Negotiating the endgame

Whom Kabul negotiates with, on what terms, with what objectives will greatly influence its own post-war development.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais August 22, 2011

In the foggy Afghan situation, one thing is clear like daylight: Washington and its allies would like to transfer the responsibility of defending the country to the Afghan government. They would like to do it sooner than later. For years now, the third longest war has run into a stalemate — neither victory nor defeat. We have some mixed results of state-building, rehabilitation of infrastructure, economic activity and a varied sense of normalcy, depending on where you happen to live in Afghanistan. Not all is lost, but many of the targets and objectives of the US are far from realisation.

Wars are highly pragmatic concerns and cannot be fought for emotional or irrational causes. All actors involved, including non-state actors like the Taliban, weigh their options and calculate probable gains in familiar time and space constraints. One may use ideas and ideologies to rationalise why a nation or nations go into such wars, but they are merely a smokescreen. The armies and political leadership in democracies are influenced more by public opinion than the good stories from the battleground. Therefore, maintaining social support for wars like the one in Afghanistan, in such societies is a fundamental principle of national security policy. Some leaders have ignored public anger for a while but it is the public that has shown them the door — a perpetual fear that democratic leadership has to weigh in while taking critical decisions.

Wars are not easy choices; they are difficult, risky and produce unpredictable consequences both for the initiator and the subject country. The Afghan fable is a true depiction of the real situation, it is easier to get in this country, but difficult to get out. There are as many reasons for the Americans to stay in Afghanistan to finish the job, as there are for negotiating the endgame. Pragmatism would suggest, it is time to cut the losses and run given the adverse Afghan conditions as well as declining domestic support for the war. The other side of pragmatism in this case would be not to end the game in Vietnam style but hold on, negotiate and use diplomacy in a wider regional sense and fight to make sure that the Afghan government is able to defend itself.

Let us not get into the mistakes that the western allies of Afghanistan have made, particularly those leading to Pashtun alienation and re-emergence of the Taliban, as much has been said and written about them. Here, my argument is that Afghanistan cannot afford to live with similar mistakes when its foreign backers, with their own genuine reasons of pacifying the country, negotiate the endgame. Whom Kabul negotiates with, on what terms and with what objectives in mind, will greatly influence its own post-war development.

First, it must be ensured that Afghanistan does not lapse back to the civil war that gave rise to the Taliban and regional Talibanisation. Everything good done so far will be lost if that happens and the consequences of yet another civil war will make the entire neighbourhood a real living hell and a nightmare for all political forces. Second, let the Afghans lead the internal reconciliation process. The Afghan peace council must have the full support of the US and regional countries. Finally, the internal political settlement among the Afghan ethnic groups must have a parallel regional grand settlement. If not grand and all-inclusive, India and Pakistan must reach an understanding on stabilising Afghanistan, rather than using it as a proxy. Settling Afghanistan and its neighbourhood is a challenge, but all diplomacy and politics is about resolving the knottiest of issues.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2011.

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