Is it the beginning of the end for foreign occupation in Afghanistan? Seven years after driving the Taliban from power, Western bravado about defeating them militarily has evaporated. Several Western commanders and diplomats have at different times admitted that defeating the Taliban militarily was not possible and that a negotiated settlement to contain the insurgency was the only possible option. When Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the top British commander in Afghanistan, was quoted in the Sunday Times of London (October 5), as saying that a military victory over the Taliban was not possible, it was followed five days later by the Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen admitting that the insurgency had not only escalated but that 2009 would be even worse. Even US Defence Secretary Robert Gates called for a dialogue although he added the caveat that the Taliban had to “give up” violence. He could hardly have said anything different otherwise it would have sounded like abject surrender. Gates made the remarks enroute to Budapest in Hungary as he tried to drum up support for more Nato troops in Afghanistan.
The repeated Western calls for negotiations followed a desperate appeal from President Hamid Karzai imploring the Taliban leader Mulla Umar to come to Kabul for talks. He called him “my brother”, a far cry from the racist cant of the former Canadian chief of defence staff, general Rick Hillier, who had declared in 2005 that Canadian soldiers were going to
Afghanistan to “kill the murderers and scumbags.” Hillier is now history; so are a number of other loud-mouthed generals and tough-talking Western officials on a civilizing mission, including Donald “stuff happens” Rumsfeld. “You don't negotiate with that kind,” then British Prime Minister Tony Blair had thundered. “You just defeat them.” Obviously it is easier said than done as Western military commanders have discovered amid mounting casualties.
How did this turn around occur so dramatically and what has happened in the intervening years for Western officials to call for negotiations with the very people their armies drove from Kabul seven years ago and whom they have been hitherto denouncing as terrorists? Have the Taliban suddenly been converted to Western-style democracy or have they acquired a taste for MacDonald hamburgers that Western officials are so keen to talk to them and have them become partners in the Afghan government?
Karzai made a stunning admission: “The reality is that for the last two years, we have been sending letters and messages to the king of Saudi Arabia, and requesting him, as a leader of the Islamic world, to help us achieve security, peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and good relations in the region.” He made other interesting revelations: “The preparations for negotiations are going on a daily basis,” he added. “Our envoys have traveled many times to Saudi Arabia and to Pakistan, but the discussions have not started and nothing has been done yet. If any negotiation happens, it should be inside our country.” At the end of May, Ghairat Bahir, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s son-in-law, who had been held at Bagram airbase for six years, was released. Karzai feted and dined him, hoping to persuade him to start the dialogue among Afghan groups (see Crescent International July 2008).
In a recently leaked diplomatic cable the deputy French ambassador in Kabul, François Fitou, reported that the British ambassador there, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, told him that the strategy for Afghanistan was “doomed to failure.” In Sir Sherard’s view “the security situation is getting worse, so is corruption and the government has lost all trust”. The usual denials followed but that is what British officials say in private. This is precisely what Brigadier Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times. He was neither speaking out of turn nor shooting from the hip.
Negotiations, however, have taken place, according to reports from Saudi Arabia. Wakeel Ahmed Mutawwakil, foreign minister during the Taliban regime, not only met Saudi intelligence chief, prince Muqram ibn Abdul Aziz, but also King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia although Mutawwakil insisted that he had gone to Makkah to perform Umrah during Ramadan and since he knew most Saudi officials, he was invited for an iftar dinner. Presumably so were representatives of the Karzai regime, among them his brother Qayum Karzai who recently resigned as member of parliament, former Afghan Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazel Hadi Shinwari and Afghan army chief of staff General Bismillah Khan, the meeting being blessed by both Washington and London. Abdul Salam Zaeef, the last Taliban ambassador to Islamabad who was arrested by the Pakistanis and handed over to the Americans in contravention of all diplomatic norms, and sent to Guantanamo Bay, also attended the meeting. A representative of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar was also present. That so many Afghans from all sides should converge on Makkah for Umrah at the same time is a little more than strange.
There is speculation that if some kind of an agreement is reached, next year's presidential elections would be supervised by peacekeeping forces from Muslim countries rather than those of NATO. This would be aimed at assuaging one of the Taliban’s demands that foreign occupation forces not interfere in the country’s affairs and leave. Whether anything short of a total foreign troops withdrawal would be acceptable to the Taliban is debatable since they are adamant that they would not otherwise negotiate with the Karzai government. They have also dismissed Mutawwakil’s overtures and said that he does not speak for them. The Saudis, however, may be able to exert some influence and get the Taliban to soften their stand, given that they can underwrite Afghanistan’s future development, once the Western armies leave. Further, the former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal, an old Taliban hand, was also present at the iftar meeting that had been in the making for nearly two years. Saudi intelligence efforts were being assisted by British intelligence, according to the Saudi paper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat.
Despite denials by the Taliban that any of their representatives have been involved in negotiations “with the US or the puppet Afghan government” some discussions have been underway even if indirectly. The Taliban statement continued: “A few former officials of the Taliban who are under house arrest [Mulla Zaeef] or have surrendered [Mutawwakil] do not represent the Islamic Emirate. The Afghanistan Islamic Emirate leadership council considers [these] as baseless rumors and as failed attempts of the enemy to create mistrust and concerns among Afghans and other nations and mujahideen.” May be, but even the Taliban leadership may find it difficult to resist Saudi overtures.
The question of why the Americans and the British turned to the Saudis and not to the Pakistanis is equally revealing. It is not only because of the current turmoil in Pakistan but also because the Americans no longer trust the Pakistanis, especially the intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that is accused by the Americans of aiding the Afghan insurgency. The Saudis have their own axe to grind. Apart from being unable to say “no” to the Americans, they have jumped into the fray because they want to undercut Iran’s influence in the region. The Saudis have expressed alarm at Iran’s influence in post-Saddam Iraq as well as in Lebanon, especially through Hizbullah. Saudi agents have lost in both places. They would rather see the zionists in control in Lebanon than let Islamic Iran have any influence. The Saudi strategy in Afghanistan is predicated on undercutting Iran.
This, however, is doomed to failure. Two countries—Pakistan and Iran—will have to be involved if any agreement has even a remote chance of success. Both border Afghanistan and have strategic and geopolitical interests there that cannot be wished away simply because the Americans or the Saudis think otherwise. At the behest of their American masters, the Saudis are playing the dangerous sectarian card but that can backfire.
The negotiations have another, equally sinister purpose that is aimed at affecting the internal dynamic in Afghanistan. By leaking information about negotiations, the aim is to create divisions within the resistance that is not based on any formal hierarchical structure. The Taliban may be the best- known group but there are other loose alliances and groupings also battling foreign troops. For instance, many people go about their routine activity during the day but join the resistance at night. This has nothing to do with the Taliban per se; it is the Afghan way of life. They will not accept foreigners dictating to them or allowing them to humiliate their women by barging into their homes. The Americans’ bloody-mindedness in attacking civilians and killings scores of them especially through aerial bombardment has been the single most important recruitment tool for the resistance.
The negotiations ploy is General David Petraeus’s brainchild that he used in Iraq although efforts at negotiations have been underway for nearly two years. With his elevation as head of the US Central Command and fresh from his arguable successes in Iraq, Petraeus hopes to repeat the same feat in Afghanistan. This, however, will not succeed since the Taliban realize this. Besides, Karzai does not enjoy even the limited support that Nuri al-Maliki does in Iraq.
Next year is likely to shape up as a decisive year for Afghanistan. The Taliban have vowed to step up resistance. With their control now extending even to Wardak province that borders Kabul, they may make their threat real.