Reconciling the irreconcilable
In London, Afghanistan President Karzai charted his road to peace with the Taliban, but it is not clear whether the US will follow it, writes Graham Usher in New York
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NATO soldiers secure the site of a suicide car bomb in Kabul on the eve of last year's presidential elections, reflecting the ongoing violence which continues to penetrate to the very heart of the Afghan capital on a regular basis; Hillary Clinton meets with Karzai during the London conference last week
The 70-nation conference on Afghanistan in London on 28 January was supposed to demonstrate international unity behind the brittle government of President Hamid Karzai and plans to reconcile with the Taliban. It was also to endorse the imminent "surge" of 37,000 extra US and NATO troops tasked with defeating the Taliban-led insurgency.
In fact the conference exposed differences between Karzai and his foreign sponsors over two major planks of policy: the speed with which the country can be controlled by Afghan forces so that US and NATO soldiers can go home; and how to approach the Taliban, the resurgent nationalist-Islamist movement that once ruled Afghanistan and is poised (many analysts believe) to do so again.
Opening the conference British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, "by the middle of next year, we have to turn the tide in the fight against the insurgency."
To this end he wants the Afghan army and police forces increased from their present state of about 150,000 ill-disciplined men to over 300,000 trained soldiers and officers by 2011. This is consistent with President Barack Obama's pledge to "start to bring home" US soldiers by July 2011. NATO countries want their people home even sooner.
But that timeline is shorter than anything envisioned by Karzai or his government. He agreed with the British leader that Afghan forces could take control of "quieter" provinces this year. But it would take 5-10 years before either the army or the police would be able to assume full responsibility, he told the BBC. It would be 10-15 years before they could be self-financed, he added.
Karzai -- in other words -- foresees a foreign presence in Afghanistan far longer than either the US or NATO and especially their peoples would tolerate.
The differences are even starker when it comes to the Taliban. The US supports what it calls "reintegration". This assumes the insurgency is less a nationalist or ideological movement than a mercenary force, the so called "ten dollar a day Taliban". It believes most insurgents will lay aside their guns in exchange for cash, jobs and protection. Tribes too can be "turned" or bought, similar to the way the US believes Sunni tribes were turned against Al-Qaeda in Iraq
Karzai, regional states like Pakistan and even the UN believe this is to misunderstand the coherence and motivation of the Afghan Taliban. "The reintegration process by itself is not enough. There has to be a parallel political process," Kai Eide, the UN's top diplomat in Kabul, said on 25 January. "If you want relevant results you have to talk to relevant people with authority" in the Taliban leadership.
What he and Karzai advocate is not so much reintegration as reconciliation: the historic compromise between Afghanistan's Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara minorities that back the Karzai government and the majority Pashtun tribes from the Taliban draw their support and their fighters. Karzai used the London conference to lay the bases of a future political accommodation.
Through Eide, he persuaded the UN to de-list five former Taliban officials from a UN "terrorist" blacklist of 137: a small step in itself but one that signals to all that the Taliban are a very different animal to Al-Qaeda.
At a meeting in Istanbul on 26 January Karzai won support for "reconciliation and reintegration... in a way that is Afghan-led and Afghan-driven" from regional states like Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
And in London he translated that backing into an explicit invitation to the Taliban to join a loya jirga or peace council. "We must reach out to all our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of Al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution", he said.
Most significantly, after the conference, it was revealed Eide had met Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan in January. "They requested a meeting to talk about talks. They wanted protection, to be able to come out in public," a UN official was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Taliban have denied the meeting took place, though at first the response was far more cautious. "I cannot say a word regarding these peace talks. The Taliban leadership will soon decide whether to take part in these peace talks," said Qari Mohamed Youssef, an Afghan Taliban spokesman. These moves suggest the beginning of the slow crawl from insurgency to negotiations. If so, the crucial player is likely to be neither Karzai's "reconciliation" or even the US "surge" but rather Pakistan's military and intelligence forces.
For eight years these have provided a haven for the Afghan Taliban while denying any influence over its leadership. Now -- say sources -- they are offering to broker peace talks between the Afghan Taliban, Karzai and the Obama administration. If so, it is easy to predict what the contours of a future political settlement would be.
The Afghan Taliban would have to sever whatever ties it has to Al-Qaeda and vow never again to allow Afghan territory be used for attacks on other countries, near or far. In return the US and NATO would have to leave Afghanistan, and the Taliban would be given a role in government commensurate with their status as the most powerful military force among the Pashtun tribes
It is hard to see the US accepting such a compromise, especially if it involved Taliban leader Mullah Omar, a man with a $10 million bounty on his head for hosting Osama bin Laden during the 9/11 attacks. But after eight years of war it is even harder to see what other Afghan settlement could possibly endure.