After the Rabbani assassination, the Afghan government has made it clear that it intends to revise its peace strategy. It has however been very short on the details of what this might look like, other than that it needs to revolve around ‘talking to Pakistan’. The change comes in the midst of deteriorating relations with Pakistan and concerns that we may be witnessing the birth of yet another ad hoc approach.
The new peace strategy was to be unfolded last night in a much anticipated speech by President Karzai. It was however largely a rehash of earlier stated positions. The main new elements – the end of negotiations with the Taleban, the observation that Afghanistan has to deal with governments and not their proxy forces, renewed allusions to Pakistan not doing enough – were toned-down reiterations of what had already come from the Palace over the last few days. The only half-practical step was a reference to the upcoming traditional Loya Jirga, where much of the new strategy was to be discussed. The fact that the main messages had to be read between the lines does not bode well for the credibility, transparency or coherence of whatever it is that the government now intends to do.
The first indication of a new approach came in two meetings: with ‘jihadi leaders, political personalities and senior government officials’ and two days later with the Ulema Council. The gist of the meetings was that the killing of Rabbani showed there was no point in talking to the Taleban – because they had responded to calls for peace only with violence, because they could not be found, because they had demonstrated that they lack authority to act independently – and therefore the Afghan government now has no other option but to talk to Pakistan:
‘… the Taleban in the last three years have only responded with violence to the calls for peace talks … By assassinating the Chief of High Peace Council, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Taleban showed that they have no authority to decide independently. Now the question is: Peace with whom? … despite the good will of Afghanistan and its efforts towards peace and stability and the improvement of relations with Pakistan, the government of Pakistan has not taken any action against terrorists or their sanctuaries and training camps in Pakistan. Now that the Taleban is being used as a tool by Pakistan’s ISI, Afghanistan should consider Pakistan as the other side in the negotiation.’ *
The two meetings appeared to have been deliberately sequenced and scripted so that in the future, the government’s position – whatever it turns out to be – can be said to have been reached after extensive and careful consultation with the country’s political and religious leaders. The meetings may also have been a political show of force in response the All Parties Conference called by Pakistan’s Prime Minister on the same day to discuss US pressures on the country.
The language that is used echoes what has repeatedly been said by the politicians and analysts skeptical of the government-led process. It singles out Pakistan as the main adversary and the main opposing party in the conflict – and, for that reason, the only party with whom engagement is relevant. It is not a message of conciliation towards Pakistan or a request for cooperation, but a stark acceptance of what Karzai now sees as the realities and with a strongly belligerent undertone, which is also how most observers understood it. And although many agreed with what he said, Karzai’s statements were largely met by a lukewarm welcome. Many remarked that the realization has come rather late and only after loss of life and the spending of a large amount of money. Others wondered how sustained this change in policy would be or whether the Afghan government would be up to the task of negotiating with Pakistan.**
It is clear that the new approach revolves around the idea that the Afghan government should now ‘talk to Pakistan’, but there is no clarity on what this would look like or what the talks should be about. Karzai’s speech was even more oblique than these earlier statements (for full text of the speech see here) and provided very little clues, other than that the talks would be with the Pakistani government (which was distinguished from the Pakistani nation).
On the face of it relations with Pakistan have suffered. The NDS stopped short from blaming the Pakistani government, stating that the plot to kill Rabbani was hatched in Quetta’s Satellite Town with the direct involvement of the Quetta shura (see here and here), but other senior security officials did not hold back. Both Interior Minister Besmillah Khan and National Security Adviser Rangeen Dadfar Spanta claimed that the ISI had to have been involved.
Reconciliation processes which included Pakistan were unilaterally suspended, including the trilateral (US-Afghanistan-Pakistan) meeting scheduled for 8 October 2011, and the invitation to Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani to attend the Joint Reconciliation and Peace Commission meeting planned for late October. Meanwhile President Karzai is traveling to Indiawith a large delegation, where he will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Foreign Minister Krishna and sign several partnership agreements. In the context of tense Pak-Indian relations, this is widely seen as an intentional provocation.***
The Afghan government may be trying to ride the current tide of growing US exasperation with Pakistan’s double-dealing, hoping that the US will finally come through and deal with Pakistan in a more forceful and decisive way. It may be part of a consorted US-Afghan effort to put more pressure on Pakistan. But there is also much skepticism. Afghan interlocutors have for instance pointed out that the Afghan government has remained far too silent for their liking on the recently restarted shelling of Afghan territory by Pakistani border forces, wondering whether Karzai’s seemingly strong stance on Pakistan is genuine.
Karzai’s policy chance could well be a calculated move to try to appease Rabbani’s supporters and those long skeptical of his government-led outreach or an emotional response to the recent string of death and betrayals, by a government and a leader with few options left. The move deflects blame from himself, as the author of the ill-fated policy and the person who had ordered Rabbani to return to Kabul to meet the emissary. It may also be an attempt to tap into deep-seated anti-Pakistan sentiments (and the well-entrenched habit of blaming all ills on ISI plots), that is widely shared across the political spectrum. It is a course of action that, if successful, may help mitigate some of the worst ethnic and factional fall-out of the string of killings and the controversies over how the Karzai government has gone about ‘making peace’. But it is also a risky one, as it may inflame and escalate existing regional tensions. At the same time, however, it is currently far too inarticulate to gain much traction.
Finally, some thoughts on the substance of what Karzai is saying: are talks with the Taleban dead, should they be, and should Pakistan be at the centre of Afghanistan’s peace efforts?
If Karzai means that he intends to end the haphazard attempts to establish personalized back-channels with random senior Taleban figures, then he is right. If he means to abandon the illusion that a power-sharing deal with a violent movement will bring peace, he is also right. This does not mean there is no point in talking to (members of) the Taleban leadership or to Taleban commanders – there always is, as you never know what may come of it. But holding out a one-sided invitation in the face of continuing violence and expecting this to provide the solution for Afghanistan’s conflict and the underlying regional tensions, is indeed unwise.
It also appears that the Taleban are currently not in control of their own actions and statements, whether due to outside control or internal divisions (and if they are, they should prove it; they should state their responsibilities and intentions and stick to them). But where it gets tricky, is the part about ‘talking to Pakistan’. This threatens to be operationalized in a similar superficial, ad hoc and one-sided way as the local so-called peace efforts were. It will, for one, be almost impossible to have meaningful talks based on the premises that the ISI is directly involved in support for the insurgency, as long as the Pakistani government denies any involvement (see here for a stinging rebuke of Afghanistan’s implied accusations).
It is interesting to note Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani’s recent reaction to US pressure to deal with the Haqqani group on its soil. He announced the government’s intention to talk to Haqqani and other insurgent groups (rather than deal with them militarily) in order to persuade them to ‘decommission’ (rather than disarm).**** There is a risk that the strategy of ‘talking to Pakistan’ becomes ‘talking through Pakistan’ and that rather than having to answer for its role in Afghanistan’s conflict, Pakistan is provided with an opportunity to consolidate and expand its hold over whatever peace process there may be.
* This is what the ‘jihadi and political leaders’ who were gathered to discuss the peace process and the strategic partnerships with the US, the EU, Britain, NATO and India, told the President – according to the Palace statement. Those present included first and second vice-Presidents Marshal Qasim Fahim and Mohammad Karim Khalili, Sebghatullah Mojadeddi, Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, Pir Sayed Ahmad Gilani, Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq, Speaker of Parliament Abdul Rauf Ebrahimi, Senate Chair Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, Senior Minister Hedayat Amin Arsala, Minister of Water and Energy Mohammad Ismail Khan, Minister of Economy Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, National Security Advisor Dr Rangeen Dadfar Spanta and Presidential Advisers Nematullah Shahrani and Haji Din Mohammad (seehere).
On 30 September 2011, President Karzai repeated the same sentiments in a televised meeting with the Ulema Council: “Where is he? We cannot find the Taliban Council. Where is it?” President Karzai asked. “A messenger comes disguised as a Taliban Council member and kills, and they neither confirm nor reject it. Therefore, we cannot talk to anyone but to Pakistan.” His question to the Ulema Council: ‘Shall we then pursue peace talks with Pakistan?’ was met by loud expressions of consent.A council statement was read at the meeting, reiterating that peace was a religious and national process which cannot be rejected and that in order to bring peace and stability ‘new solutions must be sought’ and that it ‘should be clear with whom to make peace and by which tactics.’ President Karzai, according to Hewad Daily, further told the religious council that he had sought the advice of the Afghan people and that ‘the wish of the Afghan people is to talk with Pakistan, because the hidden places and sanctuaries of the armed opponents are located there.’
The Ulema’s statement, additionally, emphasized that when negotiating the strategic partnership ‘no privileges should be given to the US that damage national autonomy and national sovereignty’, condemned the recent shelling of Afghan territory by the Pakistani forces and announced support for Palestine.
**See for instance an editorial in Hasht-e Sobh ‘Good step but taken late’ (01/10/2011) or Daily Afghanistan, ‘How long shall we pay for the government’s negligence?’ (02/10/2011):
‘During the past two years, staggering amounts of money have been spent in various forms under the banner of peace. Great opportunities have been lost and important and influential political and military figures have been killed. Now heads of state are admitting their mistake and describe the peace process with armed opponents as fruitless, but who will be responsible for these big losses and damages.
Although the government of Afghanistan has taken this step very late, it is an appropriate step and in line with the realities on the ground in the country and in the region. The media and political experts had previously repeatedly described negotiation efforts with the Taleban as failed and had, instead, called for direct talks with Pakistan. They had highlighted the need for direct talks with Pakistan, but the government did not take their view seriously even as a suggestion.
According to the new strategy adopted by the government, the negotiations process will change from one with internal opponents to one with a foreign country. This strategy calls for its own mechanisms. … Heavy financial investment was made in the High Peace Council as it opened offices in many provinces. However, the council was repeatedly deceived by shrewd agents of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). From talks with a shopkeeper to trusting a suicide bomber all showed the weakness and inability of the High Peace Council to grasp the complexity of this game. … Now that the government has changed its policy, it is not clear how honest and cooperative Pakistan will be in fruitful negotiations. Pakistan still holds the Taleban and the Haqqani network as powerful and influential cards in regional games. Naturally, it will use these groups to make its political claims’.
*** To add insult to injury, Indian media went describing the aim of the trip to discuss ‘the fragile security situation in Afghanistan and the role of Pakistan’s ISI in fomenting instability in that country’, while Manmohan Singh was quoted on 27 September 2011 that, ‘There is now a growing awareness of the groups who indulge in these nefarious activities and we have to take notice of that … I’m glad that the world now recognizes the truth of what government and people of India have been saying about the activities of the ISI for many many years.’
**** Pakistan’s announced ‘decision to talk’ was preceded and endorsed by a gathering of political leaders: the All Parties Conference (see here for a more critical analysis).
Sirajuddin Haqqani, in the meantime, in a recent interview told the BBC that they ‘have been contacted and are being contacted by intelligence agencies of many Islamic and non-Islamic countries, including the US, asking us to leave the sacred jihad and take an important part in the current government… We know that their aim is not peace, they want to create tension among the Emirate’s mujahedin.’
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020