The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s missed opportunities and new choices

Afghanistan’s missed opportunities and new choices

Assuming for a moment that many of Afghanistan’s security problems originate outside the country’s borders, the upcoming international conference on Afghanistan to be held in Istanbul on November 2 could be a unique occasion to address the many obstacles inhibiting a just and durable peace in the country. But the possibility of obtaining any tangible result from Istanbul is more remote than some may expect. Under the veneer of diplomatic nicety and rhetoric lies a set of mini-Great Game maneuvers that will put to the test the current efforts to bring about Afghan reconciliation, transition, sovereignty, and a sustainable paradigm shift in regional relations.

The Turkish initiative, backed by Afghanistan and major Western donors, will bring together a core group of leaders from 14 nations that form the "Heart of Asia" consortium, along with observers from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, Japan and others, to try to improve region-wide security and cooperation prospects through confidence-building measures and economic integration initiatives, such as the "New Silk Road" project.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in  testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, explained that the United States and others are working in forums such as the Istanbul meeting to help secure commitments from regional countries "to respect Afghan sovereignty and territorial integrity and to support Afghan reconciliation." Another aim of the gathering is to smooth the way for December’s much larger conference to be held in Bonn, Germany, where decisions will be made for the post-2014 international engagement and long-term Afghan aid strategy.

These gatherings are happening at a time when, despite recent Taliban military setbacks in Southern Afghanistan, the overall security situation on both sides of the Durand Line remains tenuous; tension is brewing between Washington and Islamabad over alleged covert Pakistani support for cross-border militants, increasing numbers of Iranian-made arms and munitions are being spotted in insurgent hands, and a fragile government in Kabul is negotiating a set of strategic accords to protect itself against future threats and secure a large chunk of funding for its expenditures over a 10-year span.

Watered-down declaration

The Afghan government entered into wide-ranging preliminary talks before the meeting expecting to obtain a binding non-interference agreement in Afghanistan under the aegis of the United Nations that would start the process of shutting down insurgent safe-havens beyond Afghan borders. However, sources close to the talks have reportedly said that Pakistani, Iranian and Russian delegates expressed varying degrees of reservations about different aspects of such a deal. Even the idea of a mechanism to verify tangible commitments to not intercede in Afghanistan was shot down last week at a working group meeting in Kabul. Despite the conciliatory language, then, regional players are still jockeying for position in Afghanistan as 2014 gets closer.

It thus seems clear that a watered-down declaration will be issued in Istanbul this week, whereby as part of the "confidence-building" measures, participants would welcome Afghanistan’s willingness and determination to use its geographic position to promote regional security and cooperation, rather than forging a true non-intervention agreement. Such toothless pronouncements have been the norm since 2002, when the Declaration on Good Neighborly Relations was signed. The Istanbul version goes only one step further, calling for a follow-up mechanism comprising the "Heart of Asia" nations, aiming to meet on a regular basis to pursue their stated objectives.

Based on draft declarations reviewed by the author, the closest these nations will come to discussing contentious issues facing Afghanistan and the region is to commit "in principle" to refrain from the threat or use of force in Afghanistan, and not to allow their territory to be used against one another. They will also likely pledge in principle to fight terrorism, extremism and the drug trade. But it does not seem probable that any binding clause or verification regime will be attached to any of the diplomatic verbiage.

Strategic accords as guarantors

Most war-battered Afghans will see the Istanbul conference as yet another missed opportunity to address the real security challenges facing their country, especially the behavior of regional powers that provide safe-havens for militants and use armed radical proxies as strategic tools. 

The latest policy buzz words out of Washington meant to deal with this issue while still working for a deal in Afghanistan, as enunciated by Clinton, are "fight, talk and build." This can work best if the aforementioned components are mutually reinforcing pieces of a strategy where the end result can provide some measure of sustainable stability, as well as contingency guarantees to preserve Afghan sovereignty and integrity via other measures, like strengthening Afghan institutions and striking key strategic partnerships, in the post-2014 NATO disengagement period.

While some pundits continue to call for a ceasefire followed by unconditional negotiations with the insurgents, what we are actually seeing emerge on the ground is a pattern of more psychological warfare, more deception, and more fear-mongering on the part of the broader Taliban conglomerate. The current tactical aim of the more radical elements within the group, such as the Haqqani Network, is to further weaken the Western political will to fight, and tilt vulnerable local communities in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan toward submission. The trend of insurgent violence also displays a strong undercurrent of ethnic provocation that aims to further weaken the Afghan political structure, as various ethnic groups, fearing a Taliban encroachment, are forced to come up with new defensive lines.

To counteract an escalation in militant violence, and maintain stability in the post-2014 period, Afghan leaders and major international stakeholders are seeking long-term strategic safeguards that would provide frameworks for security, social and economic development, governance and other types of cooperation — though without plans to set up permanent bases for foreign troops in Afghanistan. While much of this agreement has reportedly been drafted, the remaining discussions center on unresolved issues of detention rights and Special Forces night raids, operations the Afghan government would like to bring under their control. Other agreements are currently in the works with NATO, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and France.

To this end, the Afghan government is planning to convene a traditional Loya Jirga in mid-November to ask for a de facto endorsement of a strategic cooperation agreement with the United States. However, the government faces two key challenges to ratifying any agreement; Taliban death threats targeting Loya Jirga participants, and local political opposition to holding what many see as an illegal assembly, based on the rules laid out in the country’s constitution. However, if security conditions permit, the Jirga will almost certainly give its (non-binding) blessing to the strategic accord before the Bonn meeting.

Scenarios and Choices

The political buzz in Kabul is that Afghan President Hamid Karzai will use the momentum created by the Istanbul conference, the Loya Jirga, and the Bonn II meeting to re-launch a joint peace process with Pakistan. Such a move would be designed to test the sincerity of Islamabad in helping bring about Afghan reconciliation, and to pick up where Clinton left off, by leaving an impression that Pakistani rulers have agreed in principle to cooperate and encourage some Taliban and Haqqani elements to join the backchannel peace talks currently underway. Ironically, under such a scenario, the United States has no alternative but to rely once again on the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate(ISI) to manage the shadowy process on the other side of the Durand Line. Here are a few of the scenarios that may emerge over time after this round of international conversations about Afghanistan’s future:

1.     A zero-sum game using time and force. As long as the insurgency can keep up the current operational tempo and successfully use targeted killings and psychological operations that instill fear in the Afghan population, the scheduled 2014 international withdrawal of international military forces favors those forces that have the wherewithal to sustain their efforts for a power grab or prolonged proxy-led civil war. This scenario may lead to serious regional tensions and expanded transnational threats emanating from a newly unstable Afghanistan.

2.     Hedging. Neighboring countries will hedge in order to unilaterally secure their interests and reinforce their armed assets in Afghanistan for any eventual reversal, or for use as leverage in an eventual grand bargain. This scenario might prevent the emergence of a secure Afghanistan and provoke internal chaos, with regional spillover effects.

3.     Stalemate, leading to forced negotiations, giving way to power-sharing and a fragile coalition government. The sustainability of such a scenario is questionable, and would most probably lead to renewed fighting and instability.

4.     "Fighting and talking" leading to negotiations, where red lines (such as insurgents renouncing violence, abandoning al-Qaeda, and abiding by the Afghan constitution, including its protections for women and minorities) laid out by Afghans and the United States will likely not be maintained. This would open the way for a gradual Talibanization of Afghanistan, and provoke internal ethnic and social tension.

5.     "Fighting and talking" leading to acceptance of the red lines by all sides, and a continuation of the status quo — or better. For this scenario to succeed, foreign safe havens for militant groups need to be shut down, backed by binding international guarantees.

6.     A regional paradigm shift in strategy and outlook, whereby ruling elites stop using proxy assets as strategic tools, and dismantle the infrastructure that supports terrorism and radicalism. This will result in accelerated economic activity, strengthen a culture of moderation, tolerance, and pluralism, and promote stability and prosperity across the region and beyond.

Given what Afghans and others have experienced, and what is at stake, there are options and important choices to be made. Meetings and high-level declarations have a certain level of utility in that they focus attention and provide platforms for exchange and brainstorming, but at the end of the day, there is a general sense of doubt surrounding the Afghan conflict that can only be overcome if Afghan leaders can commit to a commonly-shared vision, regional actors clean up their act and revamp their priorities, and the international community stands by the pledges made over the last decade. Because in this case, the outcomes will be felt not just in the West, but by all countries with a stake in Afghanistan’s future.

Omar Samad is the former Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011), Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004).