Regardless of US spin, the endgame in Afghanistan has begun. Aware that they cannot defeat the Taliban militarily, the Americans have changed tune. They are now talking about enticing “moderate” Taliban from the hardcore in order to weaken the insurgency but as even Mike Mullen, Chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted early last month, the insurgency has spread to Afghanistan’s Northern provinces as well, much beyond the traditional Taliban stronghold in the south and west.
American officials including the top US general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, have admitted that there is no military solution. McChrystal said that every military campaign must have as its endgame a political solution. When generals start talking about political solutions, it is a tacit admission that they have failed in their military mission and are looking for a face-saving exit strategy. Whether the Taliban will offer one is open to question.
The new policy was publicly announced in London on January 28 when foreign ministers from 70 countries assembled in the British capital, ostensibly to raise funds for Afghanistan that would be offered as inducements to preen away “moderate” Taliban from the hardcore. It is like looking for Dalmatians without spots. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, facing an increasingly hostile public, admitted that the war cannot go on forever. At the London conference an estimate $1 billion were pledged. Afghan President Hamid Karzai once again appealed to the Taliban to join his government and he also announced that a Loya Jirga would be convened and he invited the Taliban leader, Mullah Umar to join him. He was profuse in his praise of the one-eyed Taliban leader calling him a “brother” and said we have to sit together and talk.
Talking may be better than fighting but if the Taliban feel, as they clearly do, that they are winning and that the Americans do not have stomach for a prolonged fight especially in view of the rapidly deteriorating US economy with millions of people out of jobs and millions more forced to live in tents, they may decide to wait out the Loya Jirga even if Karzai promises to serve lamb kebab and rice.
According to Crescent International contacts in Pakistan, back channel negotiations are already underway between the Taliban leadership and the US through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Saudi regime. The Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz has been negotiating with Mullah Omar through his senior aide and commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was captured in Karachiat the end of January but was reported only on February 15. His capture has raised questions about the true motive of the operation. Publicly, the Taliban have dismissed the idea of negotiations; this is for public consumption because they do not want to be seen as negotiating with the kafirs, especially in the eyes of their rank-and-file members who have been brought up on the notion that there will be no negotiations until all foreign troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan. If they are, there will be precious little left to negotiate.
The gap between public pronouncements and private dealings is being narrowed by Pakistani and Saudi intermediaries. During Karzai’s visit to Saudi Arabia under the cover of performing Umrah on his way back from London, he met King Abdullah on February 2. He again appealed to the Saudi monarch for help as he had done during the London conference. Abdullah told him that he would agree only if the Taliban were to first cut off links with Osama bin Laden. This would not be difficult; Osama is already dead, notwithstanding the fake audio taped messages that are periodically broadcast on Al-Jazeera, an American mouthpiece in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda, too, does not exist; it is a creation of the Americans and they raise this bogeyman in order to justify their worldwide military aggressions and to frighten their ill-informed public into supporting ill-conceived policies.
Secret discussions between the US and Taliban were resumed through Pakistani and Saudi intermediaries last November. The Americans wanted the Taliban to stop attacking government buildings in Kabul. The Taliban would have agreed but President Barack Obama’s troop surge announcement on December 1 at West Point upset them. Obama had taken several weeks before making the announcement. The US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, too, had spoken out against the troop surge. It was not because of any higher principle or that the ambassador, who had served until 2007 as the top US commander in Afghanistan, had suddenly become a peacenik. Eikenberry was in indirect contact with the Taliban and he knew that the troop surge would undermine those efforts, especially since everyone had realized that America and its allies would not be able to defeat the Taliban militarily. His argument was: why provoke them?
He was proved right. As soon as Obama announced the troop surge, the Taliban cut off all contacts. And in order to drive home the point, they launched a massive attack on Kabul on January 18 targeting the presidential palace as Karzai was swearing in the few ministers approved by parliament; the finance, justice and mines ministries, the central bank, as well as the Serena Hotel, the Ariana cinema and a new shopping mall. Some 20 Taliban were involved in the attack that was both daring and brazen in its scope. They delivered the message that no place, not even Kabul with its high security buildings, was safe from such attacks. Karzai certainly got the message; within 10 days, he was appealing to the Taliban for talks.
Through Pakistani and Saudi interlocutors, the Taliban have been urged to resume negotiations. The new deal being hammered out is that the Americans would not increase their troop strength substantially; that troops heading for Afghanistan would simply replace those that are ending their tour of duty. This will save face on both sides: the Taliban would get what they want and Obama would say that he has fulfilled his pledge of a troop surge.
This does not mean that peace will break out in Afghanistan tomorrow. Negotiations, especially conducted through intermediaries and in secret, often have a tendency of falling apart as a result of misunderstandings or miscommunication. There are also the divergent interests of the parties involved. The Americans do not intend to leave the country completely. After all, they did not spend hundreds of billions of dollars to return home empty-handed. What they are looking for is a way to reduce direct military involvement while the heavy lifting is handed over to the Afghans. As Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University (England) put it, “The spin is that Afghanistan can take charge of its own security.” That is not the case and Karzai knows it. His regime would not last a few weeks if foreign troops leave, hence his talk about Western troop presence for the next 15 years or more. The real question is whether the Americans can afford such a long-term commitment to prop up a corrupt, unpopular puppet. The Taliban can at least guarantee security and would not need the Americans to prop them up.
So what does the future hold? No quick breakthroughs can be expected. The negotiations will drag on for quite some time. The Americans want to avoid the Saigon moment (the 1975 scramble out of Saigon when Americans clung to helicopter skids as they took off from the US embassy with the Vietcong pouring into the city) as well as the retreat march out of Kabul as the Russians experienced in February 1989. Instead, they would like to keep some contingents under the guise of reconstruction teams to “rebuild” Afghanistan, the country they have ravaged for nearly 10 years. They would even promise to pay for reconstruction provided the Taliban agree to allow the oil and gas pipeline from Central Asia through Qandahar and into Pakistan. It was the same pipeline deal they had rejected back in July 2001 that resulted in the US invasion of Afghanistan. The events of 9/11 were just a pretext for launching the invasion.
US politics revolve round grabbing others’ resources — peacefully if they may, forcibly if they must. In Afghanistan’s case, force has failed to achieve the desired result so Uncle Sam, an ill-mannered and uncouth operator, is about to put on the charm offensive all over again, for oil and gas and to save his thick hide.