The ground is being readied at last for talks between the US and the Taliban. Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and Robert Gates, the American defence secretary, have just confirmed that preliminary contacts are under way. Equally important, the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions list has been divided so as to separate Taliban leaders from those of al-Qaeda, making it easier politically to remove restraints on the freedom of Taliban leaders to travel safely to meet negotiators.
There is a long way to go before full-scale talks begin, not least in creating a consensus in Washington behind their necessity. In an interview on Sunday, Gates declared: “We have said all along that a political outcome is the way most wars end. The question is when and if they [the Taliban] are ready to talk seriously.”
His other comments made it clear the same question applies to the Americans. Gates argued that further US military pressure was needed on the Taliban. ‘Talks yes, but not yet’ has long been the Pentagon position, articulated repeatedly by General David Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan, who will have even more access to President Obama in his next post as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief.
Heated debate is going on in Washington over how many troops Obama will announce he is to start bringing out next month, and how soon the departing contingent will leave. Whatever number is chosen will be a fudge, designed to satisfy the majority of Americans who have lost faith in the Afghan war, as well as the military hawks. The Republicans are in an encouraging state of confusion with the first signs emerging that on Afghanistan, next year’s presidential candidate might attack Obama “from the left” by arguing for a faster US pullout.
But Obama’s announcement on a limited withdrawal will mean little unless accompanied by a clear statement that he intends to negotiate an end to the conflict, just as Lyndon Johnson eventually promised during the Vietnam War, though it took the Republican Richard Nixon to carry the talks through.
American decision-makers have still not grasped that the Taliban’s main motivation — as revealed in several surveys of insurgents — is a desire to end foreign occupation of their country. US officials, political as well as military, produce endless briefings that claim people join the Taliban because of money, unemployment, or local disputes over land and family honour. When Karzai himself warned the Americans this weekend that “history shows what Afghans do with trespassers and occupiers” and made the blindingly obvious point that the Americans are in Afghanistan primarily for their own purposes, US commentators referred to him as “ranting”, “erratic”, and “perhaps struggling with a mental illness”. Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador in Kabul, said he felt hurt by Karzai’s statements because “America has never sought to occupy any nation in the world. We are a good people.”
Karzai is in a difficult position. Like the Taliban, he wants to end his country’s occupation though he is not sure how to do it, given the countervailing pressures from the insurgency and the Americans, as well as from the anti-negotiation Tajik warlords who surround him and his Pashtun cronies, who have done well economically from the money the Americans have thrown at the country. The main thing he must do now is postpone the talks on long-term US bases that the US is trying to push through under the guise of a “strategic partnership agreement”.
Support for a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan flies in the face of serious negotiations to end the war. It will also undermine the prospects for any regional agreement between Afghanistan and its neighbours. Russia, China and the four central Asian states who make up the influential Shanghai Cooperation Organisation came out at a summit meeting last week for a “neutral” Afghanistan. That is also the position of India and Iran. No peace deal in Afghanistan will stick unless the era of outside interference by its neighbours comes to an end, so the concept of “neutrality” must be upheld. Having US forces in Afghanistan “to protect Afghan neutrality” is dangerous nonsense.
Besides ending foreign occupation, the biggest challenge is to end Afghanistan’s 35 years of civil war. Only talks among all the Afghan stakeholders and parties, including the Taliban, can do that. The Americans cannot control the outcome but they should not impede it either. That is why Obama’s declaration of support for a ceasefire and negotiations on a full withdrawal of US and other foreign troops would be his best contribution to getting the comprehensive settlement that Afghans desperately want. The Guardian