Growing complexity of Afghan riddle

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's latest decision to form a high council to negotiate with the Taliban reflects his entire approach to a political settlement. File photo

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's latest decision to form a high council to negotiate with the Taliban reflects his entire approach to a political settlement. File photo

The recent visits to New Delhi by Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul and National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta are of great significance from three perspectives. Primarily, these high-level exchanges can be viewed against the backdrop of the situation in Afghanistan. Second, emanating out of the above, the Afghan-Indian consultations at this juncture are most timely and useful. And, third, of course, sections of the Indian strategic community harboured a misperception regarding Hamid Karzai that he was in an unseemly hurry to patch up with the Taliban since the United States is raring to cut loose and get out of the Hindu Kush. The Afghan officials could explain what is really going on.

To say that the situation is fragile and uncertain may sound clichéd but that is unfortunately the only possible way to begin a narrative on the politico-military situation in Afghanistan. The myriad hopes held out at the conference in January in London, the Loya Jirga held in June in Kabul and the Foreign Ministers' conference in Kabul in July are withering away. These conclaves helped evolve a consensus international opinion that a process of “reintegration” of the reconcilable Taliban fighters must commence alongside the U.S-led military operations, which would pave the way for a political settlement. Besides, the international community agreed on the “Afghanisation” of the war. Furthermore, there was wide acceptance that it was the Afghan government led by Mr. Karzai that was best placed to pilot the national reconciliation processes and it should, therefore, be strengthened.

The Loya Jirga in Kabul proclaimed that a reconciliation with the Taliban was also the collective wish of the Afghan people. At the conferences in London and Kabul, the international community pledged the financial resources needed for the Afghan government to advance the “reintegration” process. In retrospect, the U.S. principally drew up the road map and largely got a sceptical international community to endorse it. Coinciding with the London conference, the United Nations Security Council removed from its terrorism “watchlist,” for the first time, a handful of former Taliban officials, underscoring that the U.S.' AfPak officials were indeed the patron saints of the idea of the “reintegration” of the Taliban.

What since followed, therefore, is absolutely stunning and exposes the U.S. doublespeak. In the interregnum between the London conference and the Loya Jirga, the U.S. and Pakistan virtually sabotaged Mr. Karzai's “reintegration” plan when in a joint operation by the ISI and the CIA in Karachi, the number 2 in the Taliban's Quetta Shura, Mullah Baradar, was detained. The bizarre operation was undertaken despite the CIA and the ISI being aware that in Mr. Baradar (who is credited with moderate views), Mr. Karzai had a key interlocutor and the two were at an advanced stage of negotiations regarding the Taliban's participation in the upcoming Loya Jirga in April, which, of course, would have become a defining moment of the war. The ISI's detention of Mr. Baradar can only be seen as a move to ensure that Mr. Karzai did not have any top-level interlocutor among the Taliban leadership and to drive home the message that any dealings between the Taliban and Kabul should be conducted through the “proper channels,” namely, Rawalpindi and Washington.

Effectively, Mr. Karzai has been left with the virtually impossible choice of negotiating with the Taliban through the Pakistani military leadership and under American watch. The Pakistani army chief, Pervez Kayani, swiftly got into the act and began plunging into a direct role by visiting Kabul twice and opening negotiations with Mr. Karzai. He lost no time proposing that a serious reconciliation process should involve the Haqqani group within the Taliban leadership, which the ISI regards as the one sure bet within the Quetta Shura insofar as its virulent hostility toward Indians precludes any scope of the Indian intelligence ever flirting with it. In short, Gen. Kayani's calculation was that India's influence in Kabul would be exorcised once and for all if only the Haqqanis (who are implicated in the ISI operations against the Indian embassy in Kabul) are inducted into the power structure.

The bottom line in the ISI strategy is that a settlement may lead to seemingly broad-based power structures coming up in Afghanistan but this will be a transitional stage and given that the Taliban is the best-organised group in Afghanistan and has the institutional backing of the Pakistani military, it is a matter of time before other elements in the power structures, including Mr. Karzai or the erstwhile Northern Alliance (NA) leaders, could be marginalised, overthrown or even physically eliminated. It believes the western powers, wearied of wars, would willy-nilly accept the fait accompli .

However, Mr. Karzai could anticipate the ISI game plan. At any rate, he began shoring up his own position during the past two years or so by weaving a complex political tapestry of alliances involving the Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns. His half-brother Wali Karzai who is ensconced in power in Kandahar has been actively networking with the Pashtuns (including Taliban leaders like Mr. Baradar).

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. has been sniping at Wali Karzai almost relentlessly for the last two years, judging that without him, the Afghan President will be a greatly weakened man. The hard reality is that the U.S. does not want a strong Afghan leader in Kabul with an independent power base. It seems to resent the “Afghan-ness” in Mr. Karzai's political personality — his sense of dignity and independence and his growing proclivity towards viewing the U.S.-led counterinsurgency operations through the prism of Afghan national interests. The U.S.' AfPak viceroys did all they could to replace him in the last presidential election in October but Mr. Karzai had the last laugh. He tenaciously outwitted the U.S.' famously-manipulative AfPak viceroys by forging an Afghan network of his own with NA stalwarts Mohammed Fahim, Karim Khalili and Rashid Dostum.

Clearly, the U.S. was on overdrive to tear apart Mr. Karzai's alliance with the NA groups what with the parliamentary elections due on September 18. The main sticking point at the moment is that a newly-elected parliament (unlike the previous one which was susceptible to the influence of the American embassy in Kabul) that works in harmony with the President will crystallise a national consensus regarding the conduct of the war and the imperatives of national reconciliation. Thus began the whispering campaign that Mr. Karzai was trying to “appease” the Taliban. It aimed at exploiting the visceral fears of the NA groups regarding a possible Taliban takeover in Kabul. A misperception grew even in India that Mr. Karzai was “appeasing” the Taliban and “cozying up” to Pakistan.

Whereas Mr.Karzai's approach has, in reality, been to work for a genuine reconciliation with the insurgents with a sense of fairness that accommodates the Taliban but within Afghanistan's democratic life and on the basis that the “reintegrated” Taliban will cohabitate with all elements of the plural Afghan society. His latest decision to form a high council to negotiate with the Taliban reflects his entire approach to a political settlement.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has also mounted a political campaign regarding “corruption,” which is in actuality a proxy war against Mr. Karzai. One agenda behind the U.S.' “anti-corruption” campaign is to seek the removal of Wali Karzai, since no Afghan President can be lethally wounded as long as he controls Kandahar (which is also symbolic as the birthplace of the Taliban). The supreme irony is that it is the U.S. which spawned corruption and war profiteering in Afghanistan on an unprecedented scale. The Pentagon engaged war contractors and the Afghan private militia — a matter of Congressional investigation at the moment — and the CIA has been extensively bribing Afghan officials, politicians and civil society. According to the U.N.'s estimation, only around 20 per cent of foreign aid is actually routed through the Kabul government.

The U.S. strategy will be to keep up the pressure on Mr. Karzai in the coming period even as the mother of all questions concerning the U.S. military presence is yet to be addressed. The Afghans will oppose a permanent U.S. military presence, while the Pentagon is bent on getting a status of forces agreement with the powers that be in Kabul so as to retain long-term access, which is needed to effectively pursue the containment strategy toward China. The Pentagon is beefing up the massive military bases in Bagram and Kandahar and has notified to Congress its plans to build new military bases in Mazar-i-Sharif, Shindand and Camp Dwyer, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan is once again lingering in the shade, lost in thoughts, pending the clarity that is lacking regarding the nature of the peace settlement that can follow. No doubt, Mr. Karzai is reaching out to the neighbouring capitals — Tehran, Moscow, New Delhi — for sustenance. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to accentuate the contradictions in the geopolitics of the region — Kashmir, Pakistan, India, China, etc. — so that a regional consensus doesn't emerge regarding the “neutralisation” of Afghanistan.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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Printable version | May 13, 2022 4:47:32 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead//article61768306.ece