Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Afghanistan 2009: War & Talks Heating Up

Even as both the U.S. and the Taliban appear to be gearing up for a major clash during the 2009 warm season, movement toward negotiations also is underway, suggesting that 2009 will see unusually complicated maneuverings on and off the battlefield.

Key Date: May 21

A presidential vote is constitutionally required by May 21 but is not scheduled until August 20, raising the question of whether Karzai will step down and appoint a caretaker government in the interim.

Key Date: August 20

Afghanistan’s presidential election is now scheduled for August 20.

War or Negotiation?

Washington’s emphasis has been on fighting harder, but a different tone is detectable in Kabul, where presidential candidate and former finance minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi said about the insurgents, “As long as their demands are reasonable, we can hope to reach a political settlement.”

Indeed, negotiations seem already to have begun. Westerners and representatives of Kabul are reportedly meeting with representatives of former prime minister and leader of the Hezb-i-Islami faction of the Taliban Gulbaldin Hekmatyar. Any move by this important faction toward participation in Afghan politics would open the door to a broad repositioning.

The idea of a compromise solution is not new. Tribal leaders called for talks at least as far back as August 2007. Karzai acknowledged contacts with the Taliban in April 2007 and has clearly not been averse to considering a negotiated settlement. As for Washington, even before the end of the Bush administration, a classified White House strategy review reportedly argued at least for talks with “junior and midlevel” Taliban commanders. That formulation seems to imply an effort focused more on creating internal dissension within the Taliban rather than achieving a fundamental settlement, but it may turn out to have been an early step toward a new Washington policy seeking genuine compromise. The attractiveness of such a policy shift can be expected to hinge greatly on the battlefield situation over the 2009 warm season.

Aside from Washington and Kabul, the Saudis have been active. While the degree to which Saudi Arabia is playing an independent role is not clear, the tangled history of its relations with the region suggest that the safe assumption would be that Saudi Arabia has its own plans, not necessarily spelled out to Washington.

· King Abdullah reportedly met a Taliban delegation in October.

· Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, head of Saudi intelligence, is reportedly brokering talks.

According to Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a Taliban official before 9/11 and now working for Karzai,

The Saudi government is doing its best to get peace talks going but there may be big problems if the Americans carry out this big offensive in the wrong way. That kind of action will lead to anger and help those in the Taliban who do not believe in any kind of negotiations. So it is important that we start doing things before this offensive starts and the international community should try to persuade the US that there should be less military action and not more.

The role of Pakistan, which created and retains broad contacts with the insurgency, also should not be overlooked. Whatever Pakistan’s official attitude toward a compromise solution, the mere fact of its domestic compromises—notably, in Swat—cannot but alter the context of the Afghan conflict.

One possible strategy for Washington would be to accept that it cannot control Afghanistan or remodel Afghanistan in the American image and therefore to conclude that its goal should be only to get a stable regime that would oppose international jihad in return for being able to run its domestic affairs without interference. The logical outcome of such a perspective would be to make a deal with the Taliban that splits it off from al Qua’ida. Efforts along these lines, whether supported by Washington or not, have been underway for a long time:

Behind the scenes, there has also been quiet work by people like Abdullah Anas, an Algerian who fought in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

For the last two years, in an effort supported by Mr. Karzai, Mr. Anas has been lobbying influential Muslim clerics and international leaders of jihads in an attempt to draw the Taliban away from Al Qaeda and to bring peace to Afghanistan, according to an Afghan military attaché working on the plan.

Defense Secretary Gates indicated willingness to support such an outcome in October.

All these moves toward compromise notwithstanding, Washington remains focused on finding a military solution. Given that, according to a RAND study, “large-scale use of U.S. military forces to counter insurgencies in the Muslim world is at best inadequate, at worst counterproductive, and on the whole, not feasible,” the advocates of compromise may have their day before year’s end.

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