Afghanistan: An exit strategy?
BRITAIN, Afghanistan and the United Nations co-hosted the 70-nation International Conference on Afghanistan in London on January 28. The main themes of the daylong conference were: security; governance and development; and regional support. Actually, the focus of the discussion was on reintegrating the Taliban into the current political system of Afghanistan, and devising a strategy for Western forces to quit Afghanistan. This conference came ten months after the one held in The Hague on March 31, 2009.
The idea of reintegrating the Taliban was mooted by Hamid Karzai in his inaugural speech, when he was sworn in for the second term as president on November 19, 2009. "We must reach out to all our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers who are not part of Al-Qaeda or other terrorist network," Karzai told the meeting.
Suffering mounting losses in the war -- US and Britain seized upon the idea as a possible way of ending the insurgency and allowing the ISAF/Nato forces to leave Afghanistan. The Western Alliance has been fighting the Taliban insurgency for nearly 9 years without any sign of quelling the Taliban. There is virtually a stalemate in the war. The war has not only become prohibitively expensive, it has become unpopular in the UK and US, with increasingly louder demands for the return of troops back home.
The outline of the plan is to create a fund of $500 million to woo moderate Taliban soldiers into the Afghan society. The fund will not be handed out in cash, but used to create jobs in the army and police and provide housing to the Taliban defectors. There is however a condition the Taliban has to dissociate itself from Al Qaeda. US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said that many low and mid-level Taliban fighters may be motivated by the offer. The problem is how to identify non-alQaeda Talibans who may be willing to switch sides.
Karzai, in his statement to the meeting, has called upon King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to "kindly play a role to guide peace and assist the process." Some senior Taliban leaders have been maintaining contact with Saudi Arabia since being ousted from Afghanistan in 2001. Karzai is keen to see Saudi involvement in the upcoming Loya Jirga (tribal council) in spring.
Gordon Brown in his statement said Afghanistan has entered "the transition process. ….By the middle of next year, we have to turn the tide in the fight against the insurgency." He outlined the plan to raise Afghan forces to 300,000 and hand over security responsibilities progressively to Afghan forces by 2011 -- the time set by President Obama to start withdrawing US troops. Strengthening the Afghan forces will in turn weaken the Taliban, and compel them to come to the negotiating table, Brown said. He further said that those who will not accept the offer will be hounded out militarily -- the old "carrot and stick policy." "The first thing is to strengthen the Afghan forces, and then to weaken the Taliban by dividing them," Brown told the BBC. It smacks of the British imperial strategy -- "to divide and rule."
Meanwhile, before the conference, Western Army chiefs had been elaborating on the exit strategy. British Army Chief General David Richards said that negotiations with the Taliban have to be done from a position of strength. "It is matter of timing, not the principle," he remarked. General David Patraeus of US Central Command and General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan have both said that an additional 30,000 US troops will break the current stalemate in fighting. They hope that negotiations with senior Taliban leaders and the Kabul government will lead to a peace deal. Nato Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen also joined the conference to draw up strategies for the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
On January 26, Turkish President Abdullah Gul organised a meeting in Istanbul with Pakistan President Asif Zardari and President Hamid Karzai to support the London conference. Ministers and officials from Iran, Russia, China, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE attended the meeting to discuss a common position on the Afghan reconciliation plan. Iran, a major stakeholder in Afghan affairs, was conspicuously absent from the London conference.
Karzai plans to buy peace with Western money. Money for peace is a bad proposition. The Taliban fighters will seemingly defect, cross over to Karzai, accept the money and return to the Taliban fold. The way forward is to make the Taliban a real partner in peace by sharing power. One must also remember that in feudal Afghanistan, West-imposed democracy will not solve the problems of the corrupt Hamid Karzai government.
Besides, the fraudulent presidential election last year has actually made Karzai's position precarious. Some of his Cabinet members have been thrown out by the parliament. The Taliban is quite aware that lack of legitimacy has made Karzai desperate to strike a peace deal. To achieve peace, the traditional system of Loya Jirga will have to be restored in Afghanistan, where tribal elders wield indisputable powers within their clans. This is, indeed, another kind of traditional democracy that Afghans value and uphold.
Interestingly, the Taliban have not, so far, shown any willingness toward Karzai's reconciliation plan and possible peace deal. The reasons are evident. Taliban leaders feel they are in a commanding position in the war. Publicly, the Taliban often reiterate that they will oust the foreign forces before peace can be achieved in Afghanistan. "We cannot say how soon we will achieve victory. Our mission is sacred, victory and defeat are in the hands of God," Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf told Reuters. There are reports that the West has been talking to lower level Taliban leaders, as they still have difficulty dealing with Mollah Muhammad Omar.
Although US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that handing over security to Afghans was "not an exit strategy," it is evident that the war-weary US administration is keen to close the Afghan adventure.
In my column on August 24, 2009, I suggested that the US should start a meaningful dialogue with the Taliban to bring them into mainstream Afghan politics. The exit strategy seems achievable, provided the West gives up the policy of "divide and rule." Peace can be achieved only if power is shared with the Taliban and other major tribal leaders. It is a welcome development that the West has realised that there is a need for a peace deal with the Taliban before they can get out of Afghanistan.