By Kashi N Pandita
Political circles are hotly debating the worldwide impacts of impending regional realignments in anticipation of a US-led NATO force drawdown from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Regional states are evaluating its impact. In Kashmir, far from the epicentre of the Afghan war zone, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, a Minister in the Union Cabinet of India, raised alarm that induction of the Taliban into a power sharing mechanism in Kabul, in whatever form after the drawdown, is likely to pose a serious challenge to territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Indian administered State of Jammu and Kashmir. How real the threat and how far its reach are questions that merit objective analysis.
Stakeholders in Afghan peace talks have specific interests. Threat perceptions are dimensional. But a larger part of the story is woven round the enigmatic President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the Taliban ouster in 2001, the US, Afghan expatriates and an influential segment of the upper layer of Afghan society actively supported Hamid Karzai’s bid for power in 2002. For the next three years, Karzai steadily reduced the influence and the reach of his Northern Alliance partners, particularly the first vice president and defence minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, interior minister Mohammad Younus Qanooni, and foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Having won the allegedly controversial presidential election in 2004, Karzai initiated re-assessment of his position. He accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban while pandering to ethnic Pashtun (Pakhtun) demographic. His government revived the annual commemoration of the Pashtunistan Day and rekindled the old rhetoric about the plight of tribal Pashtuns in Pakistan. Since then, Afghan-Pakistan relations have been conducted in fits and starts, closely trailing Karzai's highly unpredictable mood-swings.
After 2005, he firmly realised that Afghan Taliban were central to the entire Afghan issue. One way of making dent into Taliban traditional incredulity that painted him strictly in pro-US colour was to demonstrate Afghan assertiveness as the hallmark of that warrior nation. In 2007, differences with the US surfaced when President Karzai ordered expulsion of Irishman Michael Semple, Head of European Union Mission in Kabul, and British national Mervyns Patterson, an employee of the UN Mission in Afghanistan. Karzai’s regime accused them of covertly contacting Taliban commanders behind the backs of Kabul’s government. Patterson was alleged to have established liaison with Mansoor Dadullah, the brother of slain Taliban leader Mulla Dadullah. In 2008, Karzai rejected the candidacy of British politician Paddy Ashdown as Head of the UN Mission in Afghanistan. These actions also mollified Afghan Taliban fighting against foreign forces.
Hamid Karzai won the 2009 Presidential elections after three previous challengers withdrew from the race. One of the candidates was Zalmy Khalilzad, the American-born Afghan political heavyweight in Washington. He was privy to a plethora of political interchanges between Kabul and Washington since actions against the Taliban began in 2001. Some of Hamid Karzai’s decisions in 2009 and onwards did not enhance US-Afghani relations. For example, Karzai’s visit to Teheran and meeting with Hassan Rouhani – now President of Iran – confused and displeased the White House. Equally inexplicable was Karzai’s decision to release hundreds of Taliban prisoners, including Taliban collaborators and supporters.
Obviously the message to the Americans was that President Hamid Karzai contemplated opening a direct channel with Taliban leadership without consulting Washington. Several secret meetings were held between Karzai’s emissaries and Taliban leadership somewhere in the UAE.
Americans think that none of the groups that participated in these talks truly represented the mainstream Taliban. Although no positive result was obtained from them, yet these talks seem to suit President Karzai’s domestic policy. He would like to remain in limelight even though the Afghan constitution does not permit him to contest for the third term.
In past few months, President Karzai’s relations with international backers have soured. The visit of two Karzai minsters to UAE went haywire. According to the New York Times, these backdoor talks frustrated the United States. Karzai claimed that initiative for the talks came from the Taliban.
It appears that in opening a backdoor channel with the Taliban, Karzai was reacting to the US-led peace talks in Qatar in which the US nearly sidelined Karzai. When belatedly called on to participate in Qatar, he flew into rage on finding that the Taliban government had opened an office there. This made him think that the US was covertly supporting Taliban aspirations. He announced boycotting the talks while the US, acting in unjustifiable hurry, cancelled them.
The conundrum before the American policy planners in Afghanistan is whether the process of negotiations should remain uni-polar or whether multi-polar strategy would be a safer option. While Washington would strongly work towards military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai wants to mend fence with his compatriot warlords whose mode of conducting political discourse is not alien to him.
Washington’s direct talks with Taliban in Qatar failed not only because Karzai condemned the idea of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban rigidly demand that the US and NATO completely withdraw their troops from Afghanistan as the pre-condition for fruitful talks. This led to the failure of Qatar parleys.
When Americans raised the question of Karzai establishing secret links with the Taliban, his official spokesman, Aimal Faizi, acknowledged and defended the decision. At the same time, American and German diplomats carried forward their independent peace efforts. A loya jirga, or the Grand Assembly, approved the terms of a peace deal offered by the US but Karzai evasively refused to sign the deal.
In recent months, President Hamid Karzai has become more defiant towards the US and other western powers. He even accused the US of complacency regarding a deadly attack on a Kabul restaurant last month where 21 people, including 3 Americans, were killed. Karzai also said that the US was responsible for civilian killings in Afghanistan. “He is playing with fire. Americans want the Afghan government to negotiate a peace deal. America wants to reach a political solution,” said Michael Keating, senior consultant fellow with Chatham House of London.
American policy planners argue that Karzai wants peace deal with the Taliban that makes US-sponsored bilateral agreement for security unnecessary. However, a stalemate of sorts has appeared because President Karzai scuttled the US-Taliban peace talks in Qatar and Karzai-Taliban talks have turned abortive owing to the non-representative character of the Taliban interlocutors and their inflexible attitude. Hamid Karzai cannot be faulted for trying to mollify the Taliban on his terms. The US needs to allow Karzai greater leeway.
There are many stakeholders in the fray with varying interests. Pakistan, India, Iran, and China are deeply interested in how strategies are shaping the region. Multi-polar negotiations for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan are inevitable. How they will be resolved remains murky in the face of continued tension, much of it caused by Karzai himself.
Dr. Kashi N. Pandiata is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies Kashmir University