Fences mended, Washington and Kabul look for the path forward
As Hamid Karzai heads home to Afghanistan, his cabinet’s week-long fence-mending trip to Washington is widely being hailed a success. Both sides succeeded in putting a happy face on relations between Washington and Kabul that have become increasingly antagonistic in recent months. So what actually got accomplished? The Obama administration and Karzai’s team say they ...
As Hamid Karzai heads home to Afghanistan, his cabinet’s week-long fence-mending trip to Washington is widely being hailed a success. Both sides succeeded in putting a happy face on relations between Washington and Kabul that have become increasingly antagonistic in recent months.
So what actually got accomplished? The Obama administration and Karzai’s team say they made significant progress in planning the next two major events in Afghanistan’s political evolution: the upcoming "peace jirga" and the Kabul conference that will follow it.
At issue in both meetings is the still-unresolved question of how best to deal with the Taliban as the beleaguered U.S.-led coalition searches for an exit strategy. Should Taliban fighters be granted amnesty in exchange for laying down their arms? And what about top leaders like Mullah Omar, who has shown little interest in negotiations? Can certain factions, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar‘s Hezb-e-Islami, be peeled off and brought over to the government’s side?
U.S. officials have cautiously endorsed Karzai’s approach of assiduously courting Taliban foot soldiers and reintegrating them into Afghan society, while trying to figure out how best to move forward with engaging the senior Taliban leadership. In a talk Thursday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Afghan leader argued that most low-level Taliban fighters were driven into the arms of the enemy due to fear and intimidation compounded by years of mistakes by the international coalition. Most of them can be reintegrated, he said, but "reconciliation is more difficult and more of a future thing."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sitting next to Karzai, said that both sides had settled on a common set of conditions for reintegration. To be accepted back into society, Taliban members must renounce violence, adhere to the Afghan constitution, distance themselves from al Qaeda, and support the rights of women. "There is no military solution to this conflict," she emphasized.
That’s where the peace jirga, which is scheduled for May 29, is supposed to come in. The meeting will bring together 1,400 people, 1,250 of whom will be Afghans from all over the country. Afghans living across the border in Pakistan will also be included, but the Taliban is not invited.
Karzai plans to use the meeting to try to build national unity, focusing on areas where everybody can work together, including tourism, narcotics and weapons control, distribution of services, and infrastructure development.
"It’s not so much a negotiation with the Taliban so much as a discussion within friendly Afghans," said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign relations.
Whether Karzai will take a consultative approach in line with Afghan traditions or simply seek an endorsement of pre-existing plans remains unknown. "The classic Afghan jirga is a consensus-making process, but that’s not going to happen with this size of a group," Biddle predicted.
As for the Taliban, Barmak Pazhwak, a senior program officer at USIP, said there are several issues where U.S. and Afghan sentiments are likely to diverge.
For example, will Karzai welcome back top leaders like Mullah Omar, whom he has previously extended an offer to rejoin the political process? Will Karzai seek an endorsement of U.S. forces’ presence in Afghanistan, which could alienate potentially reconcilable Taliban commanders right off the bat?
Then there is the question of whether the Taliban even have an interest in reconciliation at all.
"What are the incentives? Why should the Taliban join the Karzai government?" Pazhwak said. "To the Taliban, the Karzai government is just a product of the U.S. government in Afghanistan. They don’t think he has the authority to make decisions independent from the U.S., so they think, ‘Why bother dealing with him?’"
In late July, Clinton will lead the delegation to the Kabul conference, which is where the Afghan government will present what President Obama described as "concrete plans" to flesh out Karzai’s commitments.
"That is an important conference, obviously," Special Representative Richard Holbrooke said, describing the agenda as similar to that of two previous international gatherings on Afghanistan. "It will be an affirmation of international support for the government."
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin
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