PLANS ARE underway to convene a meeting of ‘Core Group’ countries – Pakistan, US and Afghanistan – on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York later this month.
Other than reiterate previous declarations this trilateral meeting will do little to advance prospects of finding a negotiated end to the long running war in Afghanistan.For this to happen, the present US emphasis on a tactical military campaign has to decisively shift to a political strategy that can establish a meaningful peace process. But there is little sign of this given the dynamics of the American presidential election, only two months away now.
US officials insist that President Barack Obama wants efforts towards Afghan ‘peace and reconciliation’ to continue irrespective of the election. But political constraints have halted even tentative US diplomatic moves. Exploratory talks between American and Taleban representatives, suspended earlier this year, have yet to resume.More importantly no framework or roadmap for a peace process has yet been evolved. Nor is the US clear about its strategy even as a number of transitions approach in Afghanistan. Time is already short to align the 2014 security transition ending Nato’s combat mission and the political transition that will be result from Afghanistan’s
presidential election with a serious peace process that can become the necessary accompaniment for both.American officials concede there is little time to spare to bring multiple and intertwined transitions in sync as only 28 months are left to December 2014. But this acknowledgement is not matched by urgency to move on the political track.
Bolstering Afghanistan’s stability in the several transitions that lie ahead requires that Washington, Kabul and Islamabad agree on a comprehensive strategy to deal with these and make progress on Afghan ‘reconciliation’ to underpin it. But the American focus remains on tactical issues such as the ongoing administration debate on whether to declare the Haqqani network a terrorist organisation and on continuing the fighting.
Uncertainty surrounds the various transitions looming in Afghanistan. First, doubts persist about how the presidential election – ahead of the security transition – will proceed in spring 2014. There is no assurance that the election will not be marred by intensified violence or controversy over ballot fraud, similar to what happened in 2009 when Hamid Karzai was re-elected president. Far from reinforcing a smooth security transition a messy election can unsettle it.
Then there are growing question marks about the security transition. The sharp rise in ‘green-on-blue’ attacks — Afghan servicemen shooting Nato soldiers — intensifies doubt about the viability of transferring combat responsibilities to Afghan national forces. The rising ‘insider’ threat and increased infighting among Afghan forces bring into question whether these forces can survive the 2014 withdrawal as a coherent and capable entity especially if the political transition fails and no broader political settlement is in sight.
There is wide consensus that the indispensable pillar on which a peaceful Nato withdrawal and successful transition rests is a negotiated political solution that emerges from a fruitful Afghan peace process. But US diplomacy towards this objective remains stymied both by continuing tensions in its strategy as well as American election politics.
For their part Taleban spokesmen have been signaling readiness to resume the dialogue. But they continue to rule out engagement with the Karzai regime. The most recent iteration of willingness to return to negotiations came in an August interview broadcast by a Japanese TV network from Qatar with Sohail Mansoor, a former diplomat in the Taleban government. He claimed that several confidence-building measures were agreed with American negotiators, including the transfer of five Taleban detainees out of Guantanamo and opening a Taleban office in Qatar. Talks could reopen if the US abided by this agreement. He also said a ceasefire can be part of the package of negotiations.
But when US special representative Marc Grossman travelled to Qatar in June the Taleban refused to meet him. He is now expected to visit Islamabad in mid September for talks on Afghan ‘reconciliation’. Despite their many differences Pakistan and the US have a shared interest in averting the possibility of chaos in Afghanistan and cooperating to ensure that the multiple transitions ahead unfold in a mutually reinforcing manner and not at odds with each other. This means a serious conversation needs to take place on ways to prepare the political ground for meaningful peace talks.Even if this strategy has to wait for the American election to be executed it should be evolved sooner rather than later.