Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pentagon's Circles within circles around the Taliban

Pentagon's Circles within circles around the Taliban

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s attention is likely to be divided as hosts long-awaited international deliberations in London on the war in Afghanistan on Thursday. To be or not to be in the British capital was the question as Brown rushed to Belfast on Monday to "talk through the night" to save the Ulster power-sharing process from collapse.

In a manner of speaking, power sharing also forms the agenda of the London conference, attended by some 60 countries. Cynics label the meeting a public relations stunt by Brown at a time when two-thirds of Britons oppose the Afghan war.

However, the conference serves a purpose. An idea that seemed heretic until recently has tiptoed to the center of the conflict-resolution agenda in Afghanistan - devolving on reconciliation with the Taliban. The United Nations put its imprimatur on the idea on Sunday, when its special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, suggested that at least some of the Taliban senior leaders should be removed from the UN's list of terrorists drawn up in 2001.

"If you want relevant results, then you have to talk to the relevant person in authority," Eide said. "I think the time has come to do it."

The UN black list contains 144 names, including Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Under UN Resolution 1267, all governments are obliged to freeze the bank accounts of people on the list and prevent them from traveling. The George W Bush administration forced the decision on the world community.

After eight years of war and loss of thousands of lives, Washington has changed course. As Robert Gates, the US secretary of defense said last week: "The Taliban ... are part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point."

In an extraordinary interview timed for the London Conference, the commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said: "As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there's been enough fighting."

"After eight years of war, it's clear that domestically many [Western] political leaders are having to answer questions, this [war] has gone on a long time and it's no better than it was in 2004, so why are we maintaining it, will it get better?" he told the Financial Times on Monday.

Echoing Eide, McChrystal underscored that "the possibility for everybody to look at [is] what's the right combination of participation in the government [in Kabul]". It is important that all parts of the population have an absolute stake in the government, he said. "I think any Afghan can play a role ... It's the return of al-Qaeda we don't want."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai would use the London platform to "announce his intent to implement a reintegration policy [towards the Taliban] and then move forward to implementation, and I'm hopeful and very optimistic that the international community will completely back that," McChrystal predicted.

From various accounts, the Karzai plan pits the main protagonists in the insurgency - the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban, former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the so-called Haqqani network - within five concentric circles. The first circle includes Mullah Omar, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Hekmatyar; the second circle slots some 15-20 insurgent groups; the third comprises 60-70 individuals who include provincial commanders; the fourth brings together some 700 individuals; and the fifth circle brackets around 20,000 to 25,000 "foot soldiers".

The protagonists in the first and the second circles will be engaged in a political and strategic agenda of "reconciliation" at national level, whereas those in the outer circles could be "integrated" through provincial-level initiatives. The Karzai government will spearhead the implementation of the plan.

At a trilateral summit meeting with his Turkish and Pakistani counterparts in Istanbul on Monday, Karzai formally discussed the plan with Pakistan President Asif Zardari and his accompanying Inter-Services Intelligence chief. The Turks are working behind the scenes to bring about a better understanding between Kabul and Islamabad. Karzai revealed in Istanbul that he would ask the London conference to support his move to remove Taliban names from the UN black list.

Karzai and Washington find themselves on the same page. Simply put, Washington counts on Karzai to bell the cat. Karzai counts on Washington to acquiesce with his leadership. The first point on their common agenda is envisages that now that the US thinks differently about the Taliban, the international community might as well do so.

Secondly, The US is caught in a bind. In order for reconciliation with the Taliban to proceed, the militants must be removed from the UN black list. To this end the Security Council - Russia and China in particular - must be brought on board. Karzai will seek a mandate in London to approach the Security Council.

Third on their agenda, the Security Council must also formally endorse Karzai's reconciliation plan once it gets adopted as the international community’s collective wish. The US alone cannot bankroll the "rehabilitation" or "integration" of thousands of Taliban cadres and their families; it costs a lot of money and the international community should share the burden. After all, this is about global security.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Britain will be the US's key partners for holding reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Separately, Washington has said it hopes to negotiate a "status of forces agreement" with Kabul regarding the US military presence in Afghanistan.

In sum, the London conference is getting set to witness a display of "smart power". If it works, a substantial drawdown of US combat troops becomes possible in time for President Barack Obama's re-election bid. But the big question is whether or not it will work.

Leaving aside the Taliban, who may well have minds of their own, the countries that could act as spoilers are mainly the regional powers - Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia and China. These potential spoilers may not be able to be subdued into a single "grand bargain", so individual agreements may become necessary.

India, which gives primacy to its so-called "strategic partnership" with the US, is the least troublesome. It favors the American military presence in the region and wants NATO to fight on. But Delhi will work robustly to ensure that Kabul remains India-friendly.

Pakistan is in a category by itself insofar as it not only seeks a strategic partnership with the US but one that is at a par with the US-Indian nexus. Besides, its special interests need to be safeguarded in Afghanistan. Pakistan has excluded India from regional formats working on Afghanistan.

Islamabad is in a privileged position as it holds the option to bring the "irreconcilable" Quetta shura (the top Taliban council) to the negotiating table, or, alternatively, claim helplessness. How it chooses to play depends largely on the US's ability to maintain a balanced relationship with India and Pakistan. Pakistan rejects any US-Indian strategic tie-up in the Indian Ocean. In short, Washington faces a tough call to get Pakistan to cooperate optimally while stringing India along.

Iran falls in a different category insofar as while Tehran has expectations regarding a normal relationship with the US, it also looks for recognition as a regional power. Tehran seeks a broad-based government in Kabul that ensures the welfare of the Shi'ite communities and it expects assurances regarding Iran's own security. But Tehran does not confront the US in Afghanistan, although it is boycotting the London conference on account of frosty relations with Britain.

Most certainly, misgivings remain regarding any medium-term US military presence. China and Russia visualize Afghanistan's stabilization in terms of the country getting rid of foreign occupation, regaining its sovereignty and becoming a genuinely neutral country.

The fact remains that the US, British and Saudi intelligence agencies have in the past used the Islamist forces in Afghanistan for geopolitical ends. Significantly, Moscow held a special meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization regarding Afghanistan on Monday in the run up to the London conference.

However, there is a lot going on behind the scenes. The US is promoting India-Pakistan rapprochement, Delhi is willing to move in tandem with Washington's wishes and some anticipate a thaw in India-Pakistan ties. The US has also reduced the shrillness of its rhetoric against Iran.

Russian-American relations are at a sensitive juncture with the two countries inching toward a new arms control agreement. True, Beijing has reason to feel upset over recent US moves on arms sales to Taiwan, Google’s decision pull out of China and Obama's decision to meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. But China also has high stakes in regional stability in Central Asia and South Asia.

Meanwhile, apart from hosting the Afghan and Pakistani presidents in Istanbul on Monday, Turks gathered together Iran, Russia and China, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A sprinkling of NATO and European Union officials was thrown into that mix, along with an aide to the US special representative for AfPak, Richard Holbrooke.

Originally, Turkey toyed with the idea of hosting an Organization of Islamic Conference meeting on Afghanistan. But something seems to have gone wrong in that enterprise. Turkey probably ended up doing slightly better by facilitating a last-minute opportunity to ``find a single voice’’ at the London conference. President Abdullah Gul is traveling to Delhi on February 7.

Clearly, the focus of the London conference has shifted from the original focus on the Afghanization of the war. NATO's troop surge has become a sideshow. French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday ruled out any deployment of additional combat troops. That eases pressure on Germany too. The Karzai plan for reconciliation with the Taliban has instead become the centerpiece.

However, just like in Bonn eight years ago, the London conference is an exclusive gathering of "victors", while the vanquished Taliban remain excluded. The only difference is that the victors who gather on Thursday have been badly mauled in the past eight years and are terribly fatigued and almost bled white. They are determined to search out the vanquished and to talk real peace.

Karzai may outline a five-year reconciliation plan. Evidently, the London conference will only set the ball rolling in an engrossing game that promises to stretch to the final lap of Obama's second term, should he get that far. Yardsticks of success and failure do not apply to a cliffhanger.