Afghanistan: The end game?

On June 18.2013, the final phase of the security transition from ISAF control to the ANSF began. On that day, too, the Taliban announced the opening of their office in Doha.

New Delhi: June 18, 2013 was to have heralded the beginning of the end game in Afghanistan. On that day, the fifth and final phase of the security transition in the remaining 94 districts from ISAF control to the ANSF began. On that day, too, the Taliban announced the opening of their office in Doha.

The first event marked the process by which NATO would eventually disengage from an active operational role all over Afghanistan and withdraw bulk of their forces from Afghan soil and the second, the commencement of `reconciliation` talks between Afghans. Taken together, these two events should have marked the beginning of a process that would lead to peace and stability in a country ravaged by war for over three decades.

That, however, hasn`t happened.

Barely had the ribbon inaugurating the Taliban office in Doha been cut and Pakistan had the time to rub its hands in glee, there was an outburst from President Karzai. The U.S. beat a hasty retreat and stopped its own delegation led by Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins from proceeding to Doha for talks with the Taliban.
What went wrong?

According to the Afghan understanding, the sole purpose of the Taliban office was to serve as a venue for direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan Government`s High Peace Council (HPC). The office was not to serve as an official representation of the Taliban in the form of a "Government", "Embassy", "Emirate", or "sovereign". However, the Taliban did just that. Their press conference showed that it was the political office of the `Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan` and they flew their own flag on the building. Moreover, there was no clear commitment to peace talks with the HPC.

Karzai stung by what he called the contradiction between earlier U.S. guarantees and the actual opening of the office, hit back by calling off the crucial Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) talks with the U.S. that would provide legal immunity to U.S. forces that would stay behind after Dec 2014 pullout and refusing to send the HPC delegation to Doha for talks with the Taliban. He also said that his government would not join any U.S. negotiations with the Taliban unless the talks were led by Afghans.

The entire drama was scripted by Pakistan to bring their proxies, the Taliban, on centre-stage and sold to the Americans, taking advantage of the latter`s fears about securing a safe exit from Afghanistan.

Where Pakistan bit off more than what they could chew was to treat President Karzai as a dispensable, spent and isolated force. What their over-confidence made them forget was that Karzai may be coming to the end of his constitutional tenure but he is nothing if not a fighter and believes that he has a definite role post 2014. Having survived, in fact, prospered in the minefield of Afghan politics for over a decade, deftly balancing Afghan factions and the international community, he was not going to be marginalized without a fight.

The U.S. had initially welcomed the opening of the office even though the Taliban did not meet crucial U.S. demands like renouncing ties to Al-Qaeda, accepting the Afghan Constitution, halting violence, and committing itself to protecting women and minorities. In the face of Karzai`s wrath, however, they had to back-track swiftly. Not only did Dobbins scuttle his trip to Doha for talks with the Taliban on June 20, worse, Kerry who was visiting Doha over the weekend and should have set the seal on the end-game talks with the Taliban had also to back off. Instead, Kerry had to mollify Karzai through several telephones and keep him interested in the talks.\
Pakistan, too, had to eat humble pie to try and salvage the situation. The Foreign Office spokesman Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary told the weekly news briefing in Islamabad on June 20 that Pakistan recognized the Government of President Karzai as the legitimate Government of Afghanistan. And, washing its hands off the entire episode, said the matter of opening of the office was between Qatar, Taliban and the United States.

To be charitable, the Americans were possibly once again misled by Pakistan, this time to believing that getting the Taliban around was more important than keeping Karzai in the loop. The alternative that the American did not realize how Karzai would react would be to underestimate the US understanding of Afghanistan and of Karzai.

Pakistan also sold the idea to Kerry that Karzai was so isolated that the northern alliance (with whom they were in touch) would see the writing on the wall and make a bee-line for talks with the Taliban. In the event, the Wolesi Jirga stood as a rock behind Karzai and issued a strongly worded statement echoing Karzai`s line.

Well begun is half done as the old adage goes. The end-game in Afghanistan has begun, but hardly well, thanks to the machinations of Pakistan and the continued gullibility of the Americans.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Salim Haque.