Peace in Afghanistan has long remained an elusive idea mainly because one set of options usually engenders another set of problems. A string of daring Taliban attacks in Kabul and the eastern provinces is one such example, which needs to be understood in a continuum with the failed peace talks held between the Taliban and US officials for a stable transition of security responsibilities into Afghan hands by 2014.
The muddy horizon of Afghanistan glistened with a ray of hope some three months ago when the US officials in Kabul engaged Mullah-Omer-led Taliban in negotiations. Political observers declared such overtures the start of the end of hostility between the two opposing forces. However, the operation has gone into reverse gear just at the moment when the negotiations were expected to produce positive results. Blaming the US for not fulfilling the agreed-upon conditions, the Taliban walked out of the talks, bringing all such efforts to a grinding halt—at least for the time being.
In the above scenario, the fresh attacks are a well-packaged message to the US that the Taliban are strong enough to rock the boat at will. The selection of time and place and execution of the coordinated strikes has demonstrated the Taliban’s pervasive striking ability. “The attacks were very successful for us and were a remarkable achievement, dealing a psychological and political blow to foreigners and the government,” said Taliban spokesmen Zabiullah Mujahid in his media statement.
Candidly speaking the point at issue is not to prove how much each side has the potential to destroy the other. Instead, people expected the Taliban and the US officials to prove themselves capable of reaching a durable compromise. Unfortunately, both have failed to rise to expectations. What if the current phase of hostility continues for many more years in such a nonsensical way? It is going to confirm the widespread conviction that foreign forces in particular and the Taliban in general have learnt no lessons from their tumultuous past. Brute force has never guaranteed success in Afghanistan. The Soviets were taught their lesson in the late 1980s, when their mighty war machine was torn to shreds by the rag tag ‘Mujahideens.’ Once again a glimpse of the past is visible in the shadows of the future. By not understanding the on-the-ground realities in Afghanistan, the US is getting closer to reaping the harvest of its own follies in this landlocked country.
In fact, Afghanistan is more volatile at present than it ever was in the past. The lethal network of Al Qaida has already done its homework by sprinkling ideological germs almost everywhere in the region. The Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omer has so far largely kept his fighting militia at a safe distance from Al Qaida, and this exclusivity of Taliban’s operational capacity has been intact for the whole last decade. That is why any militant force fighting against the Nato forces in Afghanistan has to abide by the Taliban war codes, which compel outsiders to fight under only one banner, that of Emarat-i-Islami. This strategy has effectively damaged the allied forces, but it has also benefited Nato by keeping the lethal Al Qaida and other anti-Nato forces away from participating in the Afghan theatre of war. On this account, the allied forces cannot afford to lose contact with the Taliban in any rash manner.
Otherwise, any vital shift in the nature of militancy in Afghanistan is going to benefit Al Qaida more than it would benefit others. First, it will prolong the devastating war to irreparable limits, and secondly, the chances are greater that it may radicalize the dominant nationalist elements in Taliban ranks, thus re-casting them in Al Qaida mould. (Major sections of the Afghan Taliban believe that they are fighting in order to defend their land from foreign aggression. On the whole, however, the Taliban does not represent Pashtun nationalism.) This would be to bestow a second life on the already weakened Al Qaida operatives in the region, if they got a chance to avail themselves of the operational capabilities of the disciplined Taliban network. This desire has found tacit manifestation in the form of Al Qaida criticism over Taliban’s acceptance of the US offer of talks. A senior Afghan Taliban leader was recently quoted in the press reportedly admitting that, “Al Qaida blames us (Taliban) - why are you letting us down as we helped you when you were down? They (Al Qaida) want the war to continue in Afghanistan and Pakistan and that is why they are not at all happy with the Doha process”.
Of late, a high level delegation of Emarat-i-Islami (Afghan Taliban) visited the North Waziristan Agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and after weeks of hectic efforts they finally succeeded in bringing together the different factions of Pakistani militants. In this meeting the visiting ‘guests’ delivered a message from their supreme leader Mullah Omar in which the local militants were “requested to focus attention on Afghanistan and avoid fighting the Pakistani security forces.” This gesture from across the border reflects the fact that the Afghan Taliban is mainly focused on Afghanistan. Spreading the scope of the fight in the region is not their main objective, which distinguishes them from the purely ideological Al Qaida. Had the Afghan Taliban been willing to take the war beyond their own country, the visiting ‘guests’ would surely seek Al Qaida’s help, which they did not.
Does this mean that the Afghan Taliban should be considered a legitimate force in sharing the destiny of Afghanistan? Some analysts are quite optimistic in believing that years of war have reformed the Taliban to the extent that they will not be repeating what they did before the US invasion of Afghanistan. Their proverbial rigidity in dealing with women, awarding harsh punishments to political opponents and providing shelter to Al Qaida operatives will wither away once they join the internationally-sponsored political reconciliation process in Afghanistan – they argue. Of course, this optimistic view is largely the direct product of widespread pessimism because the ruling power structure has failed to defeat the Taliban. Other analysts see clear indications that the Taliban have become weary of a war which has not let up for a whole decade. One indication of this realization is the Taliban’s former willingness to talk with the Americans.
Given the circumstances, the onus of responsibility largely falls on the shoulders of US officials in Afghanistan. The pathetic security situation, disregard for human rights, the recent incidents of the desecration of the holy Quran and the killing of Afghan civilians and so forth are a few telling examples of the allies’ failed commitment to the people of Afghanistan. Similarly, the Karzai-led Afghan government is practically confined to the national capital, Kabul. On the whole his government has failed to bring any improvement whatsoever to the lives of the Afghan people. In the circumstances, any change would require a pro-active approach, bringing an end to the disturbing status quo in this war-devastated country.
On the other hand, the US policy of engaging some and leaving out others is also not going to serve any real purpose in a multi-ethnic Afghanistan, which is surrounded by highly ambitious neighbouring countries. Likewise, the US strategy to maintain the element of secrecy in holding peace negotiations may have manifold advantages, but this strategy has barred common Afghans from knowing how they are being represented at the top. An open process of negotiation will help them understand where the problem lies. This shift would certainly make its impact felt on the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, where the strong Taliban network is in a better position to use the Pashtun card to maximum political advantage.
Meanwhile, blaming others for the repeated Taliban attacks on Kabul and elsewhere in the country is not going to serve the US purpose. It will only enlarge the spectrum of war to countries across the border.
There are critics who take the role of neighbouring Pakistan too seriously and believe that without neutralizing Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan, peace is unlikely to come to the region. However, there is a need to revise this assumption. Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan is sometimes overestimated and at other times this role is oversimplified. Unlike in the 1980s, the role of Pakistan is not strong enough to change the tide of things on its own across the border. But by focusing so closely on the role of Pakistani state agencies, perhaps the US is ignoring the increasing strength of non-state elements in the region. In fact, the problem of Afghanistan is largely indigenous and its solution requires strong local mechanisms. Support from the neighbouring states, if there is any, can be easily neutralized once the allied forces start taking local actors more seriously in Afghanistan.