Peace in Afghanistan: The Foreigners’ Dilemma

Dr. Richard Weitz (Credit: The Hudson Institute)

By Dr. Richard Weitz

01/16/2011 – Limited international backing contributed to the failure of the past Afghan-led reintegration and reconciliation initiatives. Until recently, these processes encountered strong opposition in many Western countries. Meanwhile, reconciliation confronted the issue of previous Taliban misrule and the organization’s ties to the al-Qaeda perpetrators of 9/11.

Since 2010, Karzai’s foreign backers have become more supportive of Afghan-led efforts to reintegrate deserting guerrillas and, more reluctantly and with constraints, reconcile with defecting Taliban leaders. By then, it had become obvious that the Afghan government and the international forces fighting on its behalf lacked the resources and stamina to win a decisive military victory that would see the defeat or surrender of all Taliban commanders and fighters.

One of the main objectives of the January 2010 London conference on Afghanistan was to secure financial and other concrete international support from for Afghan-led reintegration initiatives. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, foreign governments pledged more than one hundred million dollars to a new Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund designed to finance the demobilization and de-radicalization of lower- and mid-level fighters and their reincorporation into civilian communities.

Peace talks in the midst of withdrawal with an uncertain future for the Afghan government is an explosive mix. (Credit image: Bigstock)
Peace talks in the midst of withdrawal with an uncertain future for the Afghan government is an explosive mix. (Credit image: Bigstock)

Nonetheless, the Afghan government and its international partners have been struggling over Karzai’s concern about excessive foreign interference in the peace process. He and other Afghans fear the NATO countries will negotiate a separate peace with Pakistan and the Taliban. The international community has repeatedly stated that any peace effort should be an “Afghan-led process of reconciliation and reintegration.” But they do not really want Karzai to have a veto on such an important issue, especially when he has incentives to keep NATO forces in his country indefinitely while Western leaders are eager to reduce their commitments as soon as possible.

After almost a decade of fighting, Western leaders are eager to reduce their military, financial, and other costly support for the Kabul government. Relations between Obama and Karzai remain strained despite the fact that the new U.S. civilian-military team, headed by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Marine Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of Western troops in Afghanistan, has adopted a more conciliatory tone toward the Afghan leader in public.

These strains were evident when Karzai’s government recalled its ambassador to Doha, Khaled Ahmad Zakaria, after learning that diplomats from Qatar, the United States and Germany had conducted clandestine discussions with the Taliban to open an office in Qatar’s capital of Doha. Afghan government representatives complained that they had not been fully informed of these talks and that Qatar should not have offered to establish a Taliban liaison office without first securing the Afghan government’s approval for such an initiative.

Afghan officials also resisted proposals that the United States transfer a small number of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay military prison to Doha as a prelude to any talks. They want any Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo to be transferred to Afghan government custody first before any possible release.  The basic problem was that Karzai wants to control all “channels” of communication with the Taliban himself.

According to recent media reports, Taliban representatives have been holding secret meetings with German and American officials in Europe and Qatar for a year to engage in “talks about talks.” The discussions reportedly began in earnest when the administration relaxed its previous prerequisites for any dialogue at the beginning of last year. U.S. officials now accepted that the Taliban could end its ties with al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and accept Afghanistan’s constitution only at the end of the negotiations in any formal peace agreement rather than as a requirement to begin any talks.

These preliminary discussions aimed to determine how more formal negotiations might proceed. The Taliban participants in the secret talks reportedly included its former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Shahabuddin Dilawar, former deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Stanekzai, and Tayeb Agha, a top aide to Mullah Omar, the reclusive leader of the self-styled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

By November 2011, U.S. and Taliban representatives had agreed on some general agenda items for the provisions of a possible peace deal. These agenda items include the possible U.S. transfer of the high-level Afghan Taliban prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay. In return, the Taliban would issue a public renunciation of international terrorism, a statement expressing support for Afghanistan’s constitutional democracy, and agree to commence formal peace talks with the Afghan government.

The participants also agreed in principle to the Taliban’s establishing an office in Qatar for the exclusive purpose of negotiating peace and not for conducting propaganda, recruitment, of for establishing an alternative government. The intent was to announce the framework agreement at the December 5 Bonn conference. But then the Karzai administration, learning how far these talks had progress and the content of the agreement, objected forced a suspension of the planned announcement of the framework deal.

It was only in early January that a Taliban representative confirmed the movement’s willingness in principle to open a liaison office in Qatar to begin formal negotiations. “Right now, having a strong presence in Afghanistan, we still want to have a political office for negotiations,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in an email message to the news media. “In this regard, we have started preliminary talks and we have reached a preliminary understanding with relevant sides, including the government of Qatar, to have a political office for negotiations with the international community.”

The release of any high-ranking Taliban prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is likely to prove controversial within Afghanistan, the United States, and elsewhere. The figures under discussion reportedly include former Taliban interior minister Mullah Khair Khowa, former Taliban governors Noorullah Noori and Khairullah Khairkhwa, former Deputy Defense Minister Mohammed Fazl, former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund, former senior intelligence official Abdul Haq Wasiq, and Taliban leader Mohammed Nabi. Noori and Fazl are accused of having killed thousands of Afghan Shiites between 1998 and 2001.

Many in the United States would insist that the Taliban release their own American captive—25-year old sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, captured in June 2009—as part of any exchange, though the Obama administration will need to make clear that securing his release is not the main aim of any Taliban releases. Any exchange should be seen not as an unbalanced, Israeli-style prisoner swap, but as a U.S. gambit to release a few Taliban leaders from detention in order to save more U.S. and Afghan lives through a peace agreement. In this regard, the timing of any prisoner deal, opening of the Taliban office, and other elements of the package deal will need to be well-timed and synchronized.

U.S. officials have told the press that they hope to see the Qatar office open in a few weeks and negotiations commence by the time of the NATO summit in Chicago this May.  Several Taliban leaders have already begun moving to Qatar in anticipation of their soon leading the office.  The fact they are bringing their families with them suggests they believe the negotiating process could last a while.

Following U.S. pressure, Karzai relented and accepted the principle that the Taliban could establish an office in “any Islamic country,” thereby de facto consenting to the Doha office. Afghanistan’s High Peace Council then issued a note to foreign missions defining the ground rules for their involvement in the peace process: ”The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is in agreement regarding the opening of an office for the armed opposition, but only to move forward the peace process and conduct negotiations…The government would prefer such an office in either Saudi Arabia or Turkey, both of which it is close to, but was not averse to Doha as long as the authority of the Afghan state was not eroded and the office was only established for talks.”  The Taliban consider Qatar’s government more independent of the Karzai and his Western backers than Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Karzai offered a sardonic endorsement of the Taliban-U.S. talks in Qatar as helping to “eliminate the foreigner’s excuses for and actions to continue war and bloodshed in Afghanistan.”

The new challenge could be that the Afghan want any peace talks in Qatar to be between Afghans alone, whereas the Taliban want to talk with the United States and other foreign governments. The Taliban announcement specifically said that they are prepared to open a political office in Qatar to conduct peace negotiations “with the international community.” One source reports Mujahid being even more explicit in stating that the Taliban would establish the Qatar office to negotiate with the “United States of America and their foreign allies.”  Nuland tried to downplay any distinction between an Afghan-led peace process and a U.S. lead role in Qatar. “If this is part of an Afghan-led, Afghan-supported process, and the Afghan government itself believes it can play a constructive role . . . then we will play a role in that, as well.”

Such direct dialogue with Western governments would enhance their legitimacy and weaken Karzai’s perceived authority. In public, both Afghan and U.S. officials insist that the Afghan government must have the lead role in any formal talks (as opposed to the informal dialogues that have been occurring in Europe and Qatar until now. In private, reports from the region indicate that Afghan officials recognize that the United States will likely have the dominant role, which is the reason why the Taliban and Washington pushed for Qatar as the site of the talks rather than inside Afghanistan itself, which is what the Afghan government initially preferred, though it would be difficult to ensure the safety and security of any Taliban negotiating team that resided on Afghan territory.

But the Afghan government would rightly insist on having a decisive say in any power-sharing agreement with the Taliban.

These arrangements could range from a comprehensive coalition government to a more limited sharing of authority in certain geographic and functional areas (such as the Taliban’s having a larger role in Pashtun-dominated areas but limited say over Afghanistan’s foreign policy). Afghan officials would naturally bulk at any deal that looked like an international attempt to yield a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of all foreign troops and the collapse of the internally recognized Kabul government. Even pro-U.S. Afghan leaders fear a sell-out: “This is being planned based on the politics of the United States,” warned Afghan parliament member Fauzia Kofi. “History is repeating itself. This may result in bringing the Taliban back to power. None of our achievements have been systematic, and they can all collapse at any time.”

Releasing any Guantanamo Bay detainees would prove politically controversial in the United States, where members of Congress have sought to bar such returns. The Taliban prisoners under discussion include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan, and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.  Some of these were involved in atrocities under the earlier Taliban government, which ruled most of the country between 1998 and 2001. Taliban representatives also want the United States to work to remove their names from international terrorist black lists.

Despite Afghan complaints that the Pakistani intelligence service renders aid to the Taliban and other militants, and that Pakistanis were involved in the September 20 assassination of President Rabbani, the Karzai government wants Pakistan involved in any peace talks. In particular, Afghan officials acknowledge that Pakistani government support is needed to induce the Afghan Taliban to end its insurgency since the Afghan Taliban use Pakistani territory as their main base of operations.

The head of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt Gen Shuja Pasha, visited Qatar last week for unannounced discussions with U.S. officials on the Afghan peace process, suggesting that the Pakistanis were aware of the Taliban’s plans to establish a political office there. Pakistani sources indicate that one factor that might move Pakistan to reopen the NATO supply line through its territory is the desire to be fully involved in any Afghan peace talks. Such intervention has not always had a positive effect. In the past, the Pakistani authorities have arrested Afghan Taliban members who seemed inclined to negotiate with the Kabul government independently rather than through Pakistani-approved channels.

The endless disputes and games between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and between NATO and both countries, have naturally complicated the peace process.

Another reason for the slow peace progress besides the issue of third-party foreign involvement is that Western governments have not pressed Karzai to engage in genuine peace negotiations with Taliban leaders until coalition forces have had the opportunity to reverse the deteriorating situation on the battlefield. U.S. policy makers in particular wanted to take advantage of the surge in NATO combat forces in Afghanistan—which reached 150,000 in August 2011, of which some two thirds were American—to shake Taliban commanders’ conviction that they were winning the war.

But it would be a mistake to disconnect the situation on the battlefield from the reconciliation and reintegration processes.

If they work sufficiently well, they might weaken the insurgency enough that the Afghan military — newly enlarged and trained with considerable foreign assistance – could prove adequate to overcoming the remaining hard-liners, even after foreign troops reverse their current surge and scale down their presence during the next few years.

In any case, 2012 will likely see increased fighting as the parties try to improve their negotiating positions and the opponents of any accord try to wreck it through assassinations, mass killings, and other violence.

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