Peace prospects in Afghanistan By Khalid Aziz - Friday 22nd April 2011

AFGHANISTAN is seen as one place where hope fears to tread. It is a land in which chaos and immense human suffering have lived together, side by side, for more than three decades.
Yet, unexplainably, there arises optimism even in the darkest of times. If all goes well, Afghanistan should prosper in peace one day as soon as the Afghans begin to trust one another. That is the challenge to peace.
What promise do the new developments taking place hold? An important piece of advice for analysts is to give credence to the presence of military force, geography and local culture; secondly, it is safer to plan against the worst eventuality so that if it comes to pass one is protected and if it doesn`t, no harm is done. The US strategy appears to be to apply full military force in Afghanistan while seeking Pakistan`s help to convince the Taliban to accept peace. To succeed, Pakistan needs to feel comfortable.
I had in one of my earlier columns explored how peace could be achieved in the region. The centrepiece of that plan is to initiate behind-the-scenes discussions with the Afghan Taliban movement, preferably in Turkey. The design proposed was borrowed from the one for ending the conflict in Vietnam. Hopefully, informal discussions will lead to the formulation of an agenda, followed by formal discussions, preferably under an experienced UN-appointed peace negotiator. reintegration reconciliation
However, thus far the bottleneck in implementing such a plan has been the resistance of the US; it had no objection to the of those Taliban who gave up contact with Al Qaeda, shunned violence, and accepted the supremacy of the Afghan constitution. Yet, until recently, it did not favour with the Taliban. Reintegration and reconciliation are different.
The late Richard Holbrooke had recognised this and advocated a shift in US policy. It is a tragedy that he is not alive to witness the success of his vision. Apparently, the US has now agreed to reconciliation and wants Pakistan`s assistance in achieving it. Holding discussions on this matter was the reason behind the visit to the US by the head of the premier Pakistani intelligence agency. However, Gen Pasha was less successful in preventing further drone strikes on Pakistani territory.
After his meetings with US officials, Gen Pasha headed for Turkey where President Zardari was on a visit. Soon thereafter, Turkey announced that it was inviting the Taliban to open an office; thus the first steps have been taken to move towards genuine reconciliation. This will hopefully lead to the end of the war in Afghanistan. Peace processes though are complicated and it is premature to be optimistic yet.
On April 15, Pakistan`s prime minister visited Kabul and agreed with President Karzai to establish a two-tiered Afghan-Pakistan joint commission to work with the Afghan High Peace Council. It may be recalled that the former president of Afghanistan, Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani, heads the High Peace Council. Both the countries agreed that their senior civil and military leaders would work jointly for peace in Afghanistan through this council.
President Obama`s recent report to the Congress clearly stated that it is not the goal of the US to provide complete security to Afghanistan, neither will it do nation-building —these are tasks for the Afghans. The report further says that the main aim of the US is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Current estimates indicate that Al Qaeda has been reduced to less than 500 operators; the majority of its leadership has been killed or arrested. The US also knows that Al Qaeda may re-emerge in other countries like Yemen or develop cells in the West, but as a source of worldwide terrorism it no longer constitutes a major threat.
The US is clearly more concerned about the growth of extremism in Pakistan especially given its nuclear capabilities. The US also thinks that Al Qaeda has shifted to Pakistan. It lends credence to Christina Lamb`s recent acerbic comment that the extremists are no longer a minority in Pakistan but have become the majority. The current deployment of troops in Afghanistan shows that the US and Isaf forces are massed in two main groups. The first large gathering of force forms a crescent that starts in Kunar and after arching around Kabul ends opposite Waziristan. The second mass of force covers the region opposite Zhob in Balochistan, angles into Kandahar and Helmand in Afghanistan and terminates opposite Chaghai, though remaining at a distance from the Pakistan border. Is this ominous?
Besides these deployments, there is only one US battalion near Herat on the Iranian border. The rest of Afghanistan is sparsely garrisoned indicating a lower threat perception. President Obama has indicated that the US will continue using Special Forces to hunt the Taliban. This force capability, when added to the drone and air capacities of the US, indicates a formidable force ratio squeezing the Taliban. Thus reconciliation may be a better option for all and that`s why the talks may succeed.
The Iranians have begun constructing a wall on their border with Afghanistan like the Indians have done in East Punjab. It appears that Pakistan must soon decide to roll up the militancy cells within its territory to prevent the Taliban from entering its territory, once the US end game starts. n
The recent statement of arrested militants in Afghanistan who attacked a Nato base near Jalalabad showed that they were trained in North Waziristan. It is time to win friends and stabilise Pakistan`s relationships with allies rather than increase tensions the US needs to reciprocate. Furthermore, to achieve progress the US would need to enter into talks with the Taliban directly at some stage.
The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.

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