The Taliban’s public declaration that they will hold talks with the US after eleven years of war is a major break through for the political process. It is also vital for Afghanistan’s internal stability and the relative peace that America and Nato will need if they are to leave the country in good order and without too much bloodshed in 2014. But all the major players have a great deal to do before the pieces can be put together.
The clandestine talks brokered by Germany, fostered by Qatar, and starting with direct meetings between US officials and Taliban representatives, will hopefully conclude with a reconciliation with the Afghan government. The Taliban’s insistence that they will only talk with the Americans will probably be watered down. President Hamid Karzai’s policy flip-flops and contradictory statements mean that he is feeling insecure but not averse to the talks. The talks will go ahead because there is no other alternative to ending the war.
Attempts to calculate how successful western forces have been in combating the Taliban, notwithstanding heady announcements by Nato generals, are mired in considerable controversy. The ability of the Taliban to rebound from severe hits has proved them to be remarkably resistant to casualties, with a deep bench of commanders, logisticians, recruiters and administrators. They can still mobilise some 25,000 fighters for a summer offensive – the same as in 2005 and 2006. The sanctuary, support and logistics they receive in neighbouring Pakistan is directly linked to their survival.
The US and Nato are preparing to hand over control of the country in 2014 to the newly-trained 352,000 Afghan security forces and government representatives at the district level. However, an exit strategy is not a political strategy. That is precisely what is lacking for the future stability of Afghanistan and the volatile region that surrounds this landlocked country.
Barack Obama and Mr Karzai are entangled in a series of strategic conundrums that are far from resolved. The latter is determined to secure an agreement with the US and allow trainers and special forces to be based in the country well beyond 2014. America would like to do the same. The Taliban are vehemently opposed to any such agreement as it will appear to be targeted against them.
Mr Karzai will find it impossible to both conclude a strategic agreement with the US and a reconciliation agreement with the Taliban. The two are in direct opposition with each other.
Contradictory statements by the Afghan president on the issue of reconciliation and the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar suggest that this reality is now dawning on his government. Mr Karzai cannot be a partner to both the US and the Taliban, and expect the Taliban to buy it.
Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, will find it hard enough to sell the idea of reconciliation to his fighters. He will find it impossible to sell the idea of cohabitation with the Americans. Many Afghans, including Mr Karzai, want a prolonged presence of foreign troops to guarantee their security. There is not enough consideration in Washington or Brussels of this strategic conundrum.
With most of Afghanistan’s neighbours vehemently opposed to a prolonged US presence, Washington, Kabul and Nato can little to stop them interfering if the forces stay beyond 2014. We also don’t know yet what Pakistan will demand in return for restoring its relations with Washington, Kabul and helping the peace process.
A political strategy must include talks with the Taliban to help build confidence on both sides. It would help establish sorely-needed negotiations on power sharing between the Taliban and the Afghan government. However, the Obama and Karzai administrations are both deeply divided on talking to the insurgents and what concession to give them.
Secondly, an agreement among Afghanistan’s neighbours to limit their interference is vital. China, Russia, the five Central Asian Republics, Pakistan and Iran are against a long term presence of US troops. Only India is in favour.
Recently relations have deteriorated. There has been a collapse of relations between the US and Pakistan in the past six months, with the latter refusing to even meet with US officials. The crisis between Iran and the rest of the world regarding its nuclear weapons programme has further jeopardised any hope of Iran playing ball on Afghanistan.
Thirdly, Afghanistan needs greater internal political cohesion. Mr Karzai has failed to create a national consensus on talking to the Taliban, particularly with the opposition leaders of the former Northern Alliance, nor has he offered a vision for the future. Ethnic divisions could explode after 2014 and some experts predict civil war.
We cannot wait for the US, Nato and the Karzai administration to acknowledge these problems because they need to be addressed immediately, even before the summit in May. Nato has to be more constructive, proactive, flexible and honest in its planning than it has been so far.
The writer is the author of the bestselling book ‘Taliban’. His latest book, ‘Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan’, will be published soon