By Ajit Kumar Singh
Evidently, these are colossal challenges, and the temptation to lapse into the make-believe of aid-driven development, democratization, ‘peace processes’, ‘negotiated settlements’, and deals with the ‘good Taliban’ will be great. But these are precisely the contours of past failure. Unless the hard core of Pakistan’s ‘enduring pathologies’, its risk of state failure, and the cumulative consequences of these, are directly addressed, policy initiatives, including Obama’s AfPak, will secure nothing of enduring value. – AfPak Cul de Sac, June 2009
On November 3, 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had stated, “we call on our Taliban brothers to come home and embrace their land.” In sharp contrast, in a videotaped speech released by his office on October 1, 2011, he ruled out further attempts to negotiate peace with the Taliban, declaring,
Their messengers are coming and killing … So with whom should we make peace? I cannot find Mullah Mohammad Omar. Where is he? I cannot find the Taliban council. Where is it? Mullah Omar doesn’t have an address … their peace emissary turns out to be a killer, whom should we talk to? The Afghan nation asks me who’s the other party that you hold talks with? My answer is, Pakistan… The only solution, which is also the demand of all people, is that talks be held with the Pakistani side, since all the sanctuaries and safe havens of the opposition are located in that country…
On October 7, 2011, he elaborated, further,
We have not said we will not talk to them (the Taliban). We’ve said we don’t know who to talk to. We’re not dealing with an identifiable individual as a representative of the Taliban, or a place that we can knock on and say, ‘Well, here we are. We want to talk to you.’ Until that place emerges – an address and a representative – we will not be able to talk to the Taliban because we don’t know where to find them.
He, however, again stressed that only Pakistan held the key to making peace with insurgents and must, consequently, do more to support reconciliation. He asserted that the Taliban were being propped up by Pakistan, and that, “Definitely, the Taliban will not be able to move a finger without Pakistani support.”
In a span of under two years, Karzai has evidently lost the addresses of the Taliban leadership, though he appears to have discovered that the group can only be traced back to Pakistan and nowhere else. On October 6, 2011, US President Barack Obama confirmed this suspicion, noting that Pakistan was “hedging its bets” by maintaining ties to militant groups trying to undermine the Afghan Government. Obama observed, “The fact is the Taliban were and are stationed, in terms of their political headquarters and operational headquarters, in Pakistan. We all know that. The Pakistanis know that. We know that.”
For years, Karzai has sought to placate Islamabad in the hope that conciliation and appeasement might make the Generals and their proxies in Pakistan diminish their hostility towards Kabul. Karzai’s position hardened only after the assassination of former Afghanistan President and head of the High Peace Council (HPC) Burhanuddin Rabbani in a suicide bomb attack at his home, close to the American Embassy in Kabul, on September 20, 2011. Four of Rabbani’s bodyguards also died. Rabbani, the leader of Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan (JIA, Islamic Society of Afghanistan), one of the oldest among the major political parties in the country, was killed by a suicide bomber, who had feigned a desire to reconcile with the Government. The bomber had kept the explosives in his turban. Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, HPC Secretariat chief and the head of a reintegration program for mid and lower-level Taliban militants into Afghan society, was also wounded in the attack.
Appointed by President Hamid Karzai in October 2010, the 70-member HPC, including eight women, was intended to broker peace with the Taliban. The Council included jihadi leaders, Government officials and some former members of the Taliban and of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami (HeI, Islamic Party). Arsalan Rahmani Daulat, a former Taliban Deputy Higher Education Minister; Habibullah Fawzi, a former Taliban diplomat in Saudi Arabia; Sayeedur Rahman Haqani, a former Taliban Deputy Minister for Mines and Industries and, later, for Public Works; and Faqir Mohammad Khan, another former Taliban leader, are some of the prominent members of the Council. These four leaders are among 14 former Taliban members removed from the UN Sanctions List on July 15, 2011, as part of the move to induce the armed group into talks with the Afghan Government to secure a ‘peace deal’. Earlier, Afghan officials had said they were seeking the de-listing of about 20 people from the UN Sanctions List.
The Council was set up on the proposal of the Consultative Peace Jirga held by Afghan Government between June 2 and 4, 2010, with the participation of 1,600 tribal elders. In the meantime, the international community also held conferences in London and Kabul on January 28, 2010, and July 20, 2010, respectively, to put their support and weight behind an Afghan-led ‘reconciliation process’.
The reconciliation process, in fact, was initiated soon after President Obama entered the White House. Under pressure because of new developments at home, Obama, in a media interview aboard Air Force One on March 6, 2009, admitted that the US was not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the door to a reconciliation process. He asked Karzai to take the initiative, differentiating between the “Good Taliban” and “Bad Taliban”. He, however, acknowledged that the outreach may not yield the same success as in Iraq. “The situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex. You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, and so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge.”
By June 18, 2011, Karzai was claiming, “Peace talks have started with [the Taliban] already and it is going well. Foreign militaries, especially the United States of America, are going ahead with these negotiations.” A day earlier, the UN Security Council split the UN sanctions list for Taliban and al Qaeda figures into two separate categories. US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice explained the move, “The United States believes that the new sanctions regime for Afghanistan will serve as an important tool to promote reconciliation, while isolating extremists,” arguing that the move sent “a clear message to the Taliban that there is a future for those who separate from al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by the Afghan constitution.”
As expected, however, Obama’s apprehensions were clearly not misplaced. The HPC made little progress. So far, it has only managed to ‘reintegrate’ about 2,000 of the estimated 25,000-40,000 insurgents in Afghanistan. However, even individuals who had ‘reconciled’ were not found to be reliable, as was evident from the April 1, 2011, attack on a UN compound in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, in which at least eight foreign UN workers and four others were killed. Reports indicate that some of ‘reconciled’ elements incited the locals to attack the UN compound.
Conspicuously, no substantive peace talks have yet taken place between the Afghan Government and the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban have shown no signs of interest in responding to Kabul’s blandishments and have repeatedly rejected the HPC, calling it “a trick to deceive public opinion” and demanding the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan. They have accused Karzai of betraying the national interests, since “decisions on Afghanistan are made in Washington and London, while the announcements are made in Kabul.” Reacting on September 6, 2011, days before his assassination, Rabbani had argued, “the movement by the name of Taliban creates tragedy and disaster, recruit children and claim to be religious students [sic].”
On April 30, 2011, the Taliban had announced the launch of their 2011 military offensive, Operation Badr, in which the insurgents sought to “attack foreign troops, members of their spy networks, high-ranking Government officials, and members of the Cabinet and Parliament.” A Taliban-issued statement reproduced by The Long War Journal indicated that the tactics of Operation Badr would consist of “utilizing all proven military tactics – including the usage of advanced weapons against the air and ground forces of the invaders, hit-and-run attacks, group offensives, city attacks, advanced explosive attacks, and effective group and martyrdom seeking attacks by our warrior Mujahedeen”.
Since then, Taliban has carried out many high profile attacks, the most prominent of which include:
July 12: Ahmad Wali Karzai head of the Provincial Council of the Kandahar Province and younger brother of President Hamid Karzai was assassinated by one of his guards at his residence. The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the incident.
July 13: A suicide bomber blew himself up inside Sara Mosque in Kandahar city, where people had gathered to pay homage and pray for Ahmad Wali Karzai, killing Mawlawi Hekmatullah Hekmat, the head of religious council of Kandahar, and four others.
July 17: Jan Mohammad Khan, a senior advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Hashim Watanwal, a Member of the Afghan Parliament, were killed when two assailants stormed Khan’s house in the capital city of Kabul.
July 27: A suicide bomber blew himself up killing the Mayor of Kandahar city Ghulam Haider Hamidi, and one civilian.
August 6, 2011: A US Chinook Transport Helicopter shot down by the Taliban in the Wardak Province of eastern Afghanistan. 30 US troops, including 22 Navy SEALs from the elite Team 6 – the unit that neutralised Osama bin Laden in the Abbottabad raid – six Afghan National Army (ANA) commandos, and one civilian interpreter, were killed in the incident.
A rash of lesser attacks pushed fatalities up in all categories. A total of 1,068 ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) personnel were killed over the entire period since 2001 till January 19, 2009 (when Obama took over the US Presidency). Between January 20, 2009, and October 16, 2011, ISAF fatalities have risen by 1,699 (till October 16, 2011), with 486 of these in 2011 alone. Civilian deaths have also recorded a sharp increase. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) 1,523 civilian fatalities were recorded in 2007; these increased to 2,118 in 2008; 2,412 in 2009; and 2,777 in 2010. Till June 15, 2011, 1,462 civilians had died. By comparison, 1,271 deaths had been reported in the first half of 2010. Reports also indicate that, since 2007, 2,234 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops and 3,273 Afghan Police personnel have died in the conflict. The number of suicide attacks by Taliban cadres has also increased dramatically. 1,231 persons died in 421 suicide attacks between 2001 and 2008; the fatalities shot up to 2,571 in 329 attacks since January 1, 2009 (data till October 15,, 2011).
Clearly, that the ‘reconciliation process’ has failed to deliver. Reports indicate that there have been serious differences of opinion between Afghanistan and the US regarding whom to talk to. Though recent media disclosures indicated that the US had tried to approach the Haqqani Network, Muhammad Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies claimed, “The Americans are only interested in talks with Mullah Omar.” The Americans are, in fact, convinced that they are more targeted by the Haqqani Network than by the Quetta Shura Taliban. Unsurprisingly, the September 13-14, 2011, incident which killed 27 people — 11 civilians, 11 militants and five Police officers—after a 20-hour battle following Taliban attacks on the National Directorate of Security (NDS) office, the US embassy, NATO Headquarters and some Government compounds in Kabul, was attributed by the Americans, including US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan C. Crocker, and former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, to the Haqqani Network. Subsequently, Janbaz Zadran, who was accused of helping the Haqqani Network to orchestrate attacks on foreign troops in Kabul and south-eastern Afghanistan, was killed in a drone attack on October 13, 2011, in Miranshah in North Waziristan Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan.
Rana argues, further, that “Karzai thinks that, if he doesn’t negotiate with Haqqani, he won’t have security.” This, indeed, is the reasoning that underlies Karzai’s line that the ‘solution’ to Afghanistan’s interminable problems lies in Pakistan, since Pakistan has long regarded the Haqqani Network as a ‘strategic asset’. The contours of any such ‘solution’, however, will remain impossible to define, as long as Pakistan’s current strategic projections, and Islamabad’s quest for ‘strategic depth’ in a crippled Afghanistan in the wake of a premature Western withdrawal, remain unchanged. Indeed, Pakistan has repeatedly made it abundantly clear that negotiations with any Taliban faction can only be successful through Islamabad’s ‘good offices’, and will be quickly scuttled by terrorist attacks or the neutralization of ‘renegade’ elements who seek peace, if any direct contacts are initiated.
The wayward ‘reconciliation process’ in Afghanistan has only fed greater chaos and made Kabul increasingly vulnerable to infiltration by double-dealing elements linked to the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence, whose unrelenting hostility to stability in Afghanistan should, by now, have been more than evident to all concerned. Unfortunately, as the costs and pain of the unending war in Afghanistan enlarge, the seduction of make believe has a parallel proclivity to rise alongside.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management