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Troubled transition

President Hamid Karzai’s mercurial behaviour and departing antics have thrown Afghanistan’s looming transitions into confusion even as the presidential election campaign has got underway in his country.

The Afghan leader has refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that the US has long sought to allow a residual Nato presence after December 2014. Karzai has said this decision will now be left to his successor. Along with this he has directed a barrage of accusations at Western forces, blaming them, most recently, for “terrorist attacks” on civilians.

Karzai and his top advisers have also been hurling thinly veiled verbal attacks on Pakistan – this, despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to reach out to Kabul. This belligerent rhetoric is hardly the ingredient for building a supporting environment for the challenging transitions that lie ahead.

One of the conditions that Karzai has imposed for signing the BSA is that the US should help him start peace talks with the Taliban. This is ironic and disingenuous coming from a man who opposed and thwarted the most promising opportunity to initiate a peace process, which was marked by the opening of a Taliban office in Doha last June.

Karzai’s vehement objection to the symbols used by the Taliban for the office led to its closure and to the Americans abandoning a nascent dialogue aimed at finding a negotiated end to the war. Although the diplomatic fracas was widely ascribed to misunderstandings created by Qatar’s handling of the arrangements, Karzai used this to halt the process. And US representatives held back on direct talks that were to take place with the Taliban.

At the time, the Afghan president also suspended negotiations on the BSA, effectively making the peace process a hostage to Washington’s need for the security accord. Later, following protracted talks on the BSA, Karzai convened a Loya Jirga in November 2013, which approved the accord. But Karzai then refused to sign it.

During the prolonged wrangling on the BSA in the second half of 2013, the peace process was put in cold storage, even though Taliban representatives did not leave Qatar and signalled their interest in resuming talks with US interlocutors. The Pentagon’s view prevailed over that of others in the Obama administration who still wanted to pursue contacts with the Taliban. To mollify Karzai and get him to yield on the BSA, Doha was cast aside. But by early 2014 it was clear that this strategy had failed to pay off.

Had the Doha process not been aborted it is conceivable that by now progress in the talks may have produced some kind of understanding to ensure a relatively peaceful environment for the elections. In the absence of any political engagement, the Taliban have little incentive not to disrupt the election, which their leader Mullah Omar has rejected as a sham and urged people not to participate. So the security challenge now appears daunting.

Pakistan repeatedly proposed ‘pre-talks’ to Washington to resolve the misunderstandings (over the flag and symbols) that led to the diplomatic debacle at Doha in a bid to revive the stalled process. US officials agreed this was an idea worth exploring but balked at giving it a try.

Washington also showed little inclination to end the deadlock by pressing ahead with its own proposal of a five-for-one prisoner deal – exchanging five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo for Bowe Bergdahl, the sole American prisoner of war in Taliban captivity.

When Prime Minister Sharif met President Barack Obama during his Washington visit in October 2013 he raised this issue to encourage the US to restart the Doha process. But no movement followed. More recently when the Taliban released a proof-of-life video of Bergdahl, this renewed discussion of the issue within the Administration, but again, produced little movement.

Frustrated by Karzai’s stance on the BSA, some American officials privately concede that they should not have backed off so quickly at Doha – or for that matter earlier at the time of the Bonn conference in December 2011. These are now acknowledged to be missed opportunities. For example Bonn II was to lead to the announcement about the opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar, with the conference serving as a vehicle to endorse and sanctify the start of reconciliation talks with the Taliban.

It was President Karzai who scuttled this initiative having agreed to it prior to the Bonn conference. His last minute change of heart meant that a process that could have taken off in December 2011 took almost two years of subsequent diplomatic effort to put back on track – in June 2013.

Contrary to Karzai’s depiction of the Doha process as a ‘conspiracy’ by the US and Pakistan to cut a deal behind his back, he was kept fully in the picture about this as well as the fact that the process would involve two steps or stages. In stage one, the US and Taliban representatives would discuss issues between them, such as the prisoner exchange. This would then pave the way for talks among Afghans themselves and a full-fledged peace and reconciliation process.

Although the Taliban remained reluctant to talk to representatives of the Karzai government, it was expected that once the Doha process got underway, they would, in time, be persuaded to engage with representatives of Kabul’s High Peace Council, initially perhaps in their individual capacity. There was never any doubt that Doha’s principal purpose was to create the conditions for an intra-Afghan dialogue, which everyone accepted would be an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ process of national reconciliation.

Had this process kicked off, progress in the negotiations would have provided the crucial political foundation for all the transitions Afghanistan has to negotiate this year: political, security and economic. But by setting terms that were tantamount to surrender by the Taliban, Karzai’s posture ensured that this process never got off the ground.

As for US strategy, which accorded priority to the BSA over peace talks, the Americans seem to have ended up with neither – no BSA, as of now, and no peace process. Although some US officials still hope Karzai will sign the agreement this month, the current assumption of American officials is that signing the BSA will fall to Karzai’s successor. But exactly when the deal is sealed will be subject to the vagaries of Afghan election politics.

In all likelihood a run-off is expected after the first round of the presidential election on April 5, which is widely predicted to be inconclusive. This suggests that any BSA decision could be pushed to late summer and into the fighting season. And because government formation is expected to take time, this would diminish chances of the accord being signed before the first week of September, when a major Nato summit is to take place in the UK.

What does all this mean for the renewal of serious peace efforts? Further delay in starting the process and a very narrow diplomatic window available to make significant progress, much less hammer out a political settlement, after the advent of a new government in Kabul and ahead of Nato’s December deadline, when all Western combat troops are to leave Afghanistan.

With time running out, the lack of peace negotiations and uncertainty over the BSA are intensifying doubts about a stable and orderly path to December 2014 and beyond. More important for Pakistan and Afghanistan’s other neighbours is the stalled peace process, without which no end to the fighting will be in sight.

The uncertain outlook for all of Afghanistan’s crucial transitions is casting a long shadow on prospects for post-2014 stability. Whether this bleak scenario can be significantly altered by the election of a new president – provided the process is fair and credible – is yet to be determined.

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK. Twitter: @LodhiMaleeha

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, "Troubled transition," The News. 2014-02-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Peace council-Afghanistan , International issues , Political relations , Political leaders , Terrorism , Taliban , President Karzai , PM Nawaz Sharif , President Obama , Mullah Omar , United States , Afghanistan , Pakistan