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Clock Running Out on Afghan Political Solution

As foreign troops trickle out of Afghanistan, Kabul is increasingly controlled by local police or private security contractors. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

WASHINGTON, Oct 10 2012 (IPS) - After more than a decade of international military intervention in Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers have come to accept that a political solution is the way forward in Afghanistan, analysts here are suggesting.

How exactly to substantively move towards a negotiated settlement to the violence in that country, however, remains under significant debate, even as diplomats, scholars and researchers warn that the window for opportunity is quickly closing and the most optimistic ground conditions for a settlement may have already passed.

“What needs to be done for the foreseeable future is to look at the period between today and the end of 2015, the end of the NATO engagement, as the last window of opportunity to get this right. There is not going to be another window of opportunity, in my lifetime at least, if we get it wrong,” Omar Samad, a former Afghan diplomat to France and Canada and currently with the U.S. Institute of Peace, said at the Middle East Institute, a think tank here in Washington, on Tuesday.

“My hope is that, between now and then, the reconciliation process would advance to a stage where the Taliban understands that, as Afghan citizens, they have equal rights as any other Afghan, and they can be part of the political process. If they do not follow that recipe, we will need a Plan B.”

The United States has been making tentative back-channel pushes towards opening negotiations with the Taliban since at least the beginning of the administration of President Barack Obama, when then-special envoy Richard Holbrooke made negotiations a central part of his approach to the region. That attempt quickly became mired in suspicion and debate, however, with fierce disagreement within the U.S. government and elsewhere as to whether to follow such unconventional approaches.

The process has been hampered in particular by Washington’s initial failure, soon after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, to differentiate between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The Taliban was soon added to the U.S. list of international terrorist organisations, thus creating conflict with the United States’ stated policy of not negotiating with terrorists.

Fight, talk, build

“The U.S. Congress still disagrees with some confidence-building measures that are critical for a political solution to move forward – namely, the transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantanamo, and the endorsement of a political office for the Taliban outside of Afghanistan,” says Shamila Chaudhary, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a consultancy, and a longtime U.S. government researcher on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Chaudhary says there are currently two primary impediments to any push for negotiations: first, the U.S. presidential election, which has stalled progress on a spectrum of foreign policy issues; and, second, that the role of Pakistan, despite being a critical stakeholder, has yet to be defined.

“In addition, the U.S. military has also found it difficult to get on board with reconciliation,” she says. “The official (U.S.) policy in Afghanistan might be ‘fight, talk and build’, but pursuing the talking part limits military defeat, and that is a hard pill for the armed forces to swallow.”

Indeed, speaking in Brussels on Wednesday to introduce the new U.S. nominees to lead both NATO and ISAF, the international military force in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta focused extensively on security-related issues and updates. Yet he failed even once to mention negotiations, reconciliation or processes that could lead to a political solution to the violence.

In part that could be because covert U.S. attempts to reach out to the Taliban appear to have failed, at least for the time being. In addition, the U.S. military “surge” of 33,000 extra troops in Afghanistan has now ended – and with it, some suggest, the U.S.’s best hope of launching negotiations from a position of strength.

“Exploratory talks between the United States and the Taliban have stalled – and these had simply been exploratory, designed to build confidence between the two interest groups,” says Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute. “So the two have yet to really discuss the tough issues that could surround an actual political settlement in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban has stated that preliminary discussions with the U.S. were a prerequisite for Afghan powerbrokers to begin direct negotiations.

While Rafiq notes that there is ongoing evidence of a “willingness to talk” on the part of the Taliban, he warns that there remains a wide spectrum of substantive issues that have yet to be touched upon, such as the role of Islam in governing Afghanistan.

Still, he does point with some optimism to the recent formation of a high-level working group chaired by Kabul, Islamabad and Washington that is vested with deciding which Taliban members should be allowed to travel to negotiations, among other things.

“Now they’re engaged in talks to explore what’s the bottom line for the Taliban in the negotiations process and what they actually want to achieve, how we can achieve a negotiated settlement,” Rafiq says. “Instead of talking about prisoner (swaps), maybe we can talk about what an actual endgame would look like.”

Election of opportunity

Further complicating the countdown to 2015 are potentially destabilising political transitions at the highest levels in each of the three most important actors in the situation: the U.S. (in November), Pakistan (2013) and Afghanistan itself (2014).

According to a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a watchdog, the presidential elections in Afghanistan, for which President Hamid Karzai has promised to step aside, offer simultaneously the greatest potential opportunity and stumbling block for the Afghan transition.

“Demonstrating at least (the) will to ensure clean elections could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse,” the report, released Monday, states. “Time is running out.”

Among the most notable of the daunting impediments listed by the ICG researchers are legal and even constitutional changes necessary to ensure a degree of both legitimacy and independence for institutions that have been purposefully weakened under President Karzai’s rule.

“All this will require more action by parliament, less interference from the president and greater clarity from the judiciary,” the report states, warning that failure on any of these fronts could result in the declaration of a state of emergency, which would “likely” lead to state collapse.

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