US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come and gone. While here, during multiple meetings, she told us that the United States and Pakistan are now in agreement on 90 to 95 per cent of the agenda on Afghanistan. Should we raise a glass to this?
No. One, between 90 and 95 per cent there is five per cent and one doesn’t need to be a statistician to know that that can be a big difference; two, whether five or 10 per cent, the devil resides precisely in that differential, not in areas of ‘convergence’.
So, what are we looking at?
Cutting through the niceties of diplomatese, the US agenda boils down to the following salient points (I rely for my reading on transcripts of Mrs Clinton’s public meetings as provided by the US Department of State):
• We are amenable to talking but talking doesn’t mean we will not fight; we will, wherever and whenever necessary.
• At this stage there is no guarantee that talking will “result in anything that will move us toward a peaceful resolution [of the conflict]”.
• We are talking about “a potential negotiation, not negotiation”.
• Any group wanting to negotiate should (1) renounce violence; (2) break away from al Qaeda and (3) must accept the current constitution of Afghanistan which, among other things, seeks to protect women and minorities.
Corollary: the onus for negotiating lies on the other side and while there may be no overt preconditions, they are already implied in two ways — renunciation by the Taliban of violence and acceptance of the current Afghan power configuration. Taliban can share power but they will be one of many groups vying for power in Afghanistan, not a dominant group.
In all this, one crucial piece of information that is missing is the US role post-2014. Are we looking at total withdrawal by the US or some kind of strategic partnership between Kabul (as currently configured) and Washington which results, among other areas of cooperation, in a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)?
This is a crucial question because even if we agree that the Taliban could be brought to the negotiating table and forced to drop the earlier demand that the only negotiating point is immediate and total withdrawal of US forces, how well would any such process, potential or real, fare if the US entered into a SOFA with Kabul?
Given the situation on the ground, it would be safe to say that the Taliban would not accept any US military presence in Afghanistan post-2014, or whatever time it takes for any negotiations to reach fruition.
But perhaps we are jumping ahead of the curve.
Let’s go back to what is on the table: potential negotiations. The US is demanding that in the run-up (perhaps beyond) to negotiations, while it retains the right to use force, it will not allow that luxury to the Taliban. Put another way, while the US will jaw-jaw and war-war, the Taliban must only jaw-jaw by renouncing violence. Why would they?
The history of such conflicts shows that it takes roughly a decade for warring sides to start negotiating. But in the absence of a formal declaration of ceasefire, both or all sides will talk and fight simultaneously. In fact, this is what I would define as the period between potential and preliminary negotiations and the time when adversaries reach the point where they have a positive incentive to advance the process.
Conflicts end because there is either a negative or a positive incentive for fighting sides to end it. The first relates to fatigue or an understanding that further fighting will not add value to anything, the second to the fact that peace proffers better chances to advance respective interests than continuing conflict. On the ground the two types of incentives generally come in a sequence.
Since the US is the superior force in Afghanistan, the onus for making negotiations meaningful is on Washington, not the Taliban. It is important that a ceasefire be declared, but Washington is still divided on which option to exercise. The White House and the State Department lean more towards talking; the Pentagon and the CIA towards fighting. The compromise: talking and fighting, the Petraeus formula in Iraq. Secretary Clinton mentioned it, though she added the qualifier that Afghanistan is not Iraq.
She also let slip the fact that she is one of the voices in the system, not the sole voice. When she goes before the US Congress, she will be making a sales pitch, not issuing an executive order. This then means that the US wants Pakistan to (a) facilitate the talks with the Taliban, including the Haqqani network and (b) ensure that the Taliban, especially the Haqqanis, do not mount the kind of audacious attacks they have on Isaf troops in the past three months. The not-so-hidden threat here is that if the Taliban-Haqqani Network do not desist from operations against US-Nato troops, Pakistan must ‘act’ to prevent that and if it can’t, Islamabad will be held accountable, if not overtly responsible.
The trouble with this formulation is that the Taliban, presently, have no incentive to negotiate and sans any incentive to negotiate they have no reason to lay down arms. The ‘act’ part has been nuanced, as Clinton’s statements show, but even when it is no more about a crude, ‘you-go-into-North Waziristan’ refrain, the bottom line stays the same: they should not hurt us and if they do, you are not doing your part.
Clearly, the US wants to keep information on the strategic hidden while wanting to get the benefits of the operational. That is unlikely to happen. Pakistan does not have the means to ensure that, and relations could become rocky again if there are spectacular attacks on US military and other assets in Afghanistan.
What is ironic is that the US wants to tag relations with Pakistan as strategic but insists on the operational. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the nature of US-Pakistan relations remain transactional. What good is the 95 per cent if it’s building up to that very five per cent that the two sides haven’t agreed on for so many years? There is also no indication that the US appreciates Pakistan’s interests and concerns as this game cycle moves to the next. The five to 10 per cent differential thus is the serpent in Eden. What’s interesting is that we haven’t even talked about other variables so far!
Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2011.
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