Washington and its “partner” in Kabul are simultaneously pursuing different strategies to try to bring the war in Afghanistan to a conclusion. While the US has opted to pursue a “whack-a-mole” military strategy across Southern Afghanistan that drives the Taliban from one district only to have them pop up in the next one, the Karzai regime is moving forward with its reconciliation strategy. In essence, the Americans have foregrounded a military strategy while the Karzai regime (with some support from the UN) is promoting a political strategy.

The US has sidelined the “grand reconciliation” approach because they think it is simply not viable — particularly since the leadership of the parties with which a reconciliation deal would need to be made are considered war criminals and terrorists.  The US prefers instead to pay lip service to a rather anemic economic “reintegration” package for ordinary fighters, which has not worked well and is unlikely to sway the majority of Taliban fighters.  Contrary to US propaganda, the majority of Taliban appear to be ideologically rather than economically motivated.  The current US military surge does not have much of a political strategy beside attempting to clear an area of the Taliban and transfer authority to a pre-fabricated local government.  Although the US claims to be building up governance capacity in the state bureaucracy and security forces there is very little reason to believe that the US is doing much more than expediting an exit strategy.  Political science is simply not sufficiently advanced as a discipline to teach the Americans how to build a strong state in Afghanistan by 2011.

The US-led military surge in Afghanistan is based, at least in part, on a mistaken understanding of the surge in Iraq.  In the run up to the 2008 US presidential elections, it was candidate Obama who properly understood that the “Anbar Awakening” began several months before the announcement of a troop surge by President Bush.  (The role of Muqtada al-Sadr in reigning in his “Mahdi Army” was also critical.) It was candidate McCain who falsely asserted that the surge created a safe space for the Anbar Awakening (see New York Times, 24 July 2008).  When McCain was called out for his mistaken chronology, he argued that he meant it was the overall counterinsurgency strategy that created space for the Anbar Awakening by providing protection for tribal leaders.  Of course, the surge was unable to prevent “Al Qaeda in Iraq” from  assassinating Sheikh  Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who led the Anbar Salvation Council.  The sheikh died only ten days after he met with President Bush, General Petraeus, Secretary Gates and Ambassador Crocker.  While the troop surge in Iraq may have provided a measure of additional security, it did not create the conditions for a political solution.

Nevertheless, it is McCain’s mistaken history which has been adopted (de facto) by President Obama, even though candidate Obama had argued in 2008 that he still would not have supported the surge in Iraq even if had the foresight to see how it would play out. Since outlining a new strategy in December 2009, President Obama seems to believe that a military surge will create space for a political solution to emerge.  If a political solution does not emerge, the US will still attempt to hand over “responsibility” to the Karzai regime as soon as possible.  If the Karzai regime falters, which it undoubtedly will once foreign forces retreat, the US will blame the regime for not having sufficiently tackled corruption.  (The idea that corruption could be substantially improved in one of the most impoverished and war ravaged societies in the world — where one’s personal security and livelihood is still contingent to a large degree on social networks — is utterly absurd.)

Meanwhile, the Karzai regime has announced plans for a National Peace Jirga [Assembly] in April and he has hinted at a grand reconciliation bargain.  Of course, Karzai has been desperately offering vague reconciliation packages to the Taliban since December 2001.  So in a sense, none of this is new — although there has been a renewed vigor to these efforts since the January 2010 donor conference in London.  What is new is the willingness of a significant (albeit increasingly weak) militant group to enter into negotiations (reports of negotiations with other resistance leaders is disputed by the core Taliban organization).

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami offered the following peace plan to the Karzai regime last week (Summary based on the report by Tolo TV, 31 March 2010):

  • Withdraw US/ISAF from Afghanistan beginning in July 2010 and complete by January 2011;
  • Transfer security to the ANA and ANP.  Foreign forces may not take part in any military and search operations; or have any prison in Afghanistan;
  • Form an interim government after six months; the current government and parliament should be dissolved after six months;
  • Hold presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections simultaneously in the spring of 2012;
  • Form a seven-member national security council with the authority to make final decisions on important national issues;
  • An electoral council should have authority to consider the constitution, which is proposed by the three judicial, legislative and executive powers and make the final decision about it;
  • Persons tainted by charges of embezzlement, drug trafficking, seizure of national properties and war criminals should be handed over to a Shari’ah court;
  • All hostilities should be halted and all political detainees should be released;
  • The rights of women should be guaranteed;
  • Talks should begin with all other parties fighting against the government.

The proposal did not make much headway with the Karzai regime, particularly since it calls for the complete dissolution of his regime and the removal of the foreign forces that are propping up that regime.

There are a few points about Hekmatyar’s proposal which should be noted.  First, Hizb-e-Islami has slightly shifted from the standard Taliban party line which states that there will be no negotiations until foreign forces quit Afghanistan.  Instead of a complete withdrawal, Hekmatyar is willing to accept a six month time table.  Second, as pointed out in Hasht-e-Sobh newspaper (30 March 2010), Hekmatyar supports holding elections.  This is a major difference between Hizb-e-Islami and the core Taliban organization which rejects elections.

Despite the failure of Hekmatyar’s proposal, Karzai has a strong interest to continue to seek a political solution since he can clearly see that the US will likely depart in the near future, leaving  his regime very vulnerable.  Karzai would also like to limit any intermediary role in future peace negotiations by the Government of Pakistan and the only way to do this is to take the initiative.

There seems to be support among Afghans for some sort of political compromise solution with the resistance forces, but the devil is in the details. For example, a member of the Wolasi Jirga (Lower House), Mohammad Daud Soltanzai, stated on the state owned National Afghanistan TV (30 March 2010): “We want reconciliation which should not be against the constitution, democracy and the basic structure.”

Some Afghan newspapers are more critical of reconciliation efforts.  For example, Daily Afghanistan (29 March 2010) quoted one Kabul resident as saying, “They say the government is negotiating with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar these days. We have known for a long time that Hekmatyar sides with the party that ensures his interests. Although our people want peace in their country, the person who has tortured our people should not be allowed to come back so easily and be imposed on our people.”

The official US position on Karzai’s negotiations is that this strategy is premature (as stated by Secretary Gates), but that the US supports efforts as long as the reconciled groups accept the constitution, renounce violence and Al Qaeda. The US would prefer to have the Karzai regime bargain from a position of strength once it breaks the momentum of the insurgency.  Ultimately, however, US policy is based on the narrow pursuit of America’s national interest which is increasingly defined as exiting the war in Afghanistan as soon as possible regardless of the viability of the client regime.

The difference in strategy is leading to ever harsher rhetoric from Kabul, since the US military strategy clearly undermines Karzai’s political strategy.  As an editorial in Hewad (a state owned newspaper, published in Dari out of Kabul) noted on 31 March 2010:

“Afghanistan does not need military operations, it needs peace efforts. Under instructions from president Hamed Karzai, preparations are under way for National Peace Jirga which is scheduled to take place one month later in Kabul. Accelerating military operations ahead of this Jirga definitely undermines peace efforts and hurts the trust and hopes of the people about this Jirga. If everyone supports the reconciliation process and accelerates peace efforts, then we are sure that there will be no need for military operations anywhere in the country and war will be ended through negotiations.”

It is not at all surprising in this context that President Karzai has begun publicly denouncing American envoys.  On the other hand, the idea that Karzai might pardon some of the most notorious leaders of the resistance, including Mullah Mohammad Omar, alarms the US.  Instead of lecturing and denouncing one another, the “partners” need to re-engage in a dialog about how to end the war.

[Cross-posted from Afghan Notebook]

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