Bi-polarity of Afghan peace talks

By Kashi N Pandita

In anticipation of US-led NATO force drawdown from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, political circles are hotly debating contours of impending regional realignments. Regional states are evaluating its impact. For example, far away from the epicentre of Afghan war zone, a local potentate in war-torn Kashmir, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, now a Minister in the Union Cabinet of India, raised alarm that induction of Taliban into power sharing mechanism in Kabul, in whatever form after the drawdown, is likely to pose serious challenge to territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Indian administered State of Jammu and Kashmir. How much real is the threat, and how far can its arm reach, are questions that merit objective analysis.  

Stakeholders in Afghan peace talks respectively have specific interests. Threat perceptions are dimensional. But larger part of the story is woven round the enigmatic President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of Taliban ouster in 2001, the US, Afghan expatriates and an influential segment of the upper layer of Afghan society actively supported Hamid Karzai’s candidature for taking over the reins of power in 2002.

For next three years, Karzai steadily reduced the influence and the reach of his Northern Alliance partners, particularly the first vice president and defence minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, interior minister Mohammad Younus Qanooni and foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Having won the allegedly controversial presidential election in 2004, Karzai initiated re-assessment of his position. He accused Pakistan of supporting Taliban while pandering to ethnic Pashtun (Pakhtun) identity. His government revived the annual commemoration of the Pashtunistan Day and rekindled the old rhetoric about the plight of tribal Pashtuns in Pakistan. Since then, Afghan-Pakistan relations have been conducted in fits and starts, closely trailing Karzai’s highly unpredictable mood-swings.

After 2005, he firmly realised that Afghan Taliban were central to the entire Afghan issue. One way of making dent into Taliban traditional incredulity that painted him strictly in pro-US colour was to demonstrate Afghan assertiveness as the hallmark of that warrior nation. In 2007, differences with the US surfaced when President Karzai ordered expulsion of Michael Semple, an Irishman acting as the Head of European Union Mission in Kabul, and also a British national, Mervyns Patterson, an employee of the UN Mission in Afghanistan. Karzai regime accused them of covertly contacting Taliban commanders behind the back of Kabul government. Patterson was alleged to have established liaison with Mansoor Dadullah the brother of slain Taliban leader Mulla Dadullah. In 2008, Karzai rejected the British politician Paddy Ashdown as Head of the UN Mission in Afghanistan.

These antics also carried the element of mollifying the sensitivity of Afghan Taliban fighting against foreign forces.

2009 Presidential elections returned Hamid Karzai after three aspiring candidates quit the fray and the fourth lost in the husting. Among the three who withdrew was Zalmy Khalilzad, the American-born Afghan political heavyweight in Washington, privy to a plethora of political interchanges between Kabul and Washington ever since action against Taliban began in 2001.

A few moves by Hamid Karzai in 2009 and onwards, did not fit in the political chemistry of the US in Afghanistan. For example, Karzai’s visit to Teheran and meeting with Hassan Rouhani — now President of Iran — remained an enigma for the White House. Equally inexplicable was Karzai’s decision of releasing hundreds of Taliban prisoners including their collaborators and supporters.

Obviously the message to the Americans was that President Hamid Karzai contemplated opening direct channel with Taliban leadership without taking Washington on board. Several secret meetings were held between Karzai’s emissaries and Taliban leadership somewhere in the UAE.

Americans did not believe that on Taliban side, any group with representative character was involved in these talks. How much close were they to Mulla Omar, the epicentre of Taliban power, is a moot point. Whatever the reality, so far no tangible result has emerged from these perfunctory parleys. Nevertheless, all of this is very much in the scheme of things with President Karzai’s domestic policy.  He intends to remain in the loop even though he is not eligible for the third term according to Afghan constitution.

In past few months, President Karzai’s relations with international backers have soured. The visit of two Karzai minsters to UAE went haywire. According to New York Times, those backdoor talks frustrated the United States. But Karzai claimed that initiative for talks had come from the Talban and he had only caught the time by forelock.

It appears that in opening backdoor channel with the Talban, Karzai was reacting to the US-led peace talks in Qatar in which the US, though giving him some lip service, had actually and practically sidelined Karzai. And when he was belatedly called to participate in Qatar, he flew into rage on finding the venue of talks actually turned into something like headquarter of the Taliban government in exile. The white flag and the logo of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan made him think that the US was covertly supporting Taliban aspiration. He announced its boycott while the US, acting in unjustifiable hurry, cancelled the talks.

The question before the American policy planners in Afghanistan is whether the process of negotiations should remain uni-polar or that multi-polar strategy would be the safer option? While Washington would strongly work towards military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai wants to mend fence with his compatriot warlords whose mode of conducting political discourse is not alien to him.

Washington’s direct talks with Taliban in Qatar failed not only because of Karzai rubbishing the idea of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Taliban rigid demand that US and NATO completely withdraw their troops from Afghanistan as the pre-condition for fruitful talks led to the failure of Qatar parleys. The US argument of retaining ten thousand combats for training and advisory role cut no ice with the hard bargaining Taliban leadership.

When Americans raised the question of Karzai establishing secret links with the Taliban, his official spokesman, Aimal Faizi, acknowledged the move and even defended it. While these moves were made on one front, on the other American and German diplomats carried forward their independent peace efforts. On received a message from Taliban, Karzai jumped at the idea and planned the Loya Jirga or the Grand Assembly, which approved the terms of a peace deal offered by the US. But Karzai refused to sign it saying he had questions needing an answer.

In recent months, President Hamid Karzai has become more defiant of the US and western powers. He even accused the US of its complacency over a deadly attack on a Kabul restaurant last month in which 21 persons including 13 foreigners (3 Americans) were killed; he also said that the US was responsible for civilian killings in Afghanistan. “He is playing with fire. Americans want the Afghan government to negotiate a peace deal. America wants to reach a political solution”, said Michael Keating, senior consultant fellow with Chatham House of London.

American policy planners argue that Karzai wants peace deal with Taliban that makes US-sponsored bilateral agreement for security just unnecessary. However, a stalemate of sorts has appeared because the US-Taliban peace talks in Qatar were scuttled by President Karzai and Karzai-Taliban talks have turned abortive owing to non-representative character of the Taliban interlocutors or their inflexible attitude. Hamid Karzai cannot be faulted for trying to mollify the Taliban on his terms. The US needs to give him margin as he is asked to do some tight rope walking.

Multi-polar negotiations for restoration of peace in Afghanistan are inevitable. There are many stakeholders in the fray with varying interests. Pakistan, India, Iran and China, too, are deeply interested in how strategies are shaping in the region.

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