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Grounded realities

The question is whether the Taliban are prepared to part company with Laden as the price for the withdrawal of foreign troops, writes AG Noorani.

india Updated: Jan 14, 2008 22:41 IST
A. G. Noorani
A. G. Noorani

The annals of insurgency have few precedents, if any, for a head of State to make such plaintive appeals as Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has made to the Taliban. In 2005, he offered amnesty to the “moderate” Taliban. On January 29, 2007, the qualification was dropped. “We still open the door for talks and negotiations with our enemy.”

On March 7, 2007, he told Der Spiegel: “I’ll embrace Mullah Omar and Gulbaddin Hekmatyar for peace in Afghanistan. But it is the Afghan people who should decide on the atrocities committed against the Afghan people.” A week earlier, he had spoken to the former Taliban Foreign Minister, Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, for five hours. Hekmatyar, the Hezb-e-Islam’s leader who had split the Taliban, said that “the dialogue can only be fruitful if the aggressors truly allow the Kabul government to halt the fighting, negotiate with the mujahideen and honour what Kabul and the resistance decide”. If he broke with the US, “we can go for a dialogue with Karzai”.

On April 7, Karzai disclosed that “we have had representatives from the Taliban meeting with different bodies of the Afghan government for a long time. I have had some Taliban coming to speak to me as well”. On April 28, the appeal was renewed: “we once again invite those who have sided with the aliens … to give up sedition”. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, must abandon Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s leader.

After a visit to the US, Karzai said on September 29: “if I can find their address, there is no need for them to come. I myself will go and contact them and say to them, ‘Esteemed Maulvi and Esteemed Hekmatyar! Why are you destroying this country… what is your objection’?” He added he would give some government posts to the Taliban and if Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar wanted power, they could contest the elections due in 2009. He revealed that both President George W. Bush and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had approved of this.

But the Taliban’s spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, replied that foreign troops must first leave the country. Karzai could not have made these overtures without the US’ approval. The US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was reported to have discussed the move as far back as in 2003.

In October 2007, The Economist reported: “Western diplomats generally accept that killing Taliban fighters will not, by itself, end the insurgency. Suicide bombers were all but unknown in Afghanistan until 2005 ... an estimated 20-30 per cent of the population in the South support them.” In October, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s defence ministers concluded that the “insurgency has years to run”. Is the West prepared for that? The commander of the British forces told the BBC on November 15 that they face “an unseen enemy”. He was wrong. They face a hostile populace. The Taliban regrouped in 2006.

Nasreen Ghufran of the University of Peshawar noted in 2006: “In many towns, Taliban fighters roam freely during the day time and attract more disgruntled locals to their cause. In some areas, they even preach openly in mosques trying to persuade locals to join their struggle. This strategy appears to be working, for the Taliban have gained the increased local support necessary to sustain their military activities.” In 2007, the Stenlis Council reported that they had a permanent presence in 54 per cent of Afghanistan.

The Pakistani-Afghan Peace Jirga in Kabul failed because neither the Taliban nor Hekmatyar participated. Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, one of the fiercest critics of the Taliban, now asserts that peace cannot be established without their support. Karzai’s isolation is complete. There are no takers for his surrender terms to the Taliban, namely, accept the present order and share power. They demand withdrawal of foreign troops and their popularity is on the rise.

The entire ‘War on Terror’ was fatally flawed from the outset, as Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter holds. “The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare: political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.” The 9/11 attack was not an act of aggression but an international crime. The results would have been more fruitful if it had been addressed as such. Instead, a full country was laid waste and there is no success in this criminal folly.

For decades, Pakistan and India have been locked in a sterile contest for influence in Afghanistan. We meddled a lot there as Pakistan did in India. Pu Laldenga, the Mizo leader, was given sanctuary in the then East Pakistan.

India has invested a lot of money and effort in Afghanistan for which it has been praised. But politically, the basis of its policy is support to Karzai whose writ does not run far.

Xenia Dormandy, Executive Director for Research at the Belfer Centre at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, pleads for an Indo-Pak understanding on Afghanistan. “This is going to require a fundamental change in attitudes in both the Indian and Pakistan governments… Unless a way to mitigate the underlying Pakistan-Indian tension in Afghanistan is found, the country will continue to be a battleground for this largely unspoken war. The benefits of building cooperation and trust in Afghanistan will help address the wider India-Pakistan conflict and enhance security amass the region.”

But only an accord on ‘the wider conflict’ [Kashmir] can pave the way for an understanding on Afghanistan, based on some fundamentals — Pakistan’s primacy can be accepted but not an exclusive relationship with Afghanistan. And, neither side will act in a hostile manner in an area in the other’s immediate neighbourhood.

Two former Permanent Representatives of India to the UN, Chinmaya R. Gharekhan and Hamid Ansari, now Vice-President, advocated in December 2003 an international agreement guaranteeing Afghanistan’s neutrality and cited the models of Laos and Turkmenistan. “The Bonn Agreement of December 2001 on the re-establishment of the Afghan State institutions contains in Annex. III, para 1, a request from the conference participants to the United Nations and the international community ‘to take necessary measures to guarantee national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan as well as the non-interference by foreign countries in Afghanistan’s internal affairs’.”

Such an accord can only follow one on national unity. That is not possible unless the US agrees to withdraw its troops, provided that the Afghans arrive at a pact on national unity which promises stability with UN oversight. Without the Taliban, no pact will work. The question is whether the Taliban are prepared to part company with Laden as the price for the withdrawal of foreign troops, as they were twice on the verge of accord on a split in 1998 and 2001.