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The Way Out of Afghanistan

Shah Marai/Pool/AP Images
The late Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, 
with Hamid Karzai at a conference 
reviewing US civilian and military 
involvement in Afghanistan for the 
coming year, April 11, 2010

Moreover, when there is so little Afghan administrative presence in the provinces, Afghan forces, even if they are well-trained, can achieve very little. There is now a civil service academy turning out bureaucrats, but it will be years before they make a difference.

Equally grave is the failure to establish an indigenous Afghan economy that is not permanently dependent on aid handouts. For the first few years after September 11 President Bush refused to rebuild Afghan infrastructure, including adequate roads and electrical supplies, and this stymied economic growth. Kabul got full-time electricity only this year. Industry failed to develop because of the lack of infrastructure and because neighbors such as China and Iran were dumping cheap goods in the Afghan market and undermining local productivity.

Obama has initiated a program to help the local civilian economy take off, but it needs time. The US Army still buys no local produce, but the Afghan army, at least, is being equipped with locally manufactured boots and uniforms. Another acute problem is that the huge profits of the drug trade are recycled into property speculation rather than economic production.

Thus the key question for General Petraeus is not how many Taliban he kills, but whether the bare bones of an Afghan state—army, police, bureaucracy—which have been neglected so badly in the past nine years, can be set up by 2014. Moreover, can Afghan leaders, including the President, win the trust of a people who have put up with insecurity, gross corruption, and poor governance for many years?

If there is to be progress toward self-government in Afghanistan, a clear-headed Afghan president is badly needed. Yet Karzai is wrapped in contradictions and enigmas. During a two-hour animated conversation I had with him in the presidential palace, he seemed to be straining to not break ties with the US and NATO, while at the same time wanting to throw off their yoke because it makes him appear as a Western puppet.1

Karzai’s on-again, off-again fights with Petraeus about the tactics of the US military surge are essentially about his own role, his own sovereignty, his own image in Afghanistan—in all respects he feels he is losing power. He wants the war to somehow go away. Petraeus wants to conclude it, which means more violence in the months ahead.

Karzai’s view of the world has undergone a dramatic change and he is bitterly critical of the West and everything it has failed to do in the past nine years. He no longer supports the “war on terror” as defined by Washington, and he sees Petraeus’s surge as unhelpful because it relies too much on body counts of dead Taliban, often killed by US drones with civilian casualties that are resented deeply, and on nighttime raids by US special forces. The alternative, says Karzai, is to seek help from nearby countries like Pakistan and Iran, which he thinks could help him talk to the Taliban and end the war.

The Neighbors

Many Afghans would disagree with Karzai. Neighboring states like Pakistan and Iran have a long and bloody record of monumental interference in Afghanistan, propping up proxy Afghan warlords and fighting over the spoils. Afghanistan will not become peaceful unless the neighbors are brought into an agreement not to interfere there that could be monitored by the international community. Obama made a promise to do just that when he was inaugurated but little has been accomplished.

The major problem is Pakistan. All three major Taliban factions have been based in Pakistan for nine years, receiving official and unofficial support, sanctuary, funding, and recruits; yet three successive US administrations have been unable to stop the Pakistan military from continuing that support. The December 16 strategy review avoids direct criticism of Pakistan for failing to crack down on Taliban and al-Qaeda bases. However, two classified intelligence reports given to the President in late November cited Pakistan’s hosting of sanctuaries as a serious obstacle to US objectives.

President Bush never tried very hard, but Obama has offered much larger incentives and a tougher stick to Pakistan. Petraeus has been aggressive and made it clear to Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani that its support for the Taliban must end. But the US has no comprehensive strategy that either offers the Pakistani military some of what it wants or changes its assumptions that it must dominate Afghanistan. The army fears growing Indian influence in Afghanistan—an issue that nobody has addressed. It wants to use talks with the Taliban as a card in the endgame, so that maximum concessions can be extracted from the US, India, and Afghanistan in exchange for Pakistan obtaining concessions from the Taliban.

Iran too has learned to raise the stakes. Shia Iran has no love for the Sunni fundamentalists who make up the Taliban, but Tehran has stepped up its support and sanctuary for the Taliban groups operating in western Afghanistan. Like Pakistan, Iran sees them as a useful hedge for the endgame, when the US and NATO will have to bring it in to discuss noninterference in Afghanistan. Iran has joined with India and Russia to ensure that Pakistan is unsuccessful in dominating Afghanistan.

So the region is already sharply divided. On one side stands Pakistan, virtually alone with some support from China, but none from the Arab-Muslim world that used to support the Taliban. Opposing Pakistan are Iran, Russia, India, and the Central Asian states, which are extremely suspicious of Pakistan and the Taliban but lack a strategy to deal with them. They want the US to stay longer in Afghanistan, but are also suspicious of an indefinite US presence.

The Taliban Want to Talk

What of the Taliban?

In separate interviews four former Taliban officials, now living in Kabul, told me that the Taliban leaders want to open a political office in a third country that is not Afghanistan or Pakistan, so that they can start talks with the Kabul regime, the US, and NATO. All four occupied high office in the 1990s when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and cannot be identified for security reasons.

Some were captured and held for several years by US forces before being freed, and they all now live quietly in Kabul under heavy government guard. Still, they are allowed to remain in touch with the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan and have facilitated Karzai’s attempts to talk to Taliban leaders.

They all said that negotiations would be possible only when they were free to negotiate from a neutral place—preferably an Arabian Gulf state, Turkey, Germany, or Japan. With Afghanistan under US occupation and Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) trying to manipulate them, they needed space, freedom, and an address of their own.

The four former Taliban officials also called for a release of all Taliban prisoners held by the US in Guantánamo and Bagram, the main US base in Afghanistan, and the removal of the Taliban names from a list of terrorists that is maintained by the United Nations Security Council. Three of the four men I talked to said that Taliban–US talks were essential because the US is “the occupying power.” Karzai also admits that in his previous contacts, the Taliban have demanded talks with the Americans and he has tried to persuade Washington to agree.

The NATO summit did not mention anything about talking to the Taliban but it was the elephant in the room. Karzai sees his political survival as being linked to ending the war through a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Petraeus is less keen, wanting to continue the surge next year, killing more Taliban commanders and weakening others before inviting them to any negotiating table.

Petraeus does not accept the argument that by killing more Taliban you radicalize the movement further, bringing in younger and more militant commanders who owe nothing to the older leadership and are easier for the ISI to manipulate. He believes that the Taliban leadership can be broken, fragmented, and split off one by one. As a result, while drones target Taliban leaders and frequently kill them and people near them, less than a handful of US officials in Petraeus’s headquarters are addressing the issue of reconciliation with the Taliban.

The US administration is divided about the need for talks now or later. Skepticism is greater after the CIA and Britain’s MI6 were duped by a fake Taliban negotiator who twice held talks with Karzai, but turned out to be a Pakistani shopkeeper who was paid $65,000 each time he came to Kabul. Western officials believe the ISI was behind the scam.

Moreover, at the moment neither Karzai nor the Taliban have a clear agenda for talks. They do not even have a clear notion of how to get to actual negotiations—but both sides realize that such a venture would have to include confidence-building measures to create trust on all sides.

The Taliban leaders said that their first political aim would not be to lay down terms for power-sharing with Karzai, but to reach an agreement on a definition of what the future Afghan state would look like—would it be a democratic state or a shariah state? The most sensible among the Taliban also realize that since they could not run the country in the 1990s they will not be able to do so in the future. Rather than trying to grab power and then face isolation by the international community and the denial of funds and aid, they see the logic of a power-sharing formula with Karzai that would retain Western aid and international legitimacy. Their main concern right now seems to be how to break free from Pakistan, something the US can help them do only when it is ready to support peace talks.

An Approach to Peace

To answer these questions and not give away too much to the Taliban at the outset, Karzai, neighboring states, the US, and NATO need to work together on a common agenda that reduces regional tensions and builds trust between the Taliban and Kabul. Any new approach to peace must include reciprocal confidence-building measures by Pakistan, Iran, and India as well as by the Taliban and the West. Karzai has set up the High Peace Council, a sixty-eight-person multiethnic body to negotiate with the Taliban, but he needs to do much more to build a consensus across the country. The main question, of course, will be how soon the White House and the Pentagon decide that it is time to talk to the Taliban. Victory on the battlefield is not possible but peace cannot be achieved without US participation in negotiations.

Here is a possible step-by-step approach, involving all the players, that is intended to build trust and confidence in the region so that ultimately negotiations with the Taliban can take place.

1. NATO, the Afghan government, and Pakistan free most Afghan Taliban prisoners under their jurisdiction and seek to accommodate them safely in Afghanistan or allow them to seek refuge in third countries. NATO guarantees freedom of movement for Taliban mediators opening an office in a friendly third country.

  1. 1

    See my ” NATO’s Dangerous Wager with Karzai,” NYR Blog, November 22, 2010. 

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