Former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani’s brutal assassination – more or less a repeat of what had happened to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance military commander on September 9, 2001 – underscores the extreme volatility of present-day Afghanistan. Massoud fell to assassins disguised as journalists at the height of his fight against the Taliban, whereas Rabbani lost his life to an attacker disguised as a Taliban emissary while desperately groping for allies in the reconciliation process.
Rabbani’s is the most high-profile political assassination since the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power. And since January, Rabbani has become the seventh high-profile victim of a campaign directed against pro-government personalities. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s half-brother, was also amongst these personalities who were killed.
This represents a severe blow to the reconciliation efforts under the High Peace Council established last year by President Hamid Karzai.
Although the 68-member High Peace Council had made little significant progress in wooing the Taliban into talks, Prof Rabbani was clutching at all possible straws that he thought would take a step or two forward in the chequered peace process. He had thus invited the ‘emissary’ into his highly fortified Kabul home, hoping it would get him closer to the Taliban.
But a cursory look at the current thought stream, particularly the one emanating from the American quarters, suggests that divisions over the peace strategy within the Nato alliance continues to overshadow hopes of an accelerated peace process.
While the daring 20-hour siege in the heart of Kabul last week by Taliban insurgents; the attack late last month on the British Council in the heavily barricaded capital and Rabbani’s assassination underline the Taliban’s ability to strike at will, the American administration and lead EU countries are clearly divided on how to whittle down violence in favour of peace talks.
The latest spoiler came from Ryan Crocker, the hard-line US ambassador to Kabul.
“The Taliban needs to feel more pain before you get to a real readiness to reconcile with them,’’ the Financial Times quoted Crocker as saying. This statement flew in the face of the painstaking efforts by President Karzai and the late Rabbani, both of whom were already struggling to find interlocutors within the Taliban ranks.
But Crocker seems to have clearly joined hardliners within the Obama administration such as David Petraeus, the former commander in Afghanistan and now the head of the CIA – all intent on inflicting more damage on the Taliban and thus force them into talks. In another interview (with the Wall Street Journal) Crocker advocated continuing the conflict until ‘more of the Taliban are killed.’
This sounded more like a reminder of what former special envoy of Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrook had told us during his last visit to Islamabad in November 2010 – “We would like to talk to the Taliban from a position of strength,” the late Holbrook had said. Crocker and Petraeus still advocate the same strategy, unlike Holbrook’s successor Marc Grossman, who has been openly pursuing talks with Taliban.
Publicly stated positions of the state department, represented by Grossman, ostensibly run contrary to what Crocker and Petraeus stand for, and this obviously vitiates an already extremely fragile situation.
“What Crocker is saying is totally destructive to what we have agreed upon,’’ the Financial Times quoted a senior European official as saying. “His language humiliates the Taliban which is not the way to bring them to the table,” another official told the FT.
A south Asian diplomat described this as a cloak and dagger strategy which will alienate the Taliban further away from the efforts that aim to bring them on board. Such dichotomy in approach emboldens the irreconcilable Taliban to wait out the 2014 mass foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Their presumption, albeit quite unrealistic, is that once most of the foreign troops withdraw, they could overrun Kabul – which explains the reluctance in opening up to the Peace Council for discussing the future.
As a consequence that flows from divisions within the Nato alliance; jingoistic statements from people like Crocker and Petraeus and the reticent and unrealistic Taliban opposition is a complex situation fraught with more dangers and little hope even for a semblance of success for the reconciliation process.
The American hawks have increasingly taken control of Obama’s Afghan strategy and that will only further dampen, rather sabotage, chances of peace. They don’t appear ready yet to leave the peace process entirely to Afghanistan. They should probably heed Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British ambassador and Special Representative to Afghanistan, who offers good advice to all in his book Cables from Kabul: “We will need to accept, as we already have to do, that often it may be better to let the Afghans themselves to do a job badly than for us to do it for them. Even if the Afghan may be less effective, and more corrupt and inefficient, it may be wiser to let the Afghan make their own mistakes, and learn from them. However imperfect the result of such a process, they may last longer than attempts by outsiders to buck the Afghan market.”
As of now, the reconciliation process will come to a halt; particularly after the Taliban claim they killed Rabbani. If this claim is true, it would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Karzai administration to justify Rabbani’s clamour for reaching out to the Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2011.