It would seem that there has been little news generated in south-central Asia over the past 10 days to inspire optimism for the future. Violence on both sides of the Durand Line, often mindless and reflexive, continues unabated. The governments of the key protagonists – Afghanistan, the US, and Pakistan – nominally interested in finding political solutions to the region’s conflicts, remain gridlocked, internally and externally, unable to see beyond the impasses their current policies have made for them.
Among other more routine atrocities, 17 Pakistani troops reportedly were beheaded in Upper Dir, along the Afghan border, victims of the rapacious Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, which operates increasingly from safe havens in Afghanistan. Ten Afghan policemen killed in normally quiescent Herat added their grim statistics to those registered in attacks in Helmand, in Kunduz, and on the outskirts of Kabul. Continued drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas elicited objections in North and South Waziristan from militant tribal leaders who decided to reinforce their respective messages by holding their own children hostage to preventable disease, refusing to permit polio immunisations until the strikes are halted.
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Mounting evidence that cross-border militancy works in both directions, rather than reinforcing common cause between the Americans and Pakistanis, mired them further in bloody-minded recrimination, as the US refused to jointly pursue the infamous Mullah Fazlullah, responsible for the above-described beheadings, until Pakistan accedes to NATO demands that it attack militant safe havens in North Waziristan. Such controversies, meanwhile, made little apparent impression on Pakistan’s civilian politicians and jurists, locked as they were in an operatic struggle which threatens to make the Pakistani premiership resemble a revolving door. And about Afghan President Karzai’s recent statements concerning the importance of anti-corruption and good governance, well, perhaps the less said, the better.
And yet, also over the past 10 days, there have been a couple of welcome indications, from perhaps unlikely sources, that eventual progress towards a sustainable political solution in south-central Asia may be possible. It is not an accident that these developments did not involve Americans, and that they served to flesh out the views of parties strongly opposed to the US presence in Afghanistan. Together, however, they reinforce the notion held by many who, like this observer, support American goals but lament American strategy, that a much-reduced American presence in Afghanistan will do much to aid the cause of both peace and stability there.
On June 20 and 21, a number of representatives of Afghan political factions and civil society groups, including the High Peace Council, met informally in Paris for open-ended discussions. Although no formal Taliban members were there, individuals deemed credible by them and capable of explaining their views, such as Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, were present. Official American commentators, speaking as usual under a veil of anonymity, were quick to downplay the significance of these discussions – and in terms of the conventional political negotiations envisioned by the Americans, they were right. Indeed, much of the commentary on this meeting from all sides, focussing as it has on whether the gathering demonstrates a change in Taliban policy to permit official contacts with the Afghan government, is frankly beside the point. Of far greater significance were the topics discussed, which apparently focussed on changes to the Afghan Constitution and electoral laws, and on other means of promoting a decentralisation of power – none of which, tellingly, is remotely on the American agenda.
A separate meeting held in Kyoto, Japan, on June 27 was, if anything, even more interesting, including as it did Qari Din Muhammad, a member of the Taliban political office, who made the following statement concerning political reconciliation: “We will join the economy, and join the politics for all the Afghan people. But if there is any American, a single one, we cannot join the government.”
Not having participated in either of these confabs, and so having little feel for the context in which various points were made or topics discussed, it is hard for me to judge their full significance. But they do suggest how a practical political solution in Afghanistan might evolve. The Taliban has, until now, refused to negotiate with anyone but the Americans, and from their perspective, quite reasonably so. As even American officials will candidly admit, they have been the primary combatants in the current conflict, with much at stake – which is why they have agreed in the past to bilateral talks unencumbered by official Afghan involvement. Indeed, for much of the past seven years or so, Afghanistan, to the Americans at least, has been a US project, in which their supposed Afghan allies were often an inconvenient afterthought. It should not be surprising, then, that the Taliban would share a similar view: Why deal with the puppet, when it is possible to deal with the puppet-master?
The significance of the Taliban’s new willingness to engage with their Afghan adversaries in the Paris and Kyoto meetings is not that it represents a change in their basic policy. It does not. Instead, it suggests that the Taliban leadership can foresee a time in the near future when, one way or another, the Americans are no longer the main protagonists in Afghanistan. They surely harbour the hope, and perhaps even the expectation, that the Americans will depart Afghanistan altogether, perhaps soon after 2014. Their hope is probably a vain one. A sovereign post-2014 Afghan government will have every right to invite a small continuing US military presence under the new Strategic Partnership Agreement, and every practical reason for doing so as it confronts the Taliban. The difference will be that the US presence will be subordinate to, and supportive of, the Afghans – and not the other way around, as it has been to date. In any case, the Taliban will have to deal with the Kabul regime one way or another, and they realise it. The question is: on what terms, and to what ends?
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Thus the statement from Qari Din Muhammad, while surely not a formal policy pronouncement, may nonetheless be highly significant as a reflection of the Taliban’s mode of thinking. The good qari is right: There will be no room, for the foreseeable future, nor any genuine desire on the part of the Taliban to participate in some sort of coalition government with the political forces represented by the Kabul regime. A potentially realisable goal, however, would be overt and legitimate Taliban participation in the political, economic and socio-religious life of the country at a local and provincial level, in those areas where the Taliban has natural weight and standing. In that context, the topics discussed in Paris are not just significant, but crucial to the future of the country. If Afghanistan is to develop any measure of peace and stability, it will have to unburden itself of the albatross represented by its current, over-centralising constitution, and will have to create the political space at the district and provincial levels necessary to permit the Taliban’s incremental re-engagement in the legitimate governance of the country.
It will require much time and effort to create the conditions for the various political forces in Afghanistan to find their own levels, and to develop the opportunity, to say nothing of the motivation, to pursue their goals through peaceful rather than violent means. But even in an environment currently characterised by terror and political myopia, we can still see some reason to hope for such a future, as Afghans of all stripes take political matters into their own hands. The rapid drawdown of US and NATO forces, even if currently carried out in pursuit of a misguided and unsustainable policy, and even if insufficient by itself, nonetheless will help set the conditions to make a sustainable, Afghan-led peace process possible.
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.