Jun 10, 2011

Before Karzai arrives

Zafar Hilaly
News that Hamid Karzai will soon be in Islamabad prompted a friend to say that it’s time for us to get our own act together and start exerting ourselves fully for the peace process, as it means so much for our future. He’s right: unless all players are onboard and throw in their weight with equal measure, the war will drag on without a closure in sight. We need an end to the war more desperately than others do, if only because our TTP problem has inexorably shifted the Afghan war to Pakistan. Alas, given the stated positions of the two main protagonists – the Afghan Taliban and the US – nothing of the sort is in the offing, not by a long shot.

Indeed, it will be a Herculean endeavour to get all the sides on to the peace table. The Afghan Taliban have said that their resistance will not end as long as US/IFAD forces remain in Afghanistan, whereas the Americans say they may never leave Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the prospect of substantial withdrawal of US forces next month under the phased plan seems doubtful.

So, just when it seemed that the killing of Osama bin Laden, the disbandment of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and American feelers for talks with the Taliban had created a propitious climate for peace talks, the two sides still remain poles apart.

Nevertheless, despite the posturing by both sides, the view that this war has no military solution is gaining ground. And, for the moment, let us discard as the usual bluster by Defence Secretary Gates perceptions that US forces are on the verge of securing a “decisive blow” against the Taliban. Who can forget that, decades earlier in Vietnam, another US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, had termed the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive as a “great victory” for the US, although it was one of those seminal events in that war that sealed the outcome against America.

True, the Taliban are under pressure as their traditional sources of revenue from abroad have come under greater scrutiny; and their profits from the drug trade are being squeezed by better controls. The increased fighting during the “surge,” and especially the night raids by Special Forces, has caused casualties among their experienced commanders, and even if these were quickly replaced, it must have had hurt their morale and fighting capability. Reports of Taliban foot soldiers taking advantage of US amnesty offers to hand in their weapons also suggest some success. But these are at best marginal gains. Since then, the Taliban have struck back and fighting has seldom been so intense or American casualties greater than in the month of May 2011. Moreover, Taliban recruitment has also not flagged. The truth is that the Taliban will never have a shortage of recruits in a war against foreign occupation.

At the same time, in the US, Congress is desperate to cut costs in deference to domestic priorities; the deeply afflicted economy shows little sign of recovery anytime in the near future and the presidential campaign is gearing up with record unemployment figures being a big headache for Obama. Furthermore, war weariness has grown on both sides of the political aisle; the recent success against Al-Qaeda in Af-Pak has reduced the urgency of relying overwhelmingly on combat operations in Afghanistan, and with the “surge” having failed to live up to its pre-launch hype hawks are more isolated than ever on current Afghan policy. In fact, Sen Lugar has questioned the entire purpose of an expensive war that in his view safeguards no important US interest.

Karzai too is moving harder on peace with the Afghan Taliban hierarchy in the hope of getting his message across. Of late, he has been remarkably uninhibited in his criticism of American military tactics, even issuing a “last warning” if the American military caused any more innocent civilian casualties. He has also managed to loosen the grip of the Northern Alliance by getting rid of two prominent Pakistan-haters in his inner coterie. He has skilfully placed himself at equidistant between the Taliban and their inveterate foes, the Tajiks, thereby making it possible for him to act as a conciliator between them, were that to become necessary during peace negotiations.

Pakistan too is finally getting its act together. The army is taking a manifest interest in the Afghan peace process. Kayani has met Karzai with the aim, no doubt, of removing the bad blood that was so evident between the army and the Kabul regime. And noticeably, whenever he journeys to Kabul, he takes the opportunity of calling on Karzai. It seems we have stopped pretending and woken up to the volcano that the Afghan war has potentially become and which we alone cannot douse by arming or playing off one proxy against another. The OBL and the Mehran fiascos have brought us down to earth by taking away the machismo and aura some within the establishment had built up of our own security apparatus and by laying bare for all to see what our fundamental problem is – it is our strategic extravagance.

Our perceptions of the Afghan Taliban are also changing, though perhaps not as perceptibly as some would like and the Americans have long hoped. The Afghan Taliban are no longer viewed as some kind of irresistible heroes who have a right to rule Afghanistan. Actuallym their nearness to the TTP in demeanour and spirit is a source of increasing concern and resentment. The thought that peace in Afghanistan may not lead to peace at home is slowly, ever so slowly, gaining an audience. Nevertheless, few here cavil that the Taliban remain the leading contenders for a share of power and must be accommodated constitutionally as a political force within a new post settlement security structure.

The fact is that civil conflicts, like in so many cases around the world, especially those burdened by with numerous players and cross-cutting interests and concerns, usually come to some conclusion at the end of a protracted and uneven peace process. So if the Afghan peace process, once it kick-starts, proves to be no different, this should not come as a surprise. The important thing for Pakistan is that it is vitally in its interest to see an end to this debilitating conflict. So much is at stake that it would be utter folly to underestimate its importance and urgency.

Civil conflicts as a rule share broad similarities; they have their own distinct contexts, and therefore there is no “one size fits all” solution. Solutions have to be adapted to the peculiar circumstances of the conflict itself. The process itself may eventually help to bring about flexibility and dynamism. It would be foolish to insist on preconditions or to come with fixed preconceptions. The hardest part is often getting the process started or getting the parties to organise themselves for the process.

The fact is that a zero sum gain (where one side’s gain is regarded by the other side as its loss) runs contrary to the concept of a peace process. While war can be a continuation of politics by other means, to quote Clauswitch, a peace process cannot be a continuation of war by other means. War has failed all sides. The only sensible alternative is reconciliation through a peace process.

It is time, therefore, that we got back to the normal business of diplomacy, demanding as it is, rather than persist with any game, great or not, if we are serious about pulling through our worst crisis. The complex Afghan peace process is going to be our biggest litmus test of that and Hamid Karzai’s visit to Islamabad this week is as good an opportunity as any to begin the process in earnest.

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