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Afghanistan: An idea anticipating peace

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 06, 2011

    The recent elimination of Osama bin Laden has created positive prospects for counter insurgency in Afghanistan. The possibility of a draw down of the US-NATO presence in Afghanistan beginning July 2011 has heightened. The US would initially prefer to end its combat tasks so that, as in Iraq, it is able to eventually exit with dignity. The NATO Europeans are exhausted. Islamabad would like to see a negotiated end to the conflict in order that instability does not spread in Pakistan. India has expressed its support for an Afghan-led and- owned peace process. The Afghans themselves - including the Taliban - would like to see peace return.

    Currently there is a military deadlock between the Taliban and the ISAF on the one hand, and a political one between the Karzai regime and the Taliban. All indicators are that the ISAF will continue operations and mentoring of the fledgling ANA, till the situation improves. Having launched its summer campaign, the Taliban are prepared to ‘wait out’ the ISAF. The result is a continuing Afghan problem with the prospects of it engulfing Pakistan. Therefore a special effort on the peace front is called for.

    This is reportedly underway. The US envoy, Marc Grossman, is reportedly scouting for Taliban interlocutors. The Karzai government upgraded its National Independent Peace and Reconciliation Commission to a High Peace Council following last year’s ‘peace jirga’. A two-tier Afghanistan-Pakistan joint commission was set up during the visit of Prime Minister Gilani to Kabul. The US has redefined the earlier preconditions for talks - that the Taliban lay down arms, reject al Qaeda, and embrace the Afghan constitution – and has stated that these are outcomes to be sought through talks. This is facilitative and the impending announcement of the beginning of the US draw down will go part of the way towards meeting the Taliban’s condition that foreign troops should first leave. These initiatives scale up the peace feelers sent to the Taliban.

    The idea behind the ‘surge’ over the past three years has been to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. In case the Taliban are responsive, at the very least they would insist on the cessation of operations while talks are on. This means that there will also be a decline in the combat missions of the ISAF even as a few troops symbolically depart. Progress in the talks over time would imply a transition from peace enforcement to peace keeping. Progress means - whether the Taliban are amenable to verifiable moderation and the extent to which their demands can be accommodated in the changed constitutional and power setup.

    Thinking ahead requires preparing not only for the worst case i.e. the war continuing in Afghanistan and extending into a failing Pakistan; but also for a change towards the better. Understandably there would be reservations about the Taliban’s amenability to moderation. The promise that the Taliban need to make through the talks is a softening of their stance on gender equality, burying of war time feuds and a commitment to the Afghan constitution and multi-ethnic solidarity. This can only be ascertained when links are forged. They may yet prove to be rational strategic and political players.

    The way to capitalise on any positive change would be the ‘out-of-the-box’ idea to transform the NATO enforcement mission into a joint UNAMA-SAARC peacekeeping one, predicated on progress in the peace talks. Since the UN is a neutral organisation, it may be able to unlock the standoff as a credible mediator. SAARC as a regional organisation packs considerable peacekeeping muscle, and can facilitate the transition to peacekeeping. A partnership between the UN and the SAARC has the potential to end the logjam. This partnership would have the advantage of leveraging the peacekeeping experience of regional states. A precedent for such a partnership is the UNAMID - the UN-AU hybrid mission in Darfur.

    The UNAMA in Afghanistan, is currently involved in activities that involve aiding governance, drug control, humanitarian and developmental work, human rights and fighting corruption. However, the political aspect of its mandate has not seen much progress. This is not for want of trying. Reports of former UNAMA head, Kai Eide’s dealings with the Taliban surfaced on the arrest of his interlocutor Mullah Baradar, by the ISI. This time round the peace initiative can be undertaken transparently and in a high profile manner. This does not require empowerment since the current mandate caters for pursuing a political strategy. Contingency planning for ‘blue berets’ needs to look no further than the region itself.

    Specifics of the idea can be gone into once it gains momentum. Only a bare bones outline can be drawn here. A SAARC foreign ministers meet can approve the modalities worked out by the secretariat. A foreign minister can be nominated in rotation for the purpose by the SAARC who can interface with the UN as coordinator. Later perhaps the SRSG can be an eminent person belonging to the region. The secretariat can get additional working hands and create a new section for the purpose. A joint military core staff can be created and a liaison cell located at the ISAF HQs. A force commander would need to be nominated, if necessary to sell the idea in Pakistan - he could be from Pakistan. The appointment can later rotate between contributing states.

    The presence of both Pakistan and India, which has proved useful in UN missions elsewhere, may be reassuring for both states. Involved in seeing a regional endeavour through to success, their respective interests would be protected and rivalry mitigated. Scepticism may be voiced that the supposed ‘proxy war’ between the two states may derail the mission and this apprehension makes the idea a non-starter. The counter to this is that the common objective of seeing peace return, ensuring that instability does not spread and the extraordinary scope for cooperation elsewhere are incentives enough to chance the option. The professionalism of their militaries and of foreign policy bureaucracies is known to be of an order that can cope with the demands.

    Envisaging problems helps craft prior solutions, thereby helping sell the idea. For instance, the Taliban have apparently expressed a preference for peacekeepers from Muslim states earlier. At least initially Bangladeshi and Pakistani troops can perhaps be predominantly deployed in Pukhtun inhabited areas. In addition, if necessary, the hybrid mission could have contingents from countries such as Turkey and Malaysia, for instance. With time, the professionalism, peacekeeping prowess of troops and the return of a semblance of peace will make this redundant.

    Clearly, if an ‘out of the box’ idea is to gain headway, it should not be too far out either. How will India and Pakistan set aside suspicions to enable SAARC to take off? India can play a lead role since it is in the UNSC and is an important member of the SAARC. Any initiative along these lines will be viewed with scepticism by Pakistan. These issues can be sorted out in the impending talks between the two foreign secretaries and ministers. Mutual apprehensions can be voiced and worked around as the idea gains shape. For instance, Pakistanis could be appointed to the positions of SAARC pointsmen and force commander to allay fears.

    The potential of SAARC is well recognised. It is yet to develop the game changing habits of thinking and practice that can give traction to this potential. The common aim of seeking peace for a SAARC member state and its people provides an opportunity and a starting point. The idea can further the intent of the prime ministers of both India and Pakistan expressed in their separate trips to Kabul recently. The time for the idea has come. As to whether the time of its implementation is nigh, developments over this summer shall tell. The stalemate is too costly in lives to keep innovative thinking tied up within the traditional balance of power rut.