Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent remark that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy” has landed him in a huge controversy, with Republicans describing it as “outrageous” and an “insult” to Americans. This was followed by reports of the US holding ‘dialogue’ with the Taliban that could lead to the opening of a Taliban representative office in Doha, as well as the release of five Taliban currently incarcerated in Guantanamo.
If these represent a further distancing of the administration from its earlier stand that it saw little to distinguish between al Qaeda and the Taliban, it would be a welcome development. But clarity and consistency have never been the forte of this administration, notwithstanding frequent ‘strategy sessions’, chaired by the president himself. Nor has Washington’s ‘turf war’, between the White House politicos and the defence and intelligence abated with the passage of time; they appear instead, to have gathered steam with the ‘endgame’ having become inevitable.
Biden has long been identified among those favouring a political understanding with the Taliban, to facilitate troop withdrawal and, more importantly, for the establishment of a durable, post-withdrawal political dispensation in Afghanistan. The Defence Department and the CIA have, however, continued to emphasise military operations, rather than political dialogue, in the mistaken belief that a battered Taliban would be more amenable to concessions. This would, however, mean continued, though reduced, American presence beyond 2014.
This view was articulated recently by US Ambassador Dennis Crocker, long identified with policies pursued by General David Petraeus in Iraq, when he raised the possibility that US troops could stay in the country beyond the deadline set for their withdrawal. Soon thereafter, General John Allen, commander of the US forces, confirmed that negotiations for a strategic partnership would “almost certainly” feature a discussion on what a post-2014 force will look like, adding: “We are not going to be done by end of 2014. The message that we will be here in some form is a very important message for the Taliban”.
These contradictory signals have left various stakeholders, both within Afghanistan and in the region, confused about Washington’s policy; more so, after reports that the administration was working on a new ‘slimmed-down’ strategy that would retain not only the huge military bases, but also station special operation units and quick reaction forces. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff appeared to confirm these reports when he told the media that negotiations for a strategic partnership would “almost certainly” feature a discussion on what a post-2014 force would look like.
Though both worrying and disappointing, the US’s strategic objectives should come as no surprise to those familiar with the way the concept of ‘unending wars’ has been made acceptable to the public. Not only has President Barack Obama carried out faithfully the much derided policies of his predecessor, but he has also consented to measures that he himself had denounced while campaigning for office.
Whatever the views of the various protagonists, there is no doubt that the Afghan insurgency will not end so long as foreign forces remain in the country. Their departure is essential for the creation of a national consensus on its future political dispensation. Even Hamid Karzai’s own credibility and legitimacy will hinge greatly on the success he has in convincing foreign forces that their withdrawal is necessary to invest him with the mantle of a nationalist leader.
Given the current state of relations between Washington and Islamabad, the former is not likely to be appreciative of the latter’s contention that there can be no peace and stability in Pakistan or the region, without peace coming to its western neighbour. Pakistan should nevertheless, enlist the support of the countries of the region to emphasise that Washington’s long-term interests would be better served if it were to abandon its ambition to seek quasi-permanent presence in Afghanistan and show greater imagination than merely pursuing its flawed concept of ‘fight, talk and build’.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2011.