The London Meet on Afghanistan
by Yohannan Chemarapally
THE London Conference on Afghanistan held in the last week of January was supposed to plan out a coherent “exit strategy” for the West out of the quagmire it finds itself in. Instead, the conference has only succeeded in sending out confusing signals to the international community. While there was a lot of talk of engaging with the “good Taliban there was also a continued emphasis on a military solution to the conflict.
However, the desperation to get out of Afghanistan was tangible from the statements of most Western leaders present at the meeting. The willingness to open a dialogue with the “good Taliban” to find a political solution was an indication of the prevailing pessimistic mood. But with a political or military solution nowhere in sight it was evident that the military occupation of Afghanistan would continue for another five years at least. The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, in fact wants foreign troops to be around for a minimum of 15 years. He reiterated this demand once again in London. More than 70 countries, along with the European Union, NATO and the UN attended the London Conference. The EU and NATO officials were critical about Karzai’s 15 year time line for withdrawal.
It is evident that the grandiose promise of President Barak Obama to withdraw all American troops by 2011 is no longer a feasible proposition. With the militarily ascendant Taliban refusing to be drawn into a dialogue, the conditions on the ground will mean that US troops will continue to be stationed in Afghanistan beyond the deadline set by President Obama. The 10,000 additional NATO troops from European countries that Washington expected to be deployed in Afghanistan as part of the military surge, does not seem to be materialising. France has announced that it will not be sending any more troops to Afghanistan. Germany has promised only 500 more troops while the Dutch are on the verge of pulling out all their 2000 soldiers out of Afghanistan.
While appealing to the “good Taliban” to start talks, the West has set up a $650 million “trust fund” to buy off warlords and tribal group allied with the Taliban in the fight against the occupation forces. The West is also trying to persuade the Saudi Arabian government to use its influence and money to wean away fighters from the Taliban. The Saudis have pledged $150 million in new aid to Afghanistan.
“You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends the insurgency”, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after the London conference. She however hastened to add that the outcome of the London Conference did not in any way signal an early “exit strategy” for the US from Afghanistan. The UK’s foreign secretary, David Milliband, had announced that Afghan forces will be in charge of all the provinces within the next five years.
The Afghan President appealed to all the neighbouring countries, “particularly Pakistan to support our peace and reconciliation endeavours”. In fact, Pakistan emerged from the Conference with its role further enhanced. There was an implicit acknowledgement from the international community that any meaningful solution to the Afghan tangle was only possible with the help of neighbouring Pakistan.
India, which was represented by the External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna, was confined to the sidelines, at the London Conference. India is among the major donors of development aid to Afghanistan. It has a high profile political and strategic presence in the country. At every opportunity, the Pakistani establishment has been complaining about India’s growing footprint in Afghanistan, which Islamabad considers as its own “strategic backyard”. Even more galling to New Delhi was the West’s endorsement of the idea of talking to the “good Taliban”. New Delhi, along with Teheran and Moscow, are of the view that the Taliban—the good, the bad and the ugly— are all terrorists.
The Americans, who are doing the bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan, seem to have come to the conclusion that the only feasible way out of the political and military impasse is either to bribe the Taliban to lay own their arms or negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban leadership. The Americans were doing business with the Taliban government before the events of September 11, 2001. New Delhi was also in talks with the Taliban government in the late nineties. There was talk of an imminent gas pipeline being routed through Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. The American company, Unocal, was keen to extend the pipeline through Pakistan to India. It was the hijacking of an Indian Airlines passenger plane to Kandahar during the NDA regime that significantly hardened New Delhi’s position towards the Taliban.
The Taliban foreign minister at the time, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, had negotiated on behalf of the hijackers of IC-814. Kashmiri militants had also undergone training in Afghanistan when the Taliban were in power. The West has now identified him as a member of the “good Taliban” and is no longer on the UN “sanctions list”. Muttawakil who is now a free man is being used to persuade the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table. As foreign minister, he had tried to play a mediatory role between the Bush administration and the Taliban leadership before the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2002.
The Indian external affairs minister continues to insist that the Taliban are all terrorists. “We consider them to be terrorists, who have close links with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups”, he told the media on the sidelines of the London Conference.
At the same time, the Minister said that India would go along with the reconciliation program announced in London. Krishna said that the Taliban should be given a second chance. “A solution through military action is not the only alternative. I think that there are other alternatives which also need to be tried”, Krishna said in London. Given the consensus of opinion in London, the Indian government had no other option but to fall in line with the West despite misgivings that the reconciliation process could help Pakistan regain its “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.
The reconciliation plan has the strong backing of the Afghan President who is known to share a very warm relationship with New Delhi. Interestingly, Karzai had expelled two UN diplomats in December 2007 for making contact with the Taliban. The Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, did not attend the conference despite an invitation. Though the Iranian government has no love lost for the Taliban, it has always been in favour of an Afghan solution to the problem. Mottaki during his last visit to Delhi had made it clear that Teheran’s priority is an end to foreign occupation of Afghanistan.
The move to start seriously talking with the Taliban was evident before the London Conference started. The American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal told the British media that all Afghans, including the Taliban can play a role in the peace process “if they focus on the future, not on the past”. Kai Ede, the outgoing UN representative, is a strong votary of the reconciliation process. He said that this was the first time that peace making efforts got “such strong support” from the Karzai government’s international backers. Ede stressed that the military strategy in Afghanistan is deeply flawed and is doomed to failure unless political concessions are made soon.
There were reports that the UN’s chief representative was already engaged in secret talks with the Taliban leadership. The reports however have been strongly denied by both Ede and the Taliban spokesman. The Taliban dismissed the London Conference as a propaganda exercise. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s rival in the recent election, was of the view that the Taliban at this stage are not willing to enter into negotiations. The Taliban has been saying for some time that it will only engage in talks only if there is an end to foreign occupation.
But, in a renewed bid to reassure the West and neighbouring countries about its future intentions, the Taliban statement said that they had no intentions of harming neighbouring countries and other countries of the world, once the occupation forces left the country.
There are unconfirmed reports that the Obama administration is using Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to negotiate directly with the Taliban leadership. The US National Security Adviser, James Jones, while not explicitly ruling out Pakistan’s help, told an American newspaper group that Washington was “pursuing a general strategy of engagement”. Hillary Clinton however clarified after the London Conference that the US backed the re-integration of the Taliban into the political process but the top Taliban leadership led by Mullah Omar were excluded from the reconciliation deal.