By M K Bhadrakumar
A momentous week stretches ahead as Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives in Islamabad on Saturday for the inaugural session of the joint Afghan-Pakistani commission for reconciling the Taliban. The Pakistani army chief as well as the Inter-Intelligence Services head will be sitting on the commission and investing it with an unmistakable halo of prestige and authority.
For the first time, the Pakistani military becomes an open, formal participant (and implicitly, a guarantor) in the process of the reconciliation of the Taliban.
If that isn't still enough to make Karzai's visit a defining moment, during his two-day stay in Islamabad an historic Afghan-Pakistani trade and transit agreement is becoming operational, which the two countries have been negotiating for several decades, whereby Pakistan is allowing Afghan traders to access the Indian market through the land border at Attari-Wagha in the Punjab provinces of Pakistan and India.
These are by themselves major developments. The big question is whether trumping all this, the Pakistanis will go the extra league and arrange something very special for Karzai - say a meeting with another Afghan of great standing? This may sound preposterous, but only to the naive or the timid. Anything becomes possible now.
From the Pakistani perspective, Karzai has become as important an interlocutor as the Americans, if not more. An "Afghan-led" peace process is the mantra for all regional powers, and even the United States. And all protagonists know that Karzai has a key role to play in steering the peace process as and when it takes off.
US in tearing hurry
Besides, the equations between Kabul and Washington, which have never been easy, are more delicately poised than at any time as negotiations over the strategic partnership agreement that determines the direction of the US's long-term presence in Afghanistan are entering a critical stage. Islamabad will be keenly watching the outcome of these negotiations and will be pleased if Karzai drives a hard bargain with the Americans, as he seems to be doing.
Meanwhile, developments on the ground are also engendering a momentum of their own. Former Afghan president and head of the Afghan High Council for Peace, Burhanuddin Rabbani, revealed over the weekend that his members had held preliminary talks with the main Taliban group led by Mullah Omar and the so-called Quetta shura in Pakistan and that "multiple channels" were indeed "getting momentum".
Who would have believed until this week had they been told that representatives of the Haqqani network visited Kabul "very recently" - conceivably, with the Pakistani military's knowledge and possibly help - and held discussions with Afghan officials?
Nothing surprises anymore. Visiting French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe privately told a small group of journalists in Washington on Tuesday just as he was heading for talks in the State Department and White House that the United States was engaged in tripartite talks with the Taliban and Pakistan; that it wanted the Taliban to be part of the solution but was having difficulty in finding credible interlocutors on the Taliban side who were willing to talk peace and that talks were underway "as we speak".
Juppe explained that the situation in Afghanistan had become quite grim. Despite the US's surge in troops a year ago, and notwithstanding claims of progress by the US's and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's generals commanding troops in Afghanistan, Juppe said actual progress against the Taliban was inadequate.
"The strategy doesn't succeed as well as we expected on the ground," he reportedly said. Juppe even doubted claims of gains against the Taliban and pointed out that diplomats and generals were speaking in entirely different voices.
He admitted that France doubted the feasibility of the transition that was being planned in July as the Afghan army and police were ill-prepared to assume responsibility for security. Juppe estimated in a telling illustration of the huge uncertainties that according to what Paris had heard, the US drawdown this year could be anywhere between 3,000 and 30,000 troops.
US President Barack Obama's desperate hurry to shake off the albatross' cross in Afghanistan is understandable. A poll by the ABC-Washington Post on Tuesday shows that the American people are in an unforgiving mood about the state of the US economy and the euphoria and jingoism over the killing of Osama bin Laden has quickly evaporated.
It came up with the shocking result that Obama is in a dead heat with Republican challenger Matt Romney - with the two candidates on 47% each among the Americans surveyed.
During the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee's "nomination" hearing on Tuesday, ambassador-designate to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, a distinguished diplomat who brilliantly served American interests at a similar transformational period in Baghdad, was nonetheless severely grilled by senators, including John Kerry, about the unsustainability of the Afghan war in the current US budget environment.
Crocker was "grim" and gave the senators an "unvarnished assessment" of the Afghan situation, according to the New York Times. He made it clear that the accent of US policy had shifted from the military to the political track. He admitted that his assignment in Kabul was going to be "harder" than his tour of duty in Iraq, but he sensed that it was not "hopeless".
Pressures on Pakistan
These are highly revealing remarks, coming as they are within days of the expected announcement by the White House regarding the extent of US troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Things are happening almost entirely as the Pakistani military would have expected and the Taliban predicted - time is on their side, not Obama's. The killing of Bin Laden ironically puts Obama in a greater hurry because in popular perceptions, the Afghan war has been "won", the reason for the US to go into the Hindu Kush has been fulfilled and the 9/11 attacks have been avenged.
On the other hand, Pakistan is also under immense pressure from many quarters. The international community, including China and Russia, are urging Pakistan to have a paradigm shift in its Afghan policy. Two, Pakistan needs to cultivate Karzai's goodwill. Three, the security situation within Pakistan is alarming and the blowback of terrorism underscores the dangers of using terrorist groups as "strategic assets". Four, with Bin Laden's departure, a window of opportunity arises to detach the Taliban from al-Qaeda and "foreign fighters", and bring them to the negotiating table.
Most important, Pakistan's longstanding demand for reconciliation of the Taliban now finds almost complete acceptance in the US establishment. This puts the onus on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
In short, Karzai is undertaking his visit to Islamabad after a great deal of preparatory discussions and on the assumption that Pakistan is capable of taking a new turn in its Afghan policies. The farewell visit by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last week to Kabul was conspicuous for its complete absence of any rhetoric against Pakistan by either the American or the Afghan side.
Again, the main pre-condition from the Taliban side for entering into peace talks is going to be met shortly, possibly in the coming week. This concerns the removal of the Taliban from a United Nations list of terrorists so that they can travel and openly take part in talks. The Afghan government has proposed a list of 50 Taliban figures to be "delisted" on the basis of their non-involvement in any terroristic activities in the recent period.
Simultaneously, a range of changes is being considered to the UN's so-called "1275 list", which comprises about 450 terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The idea is to bifurcate the list and "separate" the Taliban from al-Qaeda so that Karzai can decide which Taliban figures need to be still kept on the watch list.
The justification being given for this bifurcation is that al-Qaeda and the Taliban belong to two "different fields of action" insofar as, unlike al-Qaeda, which is a global organization, the Taliban are Afghanistan-centric. The supreme irony is that it needed over 10 years of fighting for the US to recognize this elemental truth. At any rate, June 17 has been set as the date for the UN Security Council to approve the proposals leading to the return of the Taliban to mainstream Afghan political life.
Moscow gaining influence
Without doubt, Karzai's arrival in Islamabad a week ahead has been carefully timed. As the Wall Street Journal noted:
The coordinated push to end the international isolation of Taliban leaders comes as the administration of US President Barack Obama is joining Mr Karzai in ramping up efforts to secure a solid peace deal that could bring an end to a decade of war in Afghanistan ... As the US prepares to scale back its military presence in Afghanistan this summer, the Obama administration is making peace talks a new priority. But Afghan and American officials have so far had a difficult time finding legitimate Taliban leaders willing to talk.A kind of regional consensus is also emerging that the Afghan war is endangering everyone's security. Things can change if in the downstream of a settlement the Taliban try to grab power in their hands. But the probability is low, given the movement's present weakened strength, lack of unity and the remote possibility that the Pakistani state would once again jump into the fray and commit huge resources in the full glare of international scrutiny. Therefore, regional powers are not losing sleep over the prospect of a civil war ensuing from reconciliation with the Taliban.
Karzai's visit is taking place just ahead of the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana next Wednesday, which is expected to see the induction of Afghanistan as an "observer" and the granting of full membership to Pakistan.
The participation of the two countries in the processes of the single-most influential regional security organization cannot but impact on the overall climate of Afghan-Pakistani relationship. Suffice to say that for the first time, Afghanistan-Pakistan cogitations over the peace process will have one more facilitator or moderator or monitor - depending on one's perspective - other than the US.
The big push by the Kremlin to give verve to a strategic partnership between Russia and Pakistan as well as Moscow's "return" to Afghanistan becomes yet another new template of Afghan-Pakistani interactions. So far, only Washington has enjoyed special proximity with Kabul and Islamabad. It is entirely conceivable that Russia is placing itself for a similar status in the coming period.
What's more, all indications are that Moscow is moving in close coordination with Beijing. Both Russia and China (and Pakistan) are determined that beyond 2014, the US does not keep a permanent military base in Afghanistan. On his part, Karzai wants continued US assistance and involvement, but the issue of American military bases will be far too delicate for him not to put before a specially convened loya jirga (grand council), as he has promised, given the strong current of Afghan mass opinion militating against any form of foreign occupation of their country.
A battle of wits
In sum, everything points toward a favorable backdrop for Kabul and Islamabad to kickstart a peace process, finally. Both capitals profess that Washington will be a participant in such a process - and neither is exaggerating the fact. Indeed, they will be downright unrealistic to visualize that there can be an Afghan settlement without the US's involvement and backing.
But neither is likely to seek or offer a "larger-than-life" role for the US in the peace process or hand over the steering wheel to it. Their trust deficit with the US runs far too deep, thanks to flawed US policies over recent years - bullying Karzai and humiliating him and even seeking his replacement on the one hand, while on the other hand sowing the seeds of doubt in the Pakistani mind about American intentions toward Pakistan.
If the Afghan presidential election of 2009 remains a searing memory for Karzai, the "debriefing" of the key US intelligence operative Raymond Davis through two full months of gruelling interrogation in Lahore has stunned the Pakistani military about the dangerous ramifications of the US's covert operations for Pakistan's security and stability. The US is desperately trying to make amends, but it is all happening too late. An engrossing three-way battle of wits is about to commence on Saturday.
By Abubakar Siddique
Northern Afghanistan, for years seen as a bedrock of stability amid the chaos of war, is being pushed further into turmoil with every kill and every capture.
A deadly attack on the offices of the governor of northern Takhar province on May 28 provided a window into the transformation that is taking place in the north. Killed in the attack were the Afghan national police commander, General Mohammad Daud Daud, and the province's police chief. Takhar's governor and a German general were wounded.
When Afghan and Western forces claimed to have captured an Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) recruit this month, a worrying trend was exposed when international forces linked him to the Takhar attack.
Rising violence, the recruitment of locals and the adoption of sophisticated techniques all showcase the extent to which the IMU has made inroads into ethnic Uzbek communities - an important minority in the multicultural region. With the entrance of the IMU comes the arrival of the Taliban-led insurgency, highlighting the groups' strengthening alliances.
The killing of Daud, one of the government forces' more charismatic leaders, is the continuation of a string of assassinations of senior government figures, and serves as a blow to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-Afghan government offensive against the Taliban.
If left unchecked, observers warn, alliances between the al-Qaeda-linked IMU and the Taliban could not only destabilize northern Afghanistan but establish it as a launching pad for attacks across Central Asia and beyond.
Mohammad Asim, a former lawmaker from the northern Baghlan province, says that the IMU has already successfully carved out a niche for itself in northern Afghanistan. Their ultimate aim, he says, is to build a base for operations across Central Asia, but they are also showing a willingness to fight against Afghan and international forces in the region.
"They have created some influence among the Uzbeks living in these [northern] regions. Some of their cadres [and leaders] have been killed in operations by the international forces. In any case, there are people related to them here who are trying hard to continue underground activities," Asim said.
Drawing on his experience as a field commander against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, Asim considers the Taliban, the IMU, and other groups to be primarily motivated by their religious ideology. They care less about ethnic affiliations, he says, but points out that the Taliban and IMU do exploit ethnic solidarity to network and expand into new regions.
Just a few years ago, a Taliban comeback in the region would have been considered unthinkable. But the Taliban have crept back with the help of locals, including ethnic Uzbek IMU recruits who have worked hard to win over allies in remote Uzbek villages.
The Taliban's relationship with the IMU dates back to the late 1990s, when the Taliban hosted the Central Asian militants in response to Tashkent's support for ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, according to senior Taliban leaders who have since reconciled with Kabul.
Today, the two enjoy a symbiotic relationship. While Pashtun youth still make up the majority of recruits for the Taliban across Afghanistan, the group's ties to the IMU - whose ranks are filled with Sunni Muslims of Central Asian origin - raises its standing among ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen, as well as other non-Pashtun communities in northern Afghanistan.
The Taliban's alliance with the IMU, meanwhile, allows the IMU small sanctuaries in remote regions along Afghanistan's northern border, providing it with an opportunity to train fresh recruits and putting it in a position to carry out strikes in neighboring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
Afghan observers say that Uzbek communities are particularly vulnerable to IMU infiltration because of their increasingly marginal political role. Numbering around 2.5 million out of Afghanistan's nearly 30 million people, the Uzbeks are Afghanistan's largest Turkic group spread across nine northern provinces.
But compared to their Pashtun, Tajik and Hazarah neighbors they have a marginal political role because of a lack of unified leadership. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former communist general who once dominated the region, has lost popular appeal and has proved to be an inept leader.
Such conditions presented an opening to the extremists. Former Afghan deputy defense minister General Attiqullah Baryalai says that the IMU began building its networks in northern Afghanistan after the killing of its erstwhile leader, Tahir Yuldash, in a US drone attack in western Pakistan in 2009. He says that the group has also stepped up its activities in Central Asia, which remains its ultimate prize.
Baryalai says that three factors helped the IMU to establish footholds in northern Afghanistan's scattered Uzbek communities.
"The Uzbek people feel that they are marginalized today and nobody among the current [Afghan] government leaders represents them. Secondly, many influential [Uzbek] former government officials and mujahideen and anti-Taliban leaders have been relegated to oblivion, which makes them upset with the government [and prevents them from cooperating with it]," Baryalai said.
"The third reason is the emergence of radical youth who were educated in Pakistani madrassas."
The connection with Pakistan is important because the IMU underwent a transformation during its decade-long refuge in the country's western tribal region. It drew the IMU closer to al-Qaeda's leadership, making it a lead organization for recruiting across the Turkic world and north Caucasus. It also grew closer to Pakistani extremist organizations, many of which now serve as al-Qaeda's military arm and are considerably more sophisticated than previous generations.
This makeover is on display in northern Afghanistan. Analyst Waheed Mozhdah says that the Taliban and IMU have infiltrated government forces in northern Afghanistan, which helps them in pulling off sophisticated attacks such as the one on May 28. He says that government corruption and inefficiency pushes disgruntled youth of the region into the hands of the extremists.
"The real problem [that needs to be addressed] is not that the extremists are [militarily] strengthening every day. Instead, it is necessary to focus on the conditions, which push people to join them. If killing the terrorists remains the only aim, then thousands [of new recruits] will replace the terrorists killed," Mozhdah said.
Mohammad Asim, the former politician from Baghlan, says that the instability in the north means it will be unsuitable as a testing ground for Afghan forces. The state's fledgling police and security bodies are slated to take over security responsibilities of parts of some northern regions in July. Nine provinces in the north are being eyed as the first to fall under complete Afghan responsibility as US/NATO forces draw down with the goal of complete withdrawal by 2014.
Former defense official Barayalai remains unbowed despite the difficulties. He believes the security situation in northern Afghanistan is not an unsolvable problem. "The government has to move ahead with an informed and proper solution," he concludes.