By Dr Maleeha Lodhi.
Dr Maleeha Lodhi HI, is a journalist, academic, and former envoy to the US and the UK. The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo.tv is a leader in latest & breaking news
A series of recent developments have renewed doubts about America’s Afghan strategy even though the US officials insist their plans are “on track” and the strategy warrants no change. These statements mask the growing disconnect between Afghan realities and Nato’s transition deadline of 2014, when all foreign combat troops are to leave the country.
There is rising concern across the region that the situation in Afghanistan is in danger of spinning out of everyone’s control. Two key planks of the US strategy aimed at securing an orderly transition are clouded in uncertainty: partnering with Afghan forces as they assume charge of security and persuading the Taliban to join a peace process. This calls into question the viability of the present exit plan.
To avoid an unravelling, Washington needs to review its approach and revise its strategy by aligning its military mission to the stated goal of finding a political resolution of the war. This means transitioning from a fight-talk strategy to a talk-talk one.
Last month’s violent backlash in Afghanistan following the burning of copies of the Holy Quran by US servicemen and the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier has been a telling indicator of growing public resentment against foreign occupation. Rising incidents of Afghan soldiers turning their guns on Nato personnel signalled how deep that resentment is.
Far from being isolated, these incidents reflect intensifying animosity between Western and Afghan forces. According to figures released in February by the Pentagon 80 Western servicemen have been killed by Afghan soldiers since 2007, mostly in the past two years. “The longer we stay”, admitted on American official to me, “the greater the risk of such incidents”. Intensifying public anger has already urged President Karzai to demand that Nato forces immediately leave Afghan villages.
On the heels of these incidents came the Taliban’s withdrawal from talks with American interlocutors. Although US officials see the suspension as a negotiating tactic rather than abandonment of talks, the blow to the nascent peace dialogue came at a delicate juncture in the approaching endgame.
Washington’s mounting regional difficulties are of course not limited to Afghanistan. Relations with Pakistan have yet to normalise. With the Nato supply route closed for the past four months and parliament taking its time over defining the new terms of engagement, America’s regional strategy is in flux.
The prolonged diplomatic impasse with Pakistan and the setbacks in Afghanistan have already led to a scaling back of US expectations from the Nato summit. Scheduled for May 20-21 in Chicago, the summit had been cast by US officials as a landmark event that would unveil a comprehensive plan to achieve the 2014 transition, as well as announce the start of a formal Afghan peace process. Now more modest aims are being set for the conference. Announcement of peace talks and formal opening of a Taliban office in Qatar are likely to again be postponed.
Although there are other reasons too behind an informal American offer to Pakistan to participate in the Chicago summit this is also being proposed as an “incentive” for Islamabad to expeditiously reopen the ground lines of communication (or GLOCs). The top US military officer General Martin Dempsey said recently that the restoration of GLOCs was being “urgently” sought before May. This was necessary, he explained, not just to ensure military supplies for the spring fighting season, but the departure of equipment from Afghanistan when the drawdown gets underway. In the next 18 months thousands of Nato forces will pull out including 22,000 “surge” forces this September; removal of military hardware will accompany this.
For Obama a summit that lays out a credible plan to ‘responsibly’ wind down the war is especially important in an election year. This will be his last big international event before the election campaign takes over. He might also announce an accelerated withdrawal. While the US military commanders would disapprove, his public would welcome this.
Recent setbacks have already shifted American public opinion decisively against the war. The latest New York Times/CBS poll found that 69 percent of the Americans did not support the war, reinforcing other poll findings that show majorities want the US troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.
Meanwhile with the Chicago summit approaching, American efforts have intensified to conclude a strategic partnership agreement with Kabul. This would allow the US a longer-term military presence after 2014, including access to Afghan bases. News reports suggest frenetic attempts to reach an agreement before May.
Given the Taliban’s opposition to the presence of any foreign forces, the agreement is seen by American officials as another way to press them to resume talks and regain the diplomatic leverage they have steadily lost as the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. Whether this agreement can be a negotiating lever and not a deal-breaker with the Taliban is yet to be determined.
Such an agreement is certain to erode the already fraying regional consensus. All of Afghanistan’s neighbours and key regional powers oppose an undefined, indefinite US military presence, irrespective of its size or configuration. Even Kabul has now sought answers from Washington on bases and the nature of the residual force.
As for the stalled peace talks, the Taliban have kept the door open for future negotiations. Their resumption however will require the Obama Administration to expend greater political capital than it has been prepared to do. The tardiness of its opening diplomatic move has much to do with Washington’s concern with the political fallout of talking to those it has been fighting for ten years. But it is also characteristic of President Obama’s modus operandi – a reluctance to remain consistently engaged and put his weight behind his own policy.
The Taliban have insisted on the transfer of five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar before the start of formal negotiations. Unwilling to use political capital to overcome Congressional opposition, the Obama Administration has procrastinated and insisted that the Taliban agree to a number of ‘confidence-building measures’ including joining a political process with “other Afghans” (i e the Karzai government).
Taliban representatives have thus far rejected what they describe as new conditions, citing these and Washington’s “inexplicable delay” on the prisoners’ transfer as the reason for last month’s halt to the talks. Taliban spokesman also cited vitiation of the atmosphere by a string of “brutal actions” as another reason to break off talks.
Unless the US is prepared to focus more energy and political capital on the diplomatic process and set realistic terms it will be difficult to swiftly put talks back on track. Washington may calculate this is at present politically costly and prefer to wait until after the presidential elections. But delay and making peace negotiations hostage to the election calendar will imperil the 2014 transition because that rests principally on progress towards a negotiated settlement. The closer the 2014 timeline draws without diplomatic headway the less the Taliban’s incentive to negotiate.
The question that Washington has yet to squarely address – which has far reaching regional implications – is whether it simply wants to head for the exits with an ‘appropriate’ face saver or genuinely search for a peace settlement, and be ready to make strategy adjustments and compromises to achieve this.
If the latter, then more important than assembling a showpiece Nato summit are the changes Washington makes to its strategy. This means directing efforts to secure the mutual de-escalation of violence and negotiating regional ceasefires to wind down the fighting. More fighting will not just delay but compromise chances of a peaceful end to the war. A strategic pause in the fighting will create conditions for meaningful negotiations and accelerate the peace process. This can start with an end to night raids in return for the Taliban ceasing its campaign of assassinations.
The Obama Administration says there is no military solution in Afghanistan. The time to turn these words into strategy is now. This will align the US objectives with those of the region, as well as make the reset with Pakistan easier and perhaps more lasting.
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