By D Suba Chandran
With the elections now over, Hamid Karzai has appointed a ‘Peace Council’, comprising 70 members, to negotiate with the Taliban. Will this initiative be fruitful and help Afghanistan achieve stability?
The ‘Peace Council’ was expected. For long, Karzai has been openly advocating the need to talk to the Taliban. Even during the recent Kabul Conference and the Loya Jirga he assembled earlier in June 2010, he was quite vocal regarding the need to talk to the Taliban. More than peace and stability at the national level, Karzai is also equally worried about his regime’s security, besides his own. Once the international community leaves, Karzai may not be able to sustain on his own; neither his administrative structure and institutions are strong, that they have the popular support, nor his security forces are adequately prepared to deal with an insurgency led by the Taliban.
Second, there is an understanding, at times even pressure from the US and more importantly from Pakistan, to initiate a dialogue with the Taliban. Much before Karzai, it was the US which discovered the existence of a moderate/good Taliban, who could be engaged. For Pakistan, it is imperative that Karzai engages with the Taliban, so that they have access to Kabul in a post-American exit environment in Afghanistan. According to news reports, numerous meetings have taken place between the military (and ISI) leaderships in Pakistan, Haqqani group and Karzai. The sacking of Amrullah Saleh, his Intelligence Chief and Hanif Atmar, his Interior Minister, by Karzai was done at the behest of the ISI, because they were totally against any rapprochement with the Taliban and also against Pakistan.
Now, an analysis of the Peace Council, that Karzai has constituted. The 70 members council, according to a Washington Post report, includes “jihadi leaders, about a half-dozen former Taliban, former members of the communist regime, at least six women and leaders from civil, religious and ethnic groups from across the nation.” It appears, Karzai has attempted to include every section outside the Taliban, which is a sensible move. If the Peace Council should be seen neutral and acceptable to every section in a multi-ethnic society, it has to be broad based. Else, it will suffer from a crisis of legitimacy and credibility. At the end, what is been negotiated by the Peace Council should be accepted by the rest in Afghanistan as credible.
Will the Peace Council be able to perform its duties in the first place, given the above difference within? What may be seen as its strength may perhaps becomes its weakness. It is hoped, that this Peace Council will be the primary agency to chart out the agenda and a calendar of meetings with the Taliban. Though it will report to Karzai, it is hoped, that it will function relatively independently. Besides, it is also expected, that this Council will form special smaller groups to negotiate with the representatives from the Taliban. This in itself will be a challenging task for the Council – agenda, calendar and members of the sub-groups.
More importantly, the bigger challenge for the Peace Council will be the reaction from the Taliban. It is expected that the Taliban will respond positively to the Peace Council’s efforts. Will they?
First of all, the Taliban has already stated that, they will not negotiate until the international troops leave Afghanistan. Though this is seen as a pre-condition, it could very well be rhetoric. But the more important question is how do they see the end game of this war in Afghanistan? Do the Taliban leadership see this war as a long haul, in which there is a protracted military combat ahead, or do they see this war as winnable, especially after the American announcement of an exit? Why would the Taliban be willing to negotiate, if they perceive the war as winnable?
Second, with the international troops getting ready for their much publicized (and equally much delayed) campaign against the Taliban in Kandahar ready to start, any protracted battle will affect the positive movement of this negotiation. If the Taliban is able to inflict more damages on the international troops, their confidence and morale will be high, hence less interest in the negotiations. On the other hand, if the damage to the Taliban is high, there will be reluctance and anger against the international troops, and their “stooge” in Kabul.
Third, the Taliban is not monolithic. Neither it is the only militant group to be engaged; besides the Mullah Omar-Haqqani divide within the Taliban, Hekmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami has its own objectives.
Finally, what will be Pakistan’s game plan, as the war in Kandahar and negotiations with the Taliban progress? The outcomes of both are unpredictable, so would be Pakistan’s reactions. And then there is Iran, which would also like to play a tactical role, depending on the outcome. Lastly, there is the al-Qaeda.
The Peace Council, though should be welcome, at the moment seems to have more challenges to face, than milestones to achieve.
D Suba Chandran, Deputy Director, IPCS, may be reached at [email protected]