February issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

Beleaguered Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been offering talks to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, but the latter is disinterested. To complicate matters, the US is still in no mood to talk to Mullah Omar and instead, is keen to divide his Taliban movement by weaning away his fighters from him through offers of money and jobs. An amount of $500 million has been earmarked for this purpose and more money is available if the Taliban fighters ask for a higher price or if a larger number of Taliban are up for sale.

Saudi Arabia has again been asked by President Karzai to lead the Afghan peace process, but the ruling royal family doesn’t want to get involved in the mediation efforts until the Taliban end their ties with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

This is unacceptable to the Taliban, at least at this early stage when there is a renewed interest in finding a political solution to the Afghan conflict. In fact, the Taliban’s decision to continue providing sanctuary to bin Laden even after the 9/11 attacks was the major reason for the US decision to invade Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, and trigger a war that has now entered its ninth year.

These then are the ground realities in Afghanistan and the outlook is pretty dismal. After eight years of war, six international conferences during this period, and several failed attempts to engage the Taliban, it is understandable if one doesn’t feel optimistic about the future.

Amid all this talk of talking to the Taliban and exploring a political settlement of the Afghan conflict, 37,000 more US and NATO troops are on their way to Afghanistan to make one more determined effort to militarily defeat the Mullah Omar-led Taliban and the smaller militant group of Hezb-i-Islami of former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. If the Taliban cannot be defeated, the NATO military commanders are hoping that the troops’ surge would weaken them to such an extent that they would agree to peace talks and a political solution on inferior terms.

Both diplomacy and war are being given a chance to end an intractable conflict that has cost the US-led NATO forces more than 1,000 deaths, billions of dollars and widespread disaffection among their populations. The engagement of western forces in Afghanistan is increasingly becoming unpopular in those countries, prompting their governments to devise new methods and policies to convince the people that the deployment was necessary to fight Al-Qaeda and its allies in their sanctuaries and stop them from coming to the West.

This was the major reason for holding the international conference on Afghanistan in London on January 28. The conference, which brought together about 70 countries, achieved a consensus that the Afghan conflict cannot be resolved militarily. Though the western countries and their allies with high stakes and forces in Afghanistan have been individually conceding this fact for some time now, it was the first time that the point was collectively agreed and highlighted and the go-ahead was given for backing a political process to negotiate with the ‘reconcilable’ Taliban. Even countries like Russia and India that were opposed to engagement with the Taliban were ready to give up their opposition to the idea.

There was also agreement on a timetable for the handover of security duties to Afghanistan’s fledging and untested army in certain provinces, starting in late 2010 or early 2011. Funds were to be pledged for a plan aimed at persuading Taliban fighters to renounce violence. It was referred to as an ‘enticement fund’ because the money would be used to lure fighters with offers of jobs, land, education and protection. A $500 million peace and reintegration trust fund would be set up with $140 million pledged for the purpose in the first year, but no figures were mentioned as to how many Taliban fighters would be ‘bought’ to take them off the battlefield.

The strength of the Afghan security forces would be raised to 300,000 by 2011. In the early 2000s when the US-led foreign forces believed that the Taliban insurgency was under control, there was agreement that Afghanistan’s security forces would be 70,000 only. The figure was then raised to 134,000 and now with the challenge posed by the Taliban stronger than ever the Afghan security forces would total 300,000. However, nobody has an answer as to how the poor Afghan government, dependent even for running of the administration on foreign assistance, would be able to sustain such a large number of security forces. The indiscipline in the force, the record 30% plus desertions from its ranks, the absence of trained cadres of officers, and the possibility that its top commanders would entertain political ambitions and capture power are all relevant questions, but are being ignored at present.

The conference also conditionally agreed to revise the proportion of development aid delivered through the Afghan government budget from about a third to half in two years. The condition placed on the Karzai government was that it would make efforts to tackle corruption. Now this is a tricky situation as the western governments and others were in the past reluctant to provide aid directly to Afghan government departments due to complaints of corruption and were instead channelling assistance through non-governmental organisations. This policy would now undergo change but the Afghan government would have to show its commitment to fight the widespread corruption. President Karzai has promised to initiate measures to tackle corruption and has tried to nominate relatively honest ministers in his cabinet, but it would be impossible to do much to bring the corrupt government functionaries to justice in a country where warlords control levers of power, $3 billion or so cash is illegally taken out of the country in a year, drug-trafficking remains the major component of the economy and patronage and favours are extended to the elite classes at the expense of the common people.

The most important conference decision was to endorse President Karzai’s plan to reintegrate Taliban fighters willing to “cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and pursue their political goals peacefully.” The reintegration plan would depend on the willingness of a significant number of Taliban commanders and fighters to give up fighting and agree to lead a normal life and join the political mainstream. Such efforts have been made in Afghanistan in the past also but on a smaller scale and with little funding.

To make this plan work, the Afghan president is asking the UN Security Council to drop the names of those Taliban leaders from its sanctions list who are living peacefully or are willing to renounce violence. A total of 144 Taliban figures were on the UN ‘blacklist’ on whom sanctions were imposed in 2001 by the Security Council for having links with Al-Qaeda. Under the sanctions, they were barred for undertaking international travel, their bank accounts were frozen and an arms embargo was imposed on them. In practice, the sanctions didn’t mean anything as the Taliban maintained no bank accounts and had no need to undertake international travel.

The sanctions panel of the UN Security Council removed the names of five former Taliban ministers from the list a day before the London conference on Afghanistan. It was apparently already working on the ‘blacklist’ and was waiting for an opportune moment to make the decision public.

The five men whose names were struck down from the UN list include former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, who had surrendered to the US forces in February 2002 at the Kandahar airbase without taking the Taliban leadership into confidence and has been living in Kabul under the protection of the Afghan government since his release in 2005.

The others are Faiz Mohammad Faizan, a former Taliban deputy commerce minister, Mohammad Musa Hotak, who served as deputy planning minister in the Taliban government, Abdul Hakim Munib, a deputy Taliban minister of tribes and border areas, and Shams-us-Safa Aminzai, a senior information official in the Afghan foreign ministry during Taliban rule.

It was strange that these five were still sanctioned by the UN despite the fact that Mutawakil parted ways with the Taliban in 2002, Musa Hotak is now an elected member of the Afghan parliament from his native Wardak province, and Abdul Hakim Munib served as governor of the Taliban-infested Urozgan province during Karzai’s rule and was sacked sometime back on corruption charges. Their names were also incompletely written in the UN ‘blacklist’ and no effort was made, since the list was haphazardly drawn up in 2001, to have it reviewed.

The Taliban were quick to point out that these five men were no longer associated with the movement. In fact, the Taliban under Mullah Omar’s leadership have repeatedly stated that Mutawakil and other former Taliban officials cannot represent the movement. This effectively ended President Karzai’s hopes of doing business with the Taliban leadership, which is in hiding, through the former Taliban members. He would definitely initiate further steps such as getting the names of more Taliban leaders removed from the UN sanctions’ list, convening a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, in the spring to move the peace campaign forward, renewing requests to Saudi Arabia to mediate between his government and the Taliban, and asking Pakistan to support the peace process. But Mr Karzai’s efforts would still fall short of achieving his objectives until the US-led NATO forces and the Taliban, the two main players and combatants in the conflict, agree to stop fighting and start talking. And that isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.