication channel between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership. The Washington Post reported: “Senior Afghan officials in the military and presidential palace accuse Pakistan of orchestrating the arrest of Baradar and others to take down Taliban leaders most amenable to negotiations. Some of them say that Afghans had been in secret contact with Baradar before his arrest and that he was prepared to join the 1400 people descending on Kabul next month for a peace conference [jirga].”

What works to Pakistan's advantage is that there is no unanimity of opinion among the western powers on Mr. Karzai's peace plan, either. Senior U.S. officials continue to maintain that the Taliban needs to be degraded militarily before reconciliation can commence, while some others — especially the U.S. military commanders assigned to Afghanistan — are reportedly more open to Mr. Karzai's thought process that the search for reconciliation need not wait. Whether this schism within the American camp is for real or a smoke-screen remains unclear. But the fact is, added with the strong antipathy to Mr. Karzai — often bordering on a visceral dislike at a personal level — among some key U.S. officials piloting the AfPak diplomacy, Pakistan has secured elbow room to manipulate the peace process.

Above all, Pakistan calculates that time is in its favour as the clock begins to tick for the U.S. presidential election in 2012, and Barack Obama finds himself hard-pressed to show “results” in the Afghan war. The Pakistani estimation is that if Mr. Karzai's jirga fails to gain credibility, Islamabad will have derived political mileage by demonstrating that there can be no viable Afghan peace process that does not recognise the ISI's pivotal role. Islamabad can play these games endlessly and hope to extract maximum concessions from Washington. Typical of the ISI's shenanigans is the reported development that, after getting senior U.S. officials like AfPak special representative Richard Holbrooke to commend Pakistan for arresting some Taliban leaders recently, the ISI has quietly been setting them free.

Sadly enough, the forthcoming jirga is a replay of two defining moments in the Afghan civil war that have faded into oblivion. The first instance was in the period immediately preceding the Soviet withdrawal. Diego Cordovez and Selig Harrison describe vividly in their masterly work Out of Afghanistan how Moscow tried desperately to bring about a reconciliation between the communist government in Kabul led by Najibullah and the Afghan Mujahideen. Eduard Shevardnadze, then Soviet Foreign Minister, visited Islamabad in February 1989 to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistani military and ISI leadership in a last-ditch mission to persuade Islamabad to accept a temporary sharing of power between Najibullah and the Mujahideen as a means of avoiding a bloody civil war.

The second occasion was the Loya Jirga convened by Najibullah in May 1990, soon after the Soviet withdrawal that formally ended the communist party's monopoly over executive power. To quote Najibullah: “The present Loya Jirga held at a crucial moment will go down in the history of our beloved homeland. Let this Loya Jirga be identified with the notions of National Reconciliation, national unity and peace and tranquillity in Afghanistan.”

Yet, the ISI refused to oblige any Afghan-led national reconciliation. A political compromise was not in its plans as that would have been inconsistent with the Pakistani military's objective of gaining “strategic depth.” History is set to repeat itself next month even as Pakistan actively sabotages Mr. Karzai's jirga.

What is not so obvious, however, are Washington's motives in not only not giving Mr. Karzai a fair chance to hold a successful jirga but also systematically undercutting him. In 1989-90, Washington had the burning desire to avenge the humiliation in Vietnam, no matter how many Afghan lives perished. Therefore, the CIA urged the ISI to stand firm against the Soviets as the U.S. wanted to celebrate a total communist debacle in Kabul. But there is no ideology involved in today's war and there is no conceivable reason why the U.S. should allow itself to view the forthcoming jirga through the prism of the Pakistani military leadership — even if one were to make allowance for elements within Mr. Obama's AfPak team which may be the vestiges of the Afghan jihad of the 1980s and cannot easily break with the past mindset.