Friday, January 29, 2010

Conference on Afghanistan: how much to buy off the Taliban?

On January 28, London will play host to a conference on Afghanistan, where representatives will try to organize an approach and funding for ensuring security in the Islamic Republic, integrating it into global civilized life, and integrating the Taliban into peaceful life in that country.

These goals are incredibly complicated and equally difficult to achieve. Afghanistan's security cannot be guaranteed without the Taliban's participation (the bulk of the political movement are ethnic Pushtuns, who make up 45% of the Afghan population), but it would be easier to start a new Afghan war than to integrate the Taliban into peaceful life in Afghanistan under the current U.S. strategy and the Hamid Karzai government.

So many unpleasant events took place in the run-up to the conference that it is now easy to predict its outcome. First it was announced that the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan would be postponed from May till September. After President Karzai's fraudulent elections last year, the parliamentary elections would be the final blow to what's left of his authority, which is limited to Kabul anyway. As a result, the United Nations froze its more than $50 million worth of aid to Kabul to carry out the elections.

Moreover, the day before the conference the New York Times published a cable by Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, who warned his superiors that Afghan President Hamid Karzai "is not an adequate strategic partner."

Mr. Eikenberry repeatedly cautioned that deploying sizable American reinforcements would only deepen the dependence of the Afghan government on the United States. The British press also published a regular report from U.S. military intelligence on the Taliban's growing horizontal and vertical influence.

Finally, Afghanistan's donors rejected the plan for combating corruption that President Karzai set forth only a week ago. An American expert on Afghanistan said that Mr. Karzai's cabinet is now even more corrupt than before the elections, which is why the Afghan parliament refused to endorse Mr. Karzai's cabinet (11 out of 17 ministers' positions are still vacant). Now the Afghan president will have to set forth a five-year plan for reorganizing and reintegrating Afghanistan at the forthcoming conference. Ouch...

Incidentally, the most realistic and specific proposal at the forum came from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, when Moscow offered to restore all the industrial and economic facilities that it had built in Afghanistan long ago. The West would have to pay for this effort, since these facilities were destroyed by the weapons it supplied to Afghanistan, in particular, to the Taliban.

In general, the outcome of such conferences is easy to predict. They start with banquets (Prince Charles hosted the banquet leading up to this conference on January 27), are followed by speeches and communiques, and eventually put off the problem until a new crisis.

The conference will be attended by 77 governments, including all 43 members of the Afghan military expedition and all of Afghanistan's neighbors. It would seem that the choice of venue should facilitate success. After all, London's Lancaster House (where the Foreign Office now holds receptions and international conferences) has witnessed many settlements, primarily the agreements granting independence to Nigeria, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and Kenya.

Participants in the conference could learn from the British. They waged three wars in Afghanistan from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, defeated the Afghans in the latter two wars, but then realized that defeat did not mean they could control these tribes. As a result, they left Afghanistan, which became independent in 1919.

Some participants are bound to attempt to bring up this British experience at the conference, at which there has already been a proposal to remove the names of a number of prominent Afghan politicians, who were either previously in the Taliban or actively opposed the regime, from the UN blacklist. It is clear that the goal of this proposal is to encourage them to take part in the settlement talks and thus bring other Taliban leaders into the reconciliation process. The UN first blacklisted these politicians for their alleged links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban immediately after 9/11, in New York in 2001. They were declared outside the law and their foreign bank accounts frozen.

Needless to say, nobody is going to remove al-Qaeda's die-hard terrorists from list, but its revision would be beneficial - pardon for the mistakes of the past is an invitation to talks and an incentive for others.

This would be good if all those "pardoned" have not already been cooperating with the Kabul regime for many years. Former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Mutavakil has lived in Kabul for four years now. Former Deputy Planning Minister Musa Hotak has been an MP and chairman of the Security Committee since 2007. Former Minister of Border Guards Abdul Hakim left the Taliban three years ago and is now the governor of the Uruzgan Province.

As for the Taliban's reintegration into Afghan life, it amounts to funds for retraining the converts and providing them with housing and jobs. This is a euphemism for buying off the Taliban. When it comes to money, the East is no longer a "tricky matter" but instead a mercantile one. It is easier to buy loyalty in the East than to win it, but for how long?

Moreover, the price tag for the loyalty of the former Taliban is a meager $500 million. This money will go to an integration fund. One of the world's biggest charities, British Oxfam, has calculated that one American soldier in Afghanistan costs $1 million per year. During the entire seven years of Afghanistan's occupation, the country has received a mere $93 per capita for its economic development.

Does this mean that money is the solution and Mr. Karzai the main headache? But few will dare say: "Remove Karzai and Afghanistan will quickly recover." And who would succeed him now? British Secretary of State David Miliband has said that the alternative to this "very, very difficult project" - Mr. Karzai and his cabinet -- is even worse. Speaking strictly, nobody has seriously looked for an alternative, but Mr Miliband's words recall Franklin Roosevelt's blunt words about one Nicaraguan dictator: "Somoza may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch."

In 2009, the world strategic community was mostly concerned with the ‘Af-Pak’ hot spot. In 2010, the trend is most unlikely to change, although new flashpoints like Yemen, Somalia and North Africa are likely to emerge in the geopolitical horizon. But one very challenging aspect to the theoretical circles shall be the contemplation on the repercussions of the Af-Pak conflict on the Central Asian Republics (CAR). A couple of plausible reasons, among other things, may be posited for this future scenario.

First, a slow and silent revolution which pertains to Islamic religious upthrust, is being staged in some nation-states of Central Asia: especially, in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Second, and more important, is the opening up of the countries of the region, apart from Turkmenistan to the influx of American logistics for the war against terror in Af-Pak.

To make matters clear, it must be stated that the International Crisis Group, in its update briefing issued on 15 December 2009, reported on the steady growth of Islamic proselytizers inside the prison-cells of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The data from the prisons of other states was insufficient to draw any logical inference, though the number of jailed Islamists was higher in those nations. Moreover, the said report also talks about the strong influence that the Islamists have over the prison-inmates, even petty criminals coming under their sway.

Against this backdrop, USA is embarking on a new rail and road network through Central Asia and Russia in order to reach the zone of conflict in Af-Pak. Till date; America used the routes emanating from the Pakistani port of Karachi and thereby supplied support materials to its troops in Afghanistan. The beefed up insurgency in Pakistan under the aegis of Al Qaeda and its local franchisee Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is definitely the major factor to have pushed the U.S. to search for alternative and rather peaceful avenues.

The fresh transit routes are collectively called by the U.S. Central Command as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). It has three components: the northern, the southern and the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan pathway. The northern part of the NDN, starting from the Latvian port of Riga connects Afghanistan via Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. On the other hand, the southern stream of NDN, originating at the Georgian port of Poti completely bypasses Russia and reaches Afghanistan through the terrains of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; through the Caspian Sea.

Thus it is probably evident that the Central Asian states are being drawn into the war against terror through their acquiescence in providing access to ‘non-lethal goods’ to reach the war-torn Afghanistan. By the middle of 2009, leaving apart Turkmenistan, the other four Central Asian states went into agreements with U.S.A. in order to be a part of NDN.

Presently, Islam is not the state religion in the CAR and the internal political structures are secular and sovereign. During the pre-1991 Soviet period, religion was at the backburner; being totally separated from politics. Even after the demise of the ‘Communist Umbrella’, religion was not allowed to take over the polity. Still, there are certain inherent institutional bottlenecks in these countries which do not augur well.

And nonetheless, there may be negative spin-offs from the crackdown that the governments of these nation-states employ to thwart any rise of fundamentalism. Even, peaceful preaching is reproached and proselytizers are incarcerated. On top of this; rampant corruption, poor governance and a dilapidated jail system in the CAR portend aggrandizement of Islamic Extremism.

In this regard, three main Islamist groups having a considerable base need to be mentioned. They are, in order of importance; the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ). Amongst these, the HuT seems to be the deadliest, at least in a long term scenario, though they advocate peaceful means of attaining an Islamic State.

The IMU commenced its activities in Uzbekistan but now has relocated to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. It suffered a jolt when its leader Tokhir Yuldashev was eliminated by a U.S. drone attack in August 2009. Presently, they are fighting alongside the TTP, against the Pakistani military at FATA. It is reported that its new leadership is desirous of taking the fight back to the CAR and overthrow the democratic regimes there.

In these circumstances, it may be a distinct possibility that the Al Qaeda and its local arms try to disrupt the CAR, more so because of the NDN. The fertile ground to launch their ideology and war may be provided by the mass mobilization achieved by HuT; consequent alienation of those ‘aligned masses’ from the mainstream due to repressive policies of the respective regimes of the CAR and the underpinning of violence provided by militant groups like IMU.

A stable CAR is not only a pre-requisite for the American led NATO forces, but an imperative for the security and stability of South Asia and Middle East. Keeping in view the past history of the CAR, it seems difficult for the extremists to make inroads, though occasional terror-strikes may be in the offing. And the frequency of such attacks may inflate in the near future.

In fact, the Taliban has arrived in close proximity to the border areas of the CAR as they have surged in the Kunduz province of Afghanistan (to the south of the Tajikistan border). They were also sighted near the borders of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2009.

Can there be any Indian role envisaged in this context?

India surely can and strategically should, get involved in the building of infrastructure in the CAR, especially collaborate with U.S. in developing the road and rail network of Central Asia. It has already entrenched itself in Afghanistan and further involvement in the CAR would benefit it in the long run. The Indian ride shall not be smooth as Pakistan’s hypothesis of an ‘Indian encirclement’ will be a stronger case then and to what extent U.S.A. would allow Indian incursions remains a matter of speculation.

Nevertheless, if geopolitical considerations are shrugged off and geo-economics is given due weightage, then Greater Central Asia and South Asia as well as the world economy would stand to gain from such a collaborative venture.

The situation in Af-Pak is perilous and no wise brain will want the terrorism to spill-over to the neighboring areas. But to contain the war within a strict geographical territory would require many ‘wise heads’. An extended ‘arc of conflict’ encompassing the CAR would be an enactment of the proverbial ‘domino effect’ and can spell doom for the region.

Thus Richard Holbrooke has rightly pointed out in his briefing at the Brookings Institute on 7 Jan 2010: “Without exception, every country in the region agrees that what’s happening in Afghanistan and in the border regions is of direct vital strategic interest to them as well, and I need to underscore that.”