Hamid Karzai was welcomed in Islamabad on Monday with a 21-gun salute in accordance with the ceremonious and absurdly meaningless usages of protocol. But in a sense the booming of the heavy artillery was fraught with unintended symbolism. It served as a reminder that there was desperate need to muffle the guns in the conflict that has been raging in Afghanistan for the last four decades.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a miscalculation of astronomical stupidity. The reversal of that decade-long occupation of the country eventually resulted in the collapse of the Berlin Wall and sounded the death-knell of the bipolar geopolitics of the Cold War era. This spawned many fanciful myths about the invincibility of the Afghan nation.
But closer to the truth is that the defeat of the Soviet Union would not have been possible without the massive infusion of military and economic assistance from the so-called free world. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Steve Coll, reckons in his bestselling work, Ghost Wars, that mujahideen commanders were paid between $20,000 to $50,000 each per month and the more influential among them received as much as $100,000. The eventual withdrawal of Soviet forces resulted in chaos because there was no resistance government to which power could be transferred and the Geneva accords were negotiated without the participation of the mujahideen groups.
The 2001 US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan differed from the Soviet misadventure inasmuch as it had the legal cover of a UN resolution. Twelve years of fighting has resulted in an estimated 125,000 Afghan fatalities but yielded only a stalemate. With the withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014, the intensification of the turmoil into a full-blown civil war remains a ghastly possibility.
In sixteen months the 352,000-strong Afghan army will be exclusively responsible for security. But it is grotesquely under-equipped, ill-trained, unmotivated and imbalanced in its ethnic composition. There have been desertions galore and, according to one estimate, the attrition rate is currently around 20 percent but this could progressively increase to 40 percent in the months ahead. It is, therefore, uncertain whether this clumsily assembled ragtag fighting force will hold together or disintegrate.
The experience of Afghanistan in the previous decades of its blood-drenched existence is that its national army has crumbled under the assault of events. This is likely to happen again without a residual Nato and American military presence. Though it was officially given out that talks for a status of forces agreement with the US had been suspended, the Afghan foreign office announced unexpectedly on August 20 that recent negotiations had yielded results and only minor differences needed to be ironed out.
But a day prior to his arrival in Islamabad, Karzai told journalists that his government was not overly eager to conclude such an accord. This was foolhardy brinkmanship carried to a giddy extreme. The flamboyant Afghan president knows only too well that he is walking on tightrope without a safety net. His country will require $8 billion in annual economic and military assistance and this will not be forthcoming without a security agreement.
The size of the permanent contingent is still indeterminate though it is speculated that about 9,000 US and 6,000 Nato troops will remain. This portends a continuation of the conflict way beyond 2014 as Mullah Omar has unequivocally declared: “The Afghans consider military presence of the invaders whether it is greater in size or smaller, as a foreign occupation…Participation in the process of support for the establishment of the permanent bases, whether it is taking place in the name of a jirga, or parliament would only separate the traitors from those who are committed to the religion and the land.”
It is against this background that Karzai visited Islamabad. It has finally dawned upon him that the time for posturing is over and he requested Pakistan to facilitate talks between his government and the Taliban. He came across as “a sadder and a wiser man” than he seemed at the Chequers trilateral consultations on Afghanistan in early February. On that occasion, in an interview to The Guardian and the ITV, he had no hesitation in saying that the foremost threat his country faced was not from the Taliban but from “meddling foreign powers.” He was obviously referring to Pakistan.
At the brief press appearance with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday, Karzai explained the purpose for his visit: “It is with hope on this that I have come to Pakistan…to advance the course of action together…but also by having a common campaign against extremism, (to) make sure that the two countries are safer and prosperous towards a secure future.” Nawaz’s response was the usual formulation that Pakistan, along with the international community, will extend all possible support for a non-existent “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process.
These fine-sounding words mean nothing because the Taliban reject any dialogue with the Karzai regime which they consider illegal. In his August 2011 Eidul Fitr message, which is the most exhaustive public statement he has ever made, Mullah Omar appealed to “the Afghans working for the Kabul administration to…stand by the side of the mujahideen, shoulder to shoulder, against the enemies of Islam and the country.”
Around that time Zabiullah Mujahid, a close aide of Mullah Omar, said that all negotiations would be exclusively between the Taliban and the US and that too for the initial purpose of concluding a prisoner swap agreement. The talks could, however, broaden out to include other issues. But he did not disclose that negotiations had already been initiated with the Americans on November 28, 2010, and, till then, three rounds of talks had been held. The venue for these meetings had alternated between Munich and Doha.
On Nawaz’s request, Karzai extended his visit by a day and the talks between the two continued in Murree. But the rarefied atmosphere of the hill resort seemed to have stifled the imagination of the two leaders. They were able to conjure up no more than a road map built around unrealistic prescriptions to jumpstart the peace negotiations.
One of these was the relocation of the Taliban office from Doha to any other place, preferably Saudi Arabia or Turkey. The other was the release of Taliban commanders in the custody of Pakistan and, in particular, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Omar’s deputy, who was captured in a joint US-Pakistan operation in February 2010. The fanciful assumption is that these men can be used to promote the peace process.
Anyone with any experience in dealing with the Taliban would have known that they consider their captured commanders, regardless of their importance, as “spent cartridges” and have no use for such men. Mullah Baradar is realistic enough to know this and recently refused to become a peace mediator during a secret meeting organised by Pakistan between him and the Afghan ambassador.
The outcome of the Karzai visit was promptly rejected by the Taliban and they have ruled out any meeting with what they have contemptuously described as “the puppet government” in Kabul. A Taliban commander elaborated: “We even did not meet the Karzai people in Qatar and any such contact is impossible anywhere.” Mullah Baradar had long been replaced and the attempt to rope him in as an intermediary was “a useless effort.”
Karzai is irrational and as unpredictable as a weathervane. He is in the habit of making outrageously preposterous statements that have in recent months all but torpedoed the initiation of a peace process. The furore over the opening of the Taliban office in Doha in June is just one such example. The foreign office was not off the mark in its assessment earlier this year that Karzai was “leading his country to hell.”
But despite this, Islamabad must use whatever influence it still has with the Afghan Taliban to persuade them to sort out their differences with the Karzai regime at the negotiating table. The alternative is too hideous even to contemplate.
The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly. Email: iftimurshed @gmail.comS. Iftikhar Murshed, "The unpredictable Hamid Karzai," The News. 2013-09-01.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Government-Pakistan , International community , Foreign policy , NATO forces , Taliban , Mullah Omar , President Karzai , PM Nawaz Sharif , Afghanistan , United States , Murree , ITV