Coming to terms with resurgent Taliban

A U.S. Army vehicle fires on Taliban positions on a mountain side, outside a base held by the Army in the Pech River Valley of Afghanistan's Kunar province, on October 28, 2009.   | Photo Credit: David Guttenfelder

It seems that one way or the other, and at some time or the other, the Taliban will form part of the governing structures in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai has been talking about this for a long time. The British have been advocating it and now the Americans too are quite willing, and perhaps anxious, to open a dialogue with the Taliban; in fact, it would be safe to assume that they might be already talking to it directly or indirectly. Underlying this willingness to deal with the Taliban is an implicit acceptance of the fact that it cannot be defeated. Indeed, Gen. Stanley McCrystal has acknowledged that the insurgents are getting more sophisticated, that there is at least a loose coordination among the different groups of insurgents and that time is not necessarily on the side of the coalition forces.

The Taliban, for its part, knows that it can win by not losing and the coalition loses by not winning. Now, the Taliban has added a new weapon to its arsenal, diplomacy. In a statement on October 8, to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban has declared that it has had no intention of attacking any western country. “We had and have no plan of harming countries of the world, including those in Europe ... Our goal is the independence of the country and the building of an Islamic state. Still, if you [the U.S and NATO troops] want to colonise the country of proud and pious Afghans under the pretext of a war on terror, then you should know that our patience will only increase and that we are ready for a long war.”

This statement of the Taliban, the initiative for which probably came from its friends in Pakistan, was clearly meant to further harden public opinion in European countries against maintaining troops in Afghanistan and has undoubtedly been taken note of in western capitals, including Washington.

Barack Obama is faced with perhaps the most important and difficult decision of his presidency, as he ponders over Gen. McCrystal’s recommendation for sending 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The general has not made it easy for his commander-in-chief. ‘Send the additional troops or be prepared for defeat’ is essentially his message. The easy option for Mr. Obama is to accept the recommendation, since he could always justify it by going along with the military’s unanimous proposal. Mr. Obama has shown impressive courage by not giving in immediately to his general’s demand. Of course, he too has public opinion to contend with, not just generally in the country but more so in his own party. He has got more time to make up his mind, now that Afghanistan will go for a run-off for the presidential election.

The current offensive by the Pakistan armed forces in South Waziristan could have implications for the situation in Afghanistan. Given its overwhelming superiority, Pakistan’s army ought to prevail over the Taliban of Pakistan, though judging by media reports, this does not appear to be a walkover. It will not be easy to define ‘victory’ in South Waziristan, just as it is not clear what form ‘victory’ should take in Afghanistan, from the American perspective. If the majority of casualties turn out to be civilians instead of militants, the impact of the war in Waziristan could be counter-productive. A significant number of militants could spread out in the rest of Pakistan and/or cross over into Afghanistan. It would be interesting to watch the attitude of the Afghan Taliban: will it go to the help of its brothers in Pakistan or simply stay on the sidelines? As of today, it is sitting on the fence. If it goes over into Afghanistan, it would pose an additional threat to the American forces there.

As is widely acknowledged, the Americans do not have any problem with the Taliban; their fight is against the al-Qaeda. If the Taliban were to convey that it would not permit the al-Qaeda to operate from Afghan territory against America or any western country, as per its October 8 statement, it might provide enough of a fig leaf for President Obama to clothe his decision to make a deal. The overwhelming priority for the U.S., which India shares, is to save Pakistan from imploding further, in effect, to save Pakistan from itself. Depending on the course the operation in South Waziristan takes, a scenario in which the Pakistan military might feel compelled to take over the reins of the government or even be requested by the people to formally assume power cannot be ruled out. That might oblige the Americans to discontinue the $7.5 billion aid package to Pakistan, but survival will trump everything else. Afghanistan’s evolving situation has immense consequences for Pakistan. As a result, Mr. Obama would be inclined to find some political solution to the Afghan situation in a comparatively short time. Pakistan’s army can be counted upon to do everything within its power to facilitate such modus vivendi between the Taliban and the Americans.

What should India do? A Taliban or Taliban-associated governing structure in Kabul is clearly not in our interest. We should not expect the U.S. to worry about India’s concerns; it will and must do what it believes to be in its interests. To the extent that India’s interests coincide with theirs, the Americans would be happy to suggest to us that they are mindful of our concerns, but we should not expect anything more than that. This writer suggested in an article published in this newspaper (April 18, 2009) there is nothing India can do to influence the course of events in Afghanistan. We are not much of a player there. True, our development assistance of over $1 billion has been effectively used to generate goodwill for India among the Afghans, thanks largely to the good work done by our ambassador in Kabul. But, going by the top American commander in Afghanistan, it is this very economic assistance which is creating a backlash against us in Pakistan. What is more — and highly objectionable —, Gen. McChrystal has, in advance, shown at least an implicit understanding in case Pakistan takes countermeasures against India either in India or in Afghanistan.

However, it would at best be naive to build relationship with another country on the basis of goodwill or gratitude. Mutuality of interests can be the only basis for a meaningful relationship. And, clearly, there will be no such mutuality between India and a Taliban-influenced government.

It seems that Iran has hedged its bets. It too does not cherish the idea of the Taliban’s return to Kabul but apparently it has, at the same time, kept contact with and even funded sections of the Taliban. Iran has certain advantages which India does not have. It is an Islamic country and its Shia state has willing supporters among the Shias in Afghanistan’s western region. We do not have practicable options. We should, in any case, not pledge any more aid to Afghanistan until the situation there becomes clear and stabilised, even if that takes a few years.

In an article published in this newspaper on April 25, this writer suggested a two-stage conference to replace Afghanistan in its traditional neutral status. The first stage would consist of a conference of Afghanistan and its neighbours which would undertake a mutually binding pledge of non-interference and non-intervention in one another’s internal affairs. This idea has considerable support among observers. Henry Kissinger has independently floated an idea whereby the U.S. would set up a task force consisting of neighbours as well some important countries. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Gordon Brown have asked the U.N. Secretary-General to convene an international conference on Afghanistan. Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani Ambassador in Washington, in an article in Hindustan Times on October 19 has, inter alia, called for a regional compact.

While it would not be politic for India to issue a call for such a conference — the idea would immediately be rejected by Pakistan since it comes from India — India should take some soundings on the subject. If we still have a special envoy for Afghanistan, he should be asked to visit a few capitals — Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Berlin, Paris and some of the neighbours — to ascertain their views on the idea of a regional conference. Eventually, the initiative must come from the U.N. Secretary-General.

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