The elusive Afghan peace By Hasan Khan - Sunday, March 06, 2011

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IN Kabul, it is not just the political opponents of President Hamid Karzai that believe that the peace process initiated by the government is doomed to failure. It is also the writers, journalists and people in government.

For the majority of Afghans, the reason is simple: President Karzai and his administration are so weak that there is no ability to take vital decisions. Failure, therefore, is the only conceivable outcome for any government-led peace effort.

The recent Afghanistan-Pakistan Media Dialogue conference in Kabul was a rare opportunity to meet journalists, intellectuals and officials from the government and in the security apparatus. During my two-day stay, I was left with the strong impression that the entire system of governance in this war-torn country is erected on artificial columns that may collapse once the international forces leave.

Two issues appear to be of crucial importance for every Afghan: the deteriorating security situation and President Karzai`s weak and corrupt administration. In Kabul, an atmosphere of gloom prevails. Every Afghan, whether from the north or the south, is equally pessimistic and cynical in terms of the system.

The regime`s lack of responsiveness to people`s needs, coupled with Taliban advances in major population centres, has created an atmosphere of anger and fear. Kabulis talk frequently about 2014; they fear the return of the Taliban who, they believe, will overrun the artificial leadership easily once the international forces have left.

Among Afghans, there is uniformity in the view that the key to peace in Afghanistan lies in the hands of the US or the Taliban. Believing that the government-initiated peace process is just a show, they view the Rabbani-led peace council as an employment bureau where a few of the regime`s hard critics or supporters have been accommodated on monthly stipends from donors` purses.

War and internal conflicts, stretched over decades, have turned every Afghan into a sceptic who sees the visuals on the electronic media — shots of what the administration claims are surrendering Taliban foot soldiers — as a marketing exercise undertaken by the image- builders.

The perceivably corrupt and weak Karazai administration is considered the reason behind the failure of a locally-sponsored peace process. The Afghan regime and an international coalition equipped with the world`s best trained armies and sophisticated war machinery failed, in President Barack Obama`s words, to defeat, disrupt and dismantle the ragtag, part-time fighters.

Instead of facing the situation, the regime blames Pakistan for the chaos. Consequently, this has made the environment so hostile for Pakistani nationals that when we reached Kabul, a foreign security adviser of our host advised Pakistani journalists to not risk going out without proper security. We were told that the thousands of intelligence officials in the streets of the capital could hurt us if we were found speaking Urdu or indulging in other giveaways about our Pakistani identity.

On the political front, the situation is even more confused. The new Afghan parliament, elected last September, is deeply divided along ethnic lines. It is yet to start legislative business even though six months have elapsed since its election.

Meanwhile, many believe that the reclusive leader of the Taliban militia, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is not foolhardy enough to open a window for peace negotiations with the Karzai administration, seeing it as lacking the influence necessary for resolving the conflict. If at all there were some chances of building trust between the Kabul regime and the Taliban, these have been spoiled by the recent — but very untimely — reports of the US building permanent military bases on Afghan soil. The Taliban`s lone condition for opening dialogue with Kabul — that American forces leave Afghanistan — was met in the Lisbon declaration endorsed by President Obama which set 2014 as the timeline for the withdrawal of international forces.

Then, there is also too much talk of a huge trust deficit between various stakeholders in the Afghan theatre of war. President Karzai, the British and the Americans, to name a few but important players, have set up separate shops to lure the Taliban into their respective camps.

In terms of the Afghan High Council for Peace, observers of the situation are rightly giving a lot of weight to the American contact with four senior Taliban leaders detained at Guantanamo Bay. Noorullah Nori, the Taliban commander of northern Afghanistan and the former governor of Mazar Sharif, Mullah Fazil, the Taliban military chief and deputy defence minister, Mullah Khairullah Kairkhwa, the Taliban interior minister, and Abdul Haq Waseeq can still be used by the US for future purposes. Members of the peace council are also planning to visit Guantanamo and meet these detained Taliban leaders.

There is hardly any doubt that America`s initial contact with Taliban leaders detained at Guantanamo Bay bore little fruit. However, insiders believe that the Taliban leaders would prefer to negotiate peace directly with the US rather than talk to a weak and fragmented Karzai administration, which is already dwarfed by powerful ethnic groups.

Afghan observers, who consider Islamabad a key element in any peace and stability scenario in Afghanistan, are also keenly watching Pakistan`s moves. There are strong perceptions that Pakistan is busy encouraging the Taliban to talk to the US directly since there are too many ethnic-centred power bases in the Karzai administration. These power bases view any patch-up with the Taliban as being detrimental to their ethnic interests. Even people in the current set-up point to the Tajiks and Hazaras, both of which shot to power in the post-Taliban environment when the Pakhtuns were made international pariahs.

Taliban sympathisers, both inside and outside Afghanistan, are also provoking the militia leadership for taking advantage of the emerging situation, saying that the time is ripe for the Taliban to ride on the back of America`s horse and reverse the tide on opponents who once drove them (the Taliban) out of Kabul and took control of the capital city using that same horse.

The writer is the director of news and current affairs for Khyber TV.

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