Obama’s AfPak Review should emphasise on Peace Talks with the Taliban
November 23, 2010
Obama’s review of the AfPak policy is due this December. He would like to stick to his schedule, outlined at West Point last December, of having the departure from Afghanistan ‘begin’ in July 2011. By no means had he implied then that it would be anything but a measured departure, the commentary of critics of a US ‘exit’ notwithstanding. It is hoped that with an ANA trained to levels of military credibility, NATO would be able to draw down and hand over the responsibility by 2014, as required by Karzai and as stands decided at the NATO Lisbon summit. Even as the surge reaches culmination point, this can only be made possible through a more hands-on approach to the peace overtures to the Taliban currently underway.
Reports of a peace track have been around for over two years now. Earlier, the Saudis had figured as peace brokers. The scene shifted to UN peace initiatives under Kai Eide, but was aborted by the arrest by Pakistanis of their Taliban interlocutor, Mullah Baradar. This summer the peace jirga approved the overtures by President Karzai currently underway. Tacit support of the US for the process is evident from logistic support and safe passage being given to enable presence of the insurgent representatives. The Pakistanis have also chipped in by arranging access of the Haqqani faction to Kabul. A heartening report is of Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami willing to end the bloodletting for a price.
Peace deals in the offing testify partially to success of the ‘surge’. The idea behind the increase of about 30,000 troops over the past two years has been to militarily pressure the Taliban. Fissures within the Taliban in terms of differing motivations, varying intensity in ties with the core Taliban, and distance from al Qaeda were to be exploited to whittle it down. The Taliban are over 30,000 strong. No fissures have shown up among them so far that could be usefully exploited. How to bring the Mullah Omar Taliban round remains the key question.
The Taliban has expectedly vowed to ensure that the exit would be sooner than 2014 and an unceremonious one at that. Getting at them militarily has proven difficult, sitting as they are on the Pakistani side of ‘AfPak’. This year the Pakistan military had the floods bail them out from taking action against these sanctuaries. The threat of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an ally of Taliban comprising both Punjabis and Pushtuns, expanding the war into Pakistani cities stays the Pakistani hand. In any case, the military are ‘hedging’, in order to have some say in the post NATO dispensation in Kabul using their good offices with the Taliban if accommodated in power in an exit deal with the US.
The fact that the Taliban has cannon-fodder available in the Pakistani hinterland and amongst Pushtuns radicalized by war indicates that attrition would have to continue over a considerable period. This would likely be at the price of rising distaste with the increasingly unpopular war in the US. The exhaustion of the Europeans is already self-evident. Therefore, eliminating the Taliban does not appear feasible. This leave the US with two options: continuing down the military route or privileging direct peace talks.
The military prong, having shifted under McChrystal to a classical counter insurgency, is not designed to produce quick results. The ANA is being trained to par to bring these about over a period of perhaps three to five years. The US is to scale back its operations and presence progressively as it outsources military operations to the ANA. The ‘Afghan on Afghan’ strategy smacks of ‘divide and rule’. As a strategy, while it enables a US-NATO ‘exit’, it is of no benefit for the region to have instability continue, exploited by neighbours by proxy. In any case, the US would continue being militarily engaged, even if increasingly in a support role. This is hardly an outcome worth the material investment made over the past decade and the cost in lives, particularly of non-combatants.
Obama’s accession, his ‘deadline’ of July 2011, cessation of operations in Iraq, and economy-centred introspection in the US, have all made anti-war sentiment recede. However, the war is already the longest war the US has engaged in. It has exacted 4000 casualties. Continuing Afghan deaths, whether of civilians as ‘collateral damage’ or of insurgents, would ultimately also come under question. Release of the Wikileaks trove, questioning the figures on Iraqi dead, indicates the potentiality of US public opinion turning against the war. The Obama review would take a political view, sensitive to the presidential elections due in 2012.
Continuing operations, particularly beyond the ‘culmination point’, would only increase radicalism, especially if Pakistan were to be destabilized further. The al Qaeda, reportedly reduced to 500 to 600 fighters, can be defeated by a strategy relying on covert operations or through drone attacks, rather than military operations. Whether a campaign has reached the culmination point is the critical strategic judgment. The December review provides the US-NATO combine the opportunity. A decision in favour of military predominant operations would reinforce failure. It is evident then that there needs to be a shift in strategy.
The judgment would be essentially predicated on potential of the ‘peace talks’ prong of strategy. This would be considerably enhanced with the US taking hands-on control of the peace process. Presently, it is only supportive of it. The talks are Afghan-led, but the Karzai regime’s credibility slows down the peace process. In any case, the final outcome would require the US to come on board. The US should instead pre-position itself on one side of the table. This would make the desultory process acquire content and urgency. Alternatives to military action would emerge once the superpower’s intellectual, intelligence, material and diplomatic resources stand unambiguously committed to a negotiated outcome.
The desired outcome needs working through along several parameters. It must preserve the results of the Bonn process. It should pre-empt civil war and reprisals. It should keep the US and its material resources engaged. It needs to get regional players on board. This can be done if their respective, sometimes contradictory, interests are protected. It requires the Taliban to moderate its ideological stance and cut off links with the al Qaeda. The European drawdown would have to be stage-managed. Only ‘win-win’ thinking can have each of the players taking something away from the table.
Obama’s appointment of an interlocutor to the peace talks would energise this prong of strategy. Honour placated, the Taliban would participate. A promise of moderation can be extracted, with the Saudis and Pakistanis as guarantors. It would set the stage for a ceasefire. Reintegration of the Taliban could follow. Graduated ending of Western military presence can be predicated on the Taliban’s good behaviour and operations against the al Qaeda. Eventually, an extended economic and reconstruction engagement could remain in place under UN auspices, with all regional players engaged.
War provides the context for radicalization and the threat that this creates. Ending the war would remove the conditions and context of radicalization. Such a tall order requires Obama to take charge. Obama has already received the Nobel Peace Prize for his intentions on the nuclear front. He could yet deserve it in case of peace initiatives in AfPak.