Afghanistan: Taliban Talks Offer Best Hope for Stability in Kabul -- Expert
Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US military forces in Afghanistan, asserted during a recent US Senate hearing that American troops had made sufficient progress against Islamic militants to proceed with a plan to hand over responsibility for security to the Afghan government by 2014. A leading expert on Afghan affairs warns, however, that officials in Kabul are woefully unprepared, and unless there are drastic changes made in US policy soon, stabilization efforts in Afghanistan will end badly, if the transfer of authority proceeds as planned.
Genuine stability will come to Afghanistan in the post-2014 era only if the Afghan government, with the full backing of United States and its NATO allies, can reach a political settlement with Islamic militants, argued journalist and political analyst Ahmed Rashid, a leading international expert on the Taliban movement. Currently, US forces appear preoccupied with inflicting battlefield casualties, rather than preparing the ground for successful peace talks. As a result, attention is being diverted from what should be the principle US tasks - building up Afghan government capacity and bolstering the Afghan economy ahead of the anticipated handover of security responsibilities.
“The only way to transition is to end the war … and that means talking to the Taliban,” Rashid said during a presentation March 11 at the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in New York. “The longer you delay talking to the Taliban, the worse the situation is going to be.” [Editor’s note: EurasiaNet operates under OSF auspices].
Stronger emphasis on peace talks would also potentially ease tension between Pakistan and India, two neighboring states that are currently involved in a fierce struggle for influence in Kabul, Rashid noted. He added talks would have to include other interested parties, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Everyone, he said “should be encouraged to speak openly about what each is suspecting the other of doing in Afghanistan.” Such openness would build confidence and allow negotiations to address various problem areas.
It is also vital for women to have a prominent role in any talks with the Taliban, Rashid said. The radical Islamic movement’s tenure in power in Kabul from 1996-2001 was notorious for curtailing women’s rights. “The Taliban really have to be confronted with these modern women, without hijabs, who are educated,” Rashid said.
While a peace deal may offer Afghanistan its best chance at achieving long-sought stability, it would still come with substantial risks, Rashid acknowledged. There is a possibility that the Taliban could emulate the example of the North Vietnamese, who agreed to a peace deal that prompted the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam in 1973, and then, just over two years later, overran the South and unified the country under Communist rule. The stronger the Afghan government and army are in 2014, the better the odds that a Vietnam-like scenario won’t repeat itself in Afghanistan, with the Taliban retaking total control in Kabul and reigniting civil warfare with militia groups based in northern Afghanistan.
There is always the possibility that the 2014 deadline could be pushed back, US officials have hinted. At the same Senate hearing at which Petraeus testified on March 15, a top Pentagon official responsible for policy planning, Michelle Flournoy, stressed that not all US forces will withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, even if the existing timeframe holds firm. “Afghans must stand in the lead, but they will not stand alone,” Flournoy said during the hearing, referring to the 2014 deadline.
Rashid suggested that the Afghanistan’s stabilization prospects are hampered by the fact that the US military appears in charge of policy in Afghanistan. “You have to have civilian control of the policy. The military cannot be in control,” he said.
Describing the Afghan government as corrupt and ineffective, Rashid also identified Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a potential trouble spot in negotiations.
“Karzai is a huge problem. There’s no American interlocutor who has his trust. After [almost a decade], that’s a pretty sad state of affairs,” Rashid said. “It says something about him, but it also says something about the United States.”
“We’re stuck with Karzai,” Rashid continued. Even though it appears he rigged the most recent presidential and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, “there is no constitutional way to get rid of him.”