While all eyes were glued on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's opening speech at the Loya Jirga, the grand assembly of more than 2,500 Afghan elders who were tasked with advising him on signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, nearly two weeks ago, an unprecedented, amusing, and thought-provoking incident occurred. Almost 40 minutes into Karzai's speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.
What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of "Death to slaves of Pakistan" and "Death to slaves of Iran" suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.
For wary Afghans, the incident demonstrated the overwhelming support that existed in the jirga for signing the security pact. But it was interesting that any opposition to signing the BSA was viewed as a subversive act by Afghanistan's two neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, both of whom disapprove of the agreement.
Additionally, Karzai's cleverly crafted speech reinforced the jirga's preliminary support for signing the BSA. He touched upon Afghanistan's vulnerabilities, stressed the need for ending civilian casualties caused by American forces, and eloquently provided a convincing rationale as to why the deal was important for the future of the country.
After four days of intense deliberations, the assembly not only overwhelmingly endorsed the BSA, but also called on Karzai to sign it before the end of the year. And this support even went beyond endorsement. Some committees also called on the Americans to establish a base in Bamiyan, Afghanistan's central province and home of the ethnic Hazara minority, who are mostly Shiite Muslims, and where Iran is perceived to have influence.
The jirga, which is the ultimate source of national decision-making in Afghanistan, illustrated a distinct paradigm shift as Afghans have never been receptive to the presence of foreign militaries in their country. However, despite this widespread support, Karzai rejected the jirga's recommendations and refused to the sign the BSA unless his newly-raised demands were met, creating an uproar both inside and outside of Afghanistan.
Karzai's new conditions include no U.S. interference in next April's presidential elections, the termination of U.S. military raids on Afghan homes, the release of Afghan detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and U.S. help in restarting the stalled peace talks with the Taliban. Coming after the jirga approved the BSA, Karzai's stated demands and delaying tactics have perplexed almost everyone. Some argue he does not want to sign the BSA. Others say he will lose his final leverage if he signs it now. However, many may have missed the nuances behind his bizarre gesture.
Karzai's political posturing is most likely designed for domestic consumption and he actually has no intention of not signing the BSA. After all, if he wasn't planning on signing the document, why was his opening speech to the jirga focused on approving the document? By holding off on signing the agreement, he is generating further domestic support for the pact. In other words, he is effectively building public pressure against himself. Why? Because there is a historical stigma attached to any agreement that includes the establishment of foreign military bases in the country. While Afghans currently support the creation of these bases, with the country's uncertain political future, Karzai is worried about his legacy and he does not want to be seen as the person who facilitated this development if the domestic sentiment changes. By increasing the public pressure, he is creating an environment that would allow him to sign the BSA, while claiming that he had no other choice but to yield to the public demand.
Karzai also intends to send a message to the Taliban and undermine their narrative that he is a puppet of the United States, stripping the group of a propaganda tool it has used to discredit the regime and recruit fighters. In fact, the Taliban sent out a press statement earlier this week that politely praised Karzai for his refusal to sign the agreement.
Despite his statements to the contrary, Karzai knows he cannot hold off the BSA's completion until after the elections because of the extensive and destructive impact that would have on the process. He also understands that postponing the agreement's signing will further uncertainty about the country's future as the BSA is perceived as creating the biggest physical and psychological support for the political and economic stability of Afghanistan. Afghans know that an atmosphere of uncertainty will be detrimental to holding elections that are considered vital to the long-term stability of the country. After all, perception of the election process is as important as the actual practice.
As for the argument that he won't sign the BSA because he will lose his leverage over the Americans, there is no doubt that he will lose his ability to use to the document as a bargaining chip when he signs it. But, as a practiced politician, Karzai will always find other ways and means by which to pressure the United States. Even after signing the agreement, he will remain the most powerful figure in the country until after next April's elections, and will probably remain a dominant political player once he is out of office as well. He has proven to be a shrewd tactician with remarkable courage and a knack for brinksmanship and confusing everyone. But this time, Karzai should understand that he has gone too far, as many Afghans are beginning to question whether he is out for his own interest or the nation's. They have also started to question Karzai's stability in terms of making decisions for the country since they do not understand the underlying objectives behind his bizarre moves.
Yet for all of Karzai's bluster, the United States should know that he will most likely sign the BSA soon, even if his conditions are not met. In the past 12 years, relations between Afghanistan and its Western allies, particularly the United States, have been pushed to the brink of collapse multiple times because of failures to fully understand each other. This lack of understanding has been a primary source of complications and setbacks, so there is dire need for Washington to learn about Kabul's domestic dynamics and Karzai's psyche, and for Kabul to grasp the political realities in Washington. Karzai feels insecure and wary about his own political survival, and the United States expects to be treated as a superpower. Both stances have undermined the countries' pursuit of the main goal, fighting terrorism.
It is important for the United States to realize the significance of Afghan people's support for the BSA. A nation that has long fought against any invading military, regardless of its might, supports, for the first time in its history, the presence of a foreign military on their land. And they proved that they want close ties with the world, without factoring in any ideological or religious ideals.
It should be clear by now that Afghans are the United States' only ally in an unstable region where extremism and anti-U.S. sentiment is consistently promoted by violent extremist groups and, more importantly, governments themselves. Acknowledging that the United States' investment in the country has won over the Afghan people, it is critical that it continues to support Afghanistan's political development and the strengthening of its security forces, who have now taken over the battle against extremism. Sustained engagement with Afghanistan would enable the country to become an anti-terrorism sanctuary in the region.
Najib Sharifi is a member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness, a Kabul-based think tank.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
How do you solve a problem like Hamid Karzai? According to his former counterpart at ISAF command, Gen. John Allen, and other pundits, the answer is simple: Ignore him. After all, Allen and others have reasoned, there is no need for the United States to add injury to Karzai's insults by playing into the drama surrounding his refusal to sign a security agreement that would keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan through 2024. While this might be good advice for dealing with an unruly guest at the dinner table, it is probably not the best counsel when making a multi-billion dollar deal with an inveterate gambler-cum-head-of-state with a proven penchant for betting the farm on a pair of deuces.
Many things can and will be said about Afghanistan's president when he finally steps down. Some will say he was crazy, like a fox. Others will say he was a vainglorious old man obsessed with his legacy. Few will extol his poker playing skills. What is important to understand is that after 12 years as head of state, the last thing Karzai wants is to be viewed as a washed-out-has-been with no cards left to play. Only time will tell, however, whether he has aptly chosen the right moment to leverage the deal over a continued U.S.-NATO presence to his own personal benefit. To judge whether matching Karzai's brinksmanship with more brinksmanship is the right course of action, the White House would do well to evaluate the spread, assess who is bluffing whom, and decide whether the stakes are worthwhile.
The release of key Taliban members from the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay tops the list of call options Karzai has placed on the table. Control of senior Taliban prisoners has been at the center of Karzai's negotiating strategy for years. The only problem is that he hasn't been able to reap many benefits from this approach since Congress and the Pentagon have shown reluctance to play along. Last week, however, on the very same day that Karzai announced he was digging in his heals on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and upping the ante, the Senate, in a little noted move, opted to loosen the stringent rules governing the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to detention facilities in either their home or third-party countries. The move may face tough resistance in the Republican-held House of Representatives, but, as demonstrated by the recent visit of the Department of Defense's special envoy, Paul Lewis, to the island prison, there can be no mistake that a thawing is underway.
Karzai may be right to add these important signals in his "plus" column, but there is no assurance that his timely pronouncements on Guantanamo and chest beating over the U.S. security deal will win him much. Along with the prisoner release demand, Karzai has also pressed for the United States to get serious about restarting negotiations with the Taliban. This presumably means making sure that the Taliban understand that doing business in Kabul and Kandahar will mean doing business with the Karzai clan. The trouble is that the Karzai clan will not likely count for much if it can't deliver the elections to its chosen successor.
Indeed, the Afghan president's greatest fear must be that the clock is running out on his ability to impact the endgame. So he has fallen back on the tried and true approach of injecting uncertainty into the mix, which we've all seen play out in Afghanistan before.
In 2009, we saw 1.2 million fraudulent votes discarded in the presidential and provincial council elections. In 2010, 1.3 million votes were thrown out due to fraud in parliamentary elections; results were disputed for nearly a year before both chambers were finally seated in 2011. In both instances, uncertainty about the timing of the elections exacerbated structural flaws in the political system that remain unresolved. Not surprisingly, Karzai has apparently pressed the head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to postpone the April 2014 polls, a move that would force the White House to rethink its plan to leave 8,000 to 12,000 coalition forces in place as part of an advisory mission.
Karzai knows this well, of course, and so do those in his inner circle who are hoping to benefit from promoting a course of mercurial high-risk gambling. Key among the advocates of this strategy is, reportedly, Abdul Karim Khurram, Karzai's chief of staff and a stalwart member of the conservative wing of the Hezb-i Islami party. Khurram, a confederate of Hezb-i Islami warlord extraordinaire and former Afghan prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has earned a reputation for being bloody-minded when it comes to dealings with Americans.
But it is not entirely clear that this time around his interest aligns with Karzai's. Where Karzai is looking to insulate himself from the inevitable blowback that will occur once his principal backers in Washington reduce their investment in the Karzai brand come 2014, those allied with hardcore conservatives like Hekmatyar are looking to blow the whole game up. Amid all the drama this week over the BSA, Hekmatyar went so far as to write a letter to Karzai, threatening to rescind the informal ceasefires that have been in place for the last year or so if Karzai signs the deal. Hekmatyar knows as well as any other of the irreconcilables, like Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, that a sustained U.S. presence in Afghanistan means there is no coming home for them anytime soon. From where Karzai is sitting, these facts considerably increase his bargaining power with Hezb-i Islami and the Taliban.
So is there any "getting to yes" with Karzai on signing the security deal? Probably, but it's not certain that "yes" will mean much. History suggests that the deal the Obama administration cuts with Karzai today may not necessarily hold with his succesors tomorrow. Under the current political dispensation, it is unlikely that the Afghan government will be both willing and able to deliver any time soon on a strategy that calls for the country's beleaguered security forces to secure its borders and contain the insurgency. Although the Afghan National Security Forces have shown marked improvement, they have sustained heavy casualties in the face of the continued resurgence of the Taliban. They also have been heavily impacted by a spike in political factionalism within the upper echelons of the security sector.
Proposals to extend the U.S. military presence beyond 2014 additionally present a troublesome paradox: as long as U.S. forces remain, so too must the parallel legal infrastructure that has grown up around aggressive U.S. counterterrorism operations that have become anathema to many Afghans. The lack of trust between U.S. and Afghan partners over civilian casualties and night raids does not improve prospects much. The continued threat of insider attacks will also place an undue burden on U.S. military leaders to maintain unrealistic force protection measures regardless of whether Western force levels are at 10,000 or 1,000 after 2014. The latter point is all the more salient given Pakistan's apparent unwillingness to abandon its support for the Afghan insurgency. Any expectations that U.S. strategy in the region will profit greatly from a further investment of military assistance should be lowered accordingly.
Washington's post-2014 options are deeply constrained by these rather bitter facts, but it doesn't mean that the "zero option" is the only option. An investment in Afghanistan's stability needs to be an investment in the Afghan people, first and foremost. This means focusing hard on supporting a fair election process, ensuring that the economy remains stable, that rule of law and education programming continues to receive international support, and that women's rights and better health care remain high on the international aid agenda. Washington also needs to focus more on arriving at a political settlement that will hold. Boots on the ground, even in limited numbers, may be an important part of that signaling strategy in the short-term. But if the fraught political gamesmanship that has marked Karzai's tenure isn't brought under control within the next few months, it will be hard to ignore the unruly guest at the dinner table for much longer. The White House should send a strong signal to that it is still serious about a strategy that envisions an Afghanistan that can eventually stand on its own. A post-2014 U.S. strategy that maintains the status quo of insecurity and instability is hardly worth betting 10,000 American lives on and risks seeing the country held hostage to the caprices of ambivalent Afghan leaders for yet another decade.
If the short-term goal is to keep some troops in theater, then the long-term goal must be to leverage continued American assistance to influence the course of a negotiated political settlement that engages both armed and unarmed factions in the Afghan opposition, and to resolve longstanding frictions with Pakistan over military incursions and trade disputes across the Durand line, the disputed border between the two countries. This may mean that Washington and the rest of the international community will have to get creative in seeking solutions to current and future impasses over a continued Western presence in Afghanistan. Throwing money and military resources willy-nilly at the problem of widespread political disenfranchisement in Afghanistan will not bring greater security to the country or its region.
Instead of simply ignoring Karzai, there are a few ways that Washington can signal its seriousness about a responsible drawdown in Afghanistan. The first would be to publicly back the appointment of a U.N. special envoy and negotiating team to facilitate a regional settlement. A second way would be for the United States to engage regional powers, like China, India, Iran, Russia, and Central Asian states, on the possibility of encouraging Pakistan and Afghanistan to agree to refer the bloody, costly, and divisive dispute over the Durand line to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The sooner Washington and its international partners acknowledge the longstanding hostilities between the two countries as the center of gravity in a conflict, the better. Shifting the focus from boots on the ground to building momentum for a negotiated settlement may also mean taking more practical steps to resolve the status of high-level detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in the near term, as Karzai has repeatedly suggested. All of these recommendations may seem distasteful to a war-weary White House fed up with Karzai's antics. But the sooner the Obama administration acknowledges that the conflict in Afghanistan is desperately in need of a negotiated end, the less need there will be to bet billions on propping up compulsive gamblers in Kabul.
Candace Rondeaux is a non-resident research fellow at the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School. She lived in Kabul from 2008 to 2013, working first as the South Asia bureau chief for the Washington Post, and most recently as the senior analyst in Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group. She is writing a political history of the Afghan security forces and is currently undertaking a mid-career masters at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Like many other regular readers of Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, I was surprised by the announcement that it is to be rebranded as the South Asia Channel. But while my friend Ziad Haider received a quantum of solace from ‘AfPak' losing its conceptual toehold in Washington, I had instinctive misgivings about the adoption of ‘South Asia.' What exactly does that phrase connote today? Is the term in any way useful? Or is it so poorly defined -- culturally, politically, geographically, and bureaucratically -- as to make it problematic in its own way? In fact, beyond one rather ineffectual international organization and a handful of sporting events, does ‘South Asia' even exist?
South Asia -- as any sort of single entity -- was not really worthy of Washington's attention until the 1990s. India and Pakistan did feature in American strategic calculations beginning with their independence in 1947, but usually in the context of U.S. policy toward China or the Soviet Union, which often determined American responses to the region's political developments. All of that changed when India, and then Pakistan, conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The handful of South Asianists from academia and the diplomatic world -- and there weren't many Americans who could lay claim to that label -- were suddenly in high demand by the U.S. government and think tanks to address a narrow set of American priorities: nuclear proliferation, India-Pakistan tensions, and the Kashmir dispute.
The region assumed further importance with the 1999 Kargil War, by which time India and Pakistan were effectively "hyphenated," treated as inextricably intertwined and perennially in competition with one another. As a result, other countries in the region -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc. -- were often ignored; issues related to national economies and domestic political dynamics remained poorly understood; and the broader regional strategic context -- such as the role of China -- was often overlooked.
An important shift began with the 9/11 attacks, which was around the same time that Washington belatedly recognized the prospect of India's economic and political emergence on a wider Asian canvas. India, largely on the strength of its burgeoning economy, began to be incorporated into the institutional and commercial structures of East Asia, such as the ASEAN-led regional groupings, and a new term eventually began to make the rounds in strategic circles: the Indo-Pacific. But while India is now considered an unequivocal part of ‘Asia,' the other states traditionally constituting South Asia are not necessarily granted that same privilege. Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, are often seen as part of the Greater Middle East, a somewhat arbitrary shorthand, it would appear, for the Muslim world west of India.
Which brings us back to what precisely defines South Asia. Is it geography? The Indian Plate excludes all of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan, and includes the Irrawaddy basin. Religion? Not when India and Nepal are majority Hindu, Sri Lanka and Bhutan majority Buddhist, and Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives majority Muslim. The legacy of British colonial influence? Maybe, but where then does that leave Myanmar? Ethnicity and language are similarly limiting. Pakistani and north Indian languages are more akin to Persian than to the Dravidian tongues of southern India, while it would be a stretch to draw ethnic links between the Manipuri, Baloch, and Sinhalese peoples. How about the footprint of Brahmanic culture and Sanskrit? That, as historians have noted, would mean encompassing much of Central and Southeast Asia.
It should be no surprise that conceptual confusion manifests itself in U.S. bureaucratic structures. The U.S. State Department has a South and Central Asia bureau. The armed forces, however, deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of U.S. Central Command, with India and the rest of the region falling to U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. Meanwhile, the Office of the Secretary of Defense groups Afghanistan and Pakistan in with Central Asia and considers India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka under the rubric of South and Southeast Asia.
While a confusing construct, the term ‘South Asia' persevered in America's strategic consciousness, despite the inevitable dehyphenation of India and Pakistan. Among non-specialists in the counterinsurgency era, it was often used as a casual and more politically-correct synonym for AfPak, marginalizing not just India, but also Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, all important countries in their own rights. I recall reviewing the syllabus of a graduate studies course on South Asia at a major American university two years ago, and you could have been forgiven for thinking that the India-Pakistan border constituted South Asia's eastern frontier.
A real concern is that a conceptual resurgence of ‘South Asia' -- especially as an outgrowth of ‘AfPak' -- could be accompanied by the conscious or subconscious rehyphenation of India and Pakistan, and the prolonged side-lining of other states in the region. As the anonymous genius behind the Twitter handle @majorlyp has caustically written:
Indians are Indians and Pakistanis when caught in tight situations (like in Airports) are Indians too. In other circumstances they are South Asians. Being "South Asian" offers many advantages. Such as an overwhelming numerical advantage.
Example: When faced with the question "Is radicalization a problem"? South Asians can reply with a straight face "Only 170 million, or less than 10% of the South Asians are radicalized". Which sounds entirely reasonable.
The author writes in somewhat cruel jest, of course, but like the best parody, there is more than a grain of uncomfortable truth in what he says. Will U.S. discourse related to South Asia come to be dominated by the problems of terrorism, Islamist extremism, nuclear proliferation, and anti-Americanism at the expense of the incredible opportunities and challenges associated with dynamic economic growth, raucous democracy, immense social and cultural diversity, and broad support for a U.S.-led international system? Let's hope not.
Dhruva Jaishankar is a transatlantic fellow with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @d_jaishankar.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
As I scrolled through my Inbox earlier this week for my daily news clippings from this blog, something seemed amiss. Instead of "AfPak Channel," the header read "South Asia Channel." An error I presumed. Scrolling down further, however, I realized the error was mine: "Next Monday, November 25, the AfPak Channel will be relaunched as the South Asia Channel" with the addition of "key stories and insights from India."
The notification got me thinking about the twists and turns in Washington's conception of South Asia over the past decade. Somewhere along the way "AfPak" had appeared. Due to the distortions it produced, the phrase has for some time now been winding its way into retirement. The 2014 drawdown in Afghanistan will give it the final push. AfPak will no doubt have plenty of company with "hearts and minds" and countless other pithy friends in Washington's little known Archives for Foreign Affairs Shorthands of Fleeting Value. Can't say I'll miss it.
I came to Washington ten years ago to work as an analyst in the Henry L. Stimson Center's South Asia program. Having grown up in Pakistan, I had actually never uttered the phrase "South Asia." The region to me was a simple, if tormented, duality: Pakistan and India. I discovered that in Washington, South Asia meant the same two players, and the issues boiled down to Kashmir, militancy, military, and nuclear issues. Afghanistan was relegated to its own war-torn limbo.
At the time, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were talking about peace between the two countries. Both have since fallen silent, with the former facing treason charges; between India's upcoming elections and Pakistan's unending turmoil, peace commands little attention in Delhi and Islamabad today. The United States was two years into the war in Afghanistan, yet the lens on South Asia was varied. Afghanistan was a policy imperative, but so was managing the Indo-Pak rivalry and the risk of nuclear escalation.
Those working on South Asia in Washington seemed to fall into two camps. The South Asia wallahs had spent decades working in and on the region, often with formal academic training. The Cold Warriors sought to apply lessons from a superpower rivalry to a relatively nascent nuclear dynamic on the subcontinent. They reflected the fluidity of functional analysts within the strategic community -- crossing boundaries while the regionalists remained in their lanes.
Soon enough, a new crop of functional analysts crossed over. They anchored their world views on a different issue: counterterrorism. Thereafter came "AfPak." The phrase traces back to the first year of the Obama administration and the tenure of the first Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Richard Holbrooke. A region that was once viewed as India-Pakistan, with Afghanistan on the margins, gave way to India on one hand and Afghanistan-Pakistan on the other.
With the change, India got its wish to be "de-hyphenated" from Pakistan. The Bush administration keenly helped facilitate this shift via a civil nuclear deal, in light of India's perceived strategic import in Asia. Meanwhile, AfPak eventually flipped to "PakAf" given deepening concerns about the various militant groups that were "veritable" arms of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the safety of its nuclear arsenal.
To be sure, AfPak helped focus attention on the war in Afghanistan after a misguided invasion in Iraq. It framed the theatre and the operational challenge posed by "safe havens" in Pakistan. Though Holbrooke espoused a wider view within its confines on forging a broader partnership with Pakistan that extended beyond kinetic issues, the diplomatic piece was and remains fluid, messy, and hard. As the war wore on, patience and imagination dried up. AfPak became shorthand for CT (counterterrorism) -- far too constricted a prism for the colors and complexities of the region.
The Obama administration eventually recognized the limits of the AfPak moniker itself; Islamabad made sure of it. Like Delhi, it had its own gripes about being lumped with its neighbor. Little wonder then that regional integration in South Asia is among the lowest in the world. Yet even as the phrase largely vanished from official public statements, it continued to periodically surface and, importantly, cast a shadow in Washington -- until now.
As the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan winds down by the end of 2014, AfPak is undergoing its own retrograde. The office that embodies the term, SRAP, will need to assess not whether but how and when to reintegrate within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
Think tanks in Washington are also rebooting their South Asia programs. Some are doing so in the pre-AfPak mold, others with variation. The Brookings Institution, for example, now has a stand-alone India program, focusing on politics and economics, as much as foreign policy -- kaleidoscope eyes on a potential Asian power. Along with and related to the shifting geopolitical winds are the interests of funders who share Washington's AfPak fatigue. Their weariness, however, cannot match that in the region whose "troubles" (to borrow from Northern Ireland) are likely to rage on.
Newer shorthands such as the "rebalance" or "pivot" to Asia have also provided a new prism with which to look on South Asia. A fresh crop of scholarship has arisen on how South Asia relates to the Asia-Pacific region, from the "Indo-Pacific" concept to Pakistan's role in the rebalance -- welcome efforts to think beyond traditional silos in an interconnected Asia.
The periodic reimagination of South Asia in Washington is as inevitable as it is easy to miss. We are in such a transition right now. So come next Monday, when the "South Asia Channel" pops up my Inbox, I will be fumbling a bit to figure out how all the pieces fit. So might you.
Ziad Haider is the Director of the Truman National Security Project's Asia Expert Group. He served as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Justice and as a national security aide in the U.S. Senate. You can follow him on Twitter at @Asia_Hand. The views expressed are his own.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Two months ago, Pakistan's political parties, with support from the powerful military, unanimously passed a resolution to conduct peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). While the new federal government proposed the idea of dialogue with the militant group, the state continues to face the wrath of the insurgency in the form of targeted killings, suicide bombings, and other violent incidents. Following the recent death of Hakimullah Mehsud, the former TTP leader, in a U.S. drone strike, many within Pakistan are expecting strong retaliation from the group and security has been beefed up throughout the country.
Outraged by the drone strike, Pakistan's Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has called for a review of U.S.-Pakistan relations, stating: "This is not the killing of one person, it is the death of all peace efforts." Ejaz Haider, the editor for national security affairs at a private Pakistani television channel, argues that this reaction is expected, arguing:
The government has made clear its opposition to drone strikes. However, it can't cherry pick which strikes are good and which are bad. The government had convened the APC [All Party Conference] and initiated talks with the TTP so the outrage is apropos of the timing of the strikes and the fact that it took out the chief of the TTP. This is the real issue at hand. Now even if the talks happen, there will a ramped up effort by the new chief of the TTP to prove his mettle, avenge the killing of Mehsud and mount more attacks.
Fulfilling this prediction, the TTP recently elected a new chief, the hardline commander Mullah Fazlullah, who is notoriously known as Mullah Radio for broadcasting sermons against polio vaccinations and girls' education, as well as demanding a strict enforcement of shari'a law in Swat. Fazlullah also ordered the attack on Malala Yousafzai last October.
With Fazlullah's appointment, the TTP has rejected any prospect of peace talks. Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, stated: "There will be no more talks as Mullah Fazlullah is already against negotiations with the Pakistani government." According to him, the Taliban view the peace talks as a U.S-Pakistan deal to sell out Taliban fighters and as nothing more than another "political stunt."
In response to Mehsud's killing and the Taliban's rejection of talks, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to shelve the reconciliation effort until U.S drone strikes in the country are halted. Given Fazlullah's brazen threats to the Pakistani military, it is expected that the establishment will back Sharif's decision. But Taliban threats against the military are not a new phenomenon, and militant attacks have been on the rise since Sharif assumed power in May this year.
Following the initial talks at the APC on September 9, a number of major attacks took place, bringing to light the futility of the government's decision to negotiate. On September 15, a roadside bomb claimed the lives of Maj Gen Sanaullah Khan Niazi and two other officers. Two weeks later, a bomb placed inside a van carrying 40 Civil Secretariat employees in Peshawar exploded, killing 19 people and injuring 44 others. The TTP proudly claimed responsibility for both attacks.
But the most horrific incident since the APC was the suicide blast outside the All Saints Church in Peshawar on September 22 that took the lives of 85 people and injured 120, the majority of whom were women and children. The Jundallah Group, a faction of the Taliban, readily claimed responsibility for the incident. However, the TTP later issued a statement painstakingly denying their direct involvement but affirming that the attack was in accordance with shari'a law.
While the attack was one of the largest on Pakistan's Christian minority group, it was not the first time it had been targeted by the TTP and its allies, nor is it the first time militants have targeted a place of worship. On August 8, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a mosque in Quetta during funeral prayers for a policeman who had been killed the day before. Thirty people, mostly policemen, were killed and 62 were wounded.
Events such as this, along with the killing of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Law Minister Israrullah Gandapur, have shifted public opinion, specifically in Pakistan's northwest region. Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party and perhaps the strongest proponent of peace talks, has been publicly called a ‘Taliban apologist," while policy analysts have criticized his dangerously simplistic and naive understanding of critical security issues. Though he remains a key player in Pakistani politics, Khan's apologetic defense and conspiratorial stance of linking the growing militancy in Pakistan solely to the American intervention in Afghanistan or CIA drone strikes in the region, has dealt a strong blow to the PTI's support base.
A history of peace talks and negotiations
For now it seems that the Pakistani government has decided to postpone the peace talks as it reviews its overall counterterrorism strategy. The problems with conducting such reconciliation talks are manifold and the Sharif government would be wise to address their shortcomings.
First of all, a dialogue or negotiation is conducted between two equal parties that come to the table with a readiness to compromise and a list of terms on which to negotiate. The militants' escalation of violence so soon after the government proposed the talks seems to indicate that they have no interest in pursuing such an offer. With the recent election of Fazlullah, a strong opponent of negotiations, peace talks seem even less likely. Furthermore, the TTP lacks a central command structure; instead it is comprised of a number of different factions that operate under one umbrella group, bound by its hostility towards Islamabad. So the real question is, to whom should the state be talking?
Second, the government should, as a pre-requisite, demand a ceasefire from the militants before it begins any negotiations. That said, Pakistan has entered into a number of previous negotiations, both written and verbal, with the militants, only to see those peace agreements be violated constantly.
In April 2004, for example, after launching an ineffective military operation to pressure Pashtun military leader Nek Mohammad to cease his support for foreign militants, the Pakistani government signed the first of three peace agreements in North and South Waziristan. Despite the agreement, Mohammad refused to surrender foreign militants, and attacks on government supporters and security forces continued.
Then, in February 2005, the government signed the Sararogha Accord with leading militant and future TTP leader, Baitullah Mehsud, which stated that the Pakistan military would compensate militants for any damage the soldiers had caused and that, in return, the militants would stop attacking Pakistani targets. However, the accord was quickly broken. A ceasefire was again announced in May 2006, but the infamous "North Waziristan Agreement" that was signed in September that year allowed the existing militant groups to expand and reorganize.
In May 2008, the Pakistani government signed a peace accord with Fazlullah himself. The terms required Fazlullah to support the government's efforts to establish law and order in the area and to denounce terrorist activities. In return, the government dropped its criminal charges against him. However, his militant Swat Taliban faction violated the agreement by attacking security forces and strictly enforcing shari'a law. The subsequent breakdown of the peace accord led to the Rah-e-Haq military operation in Swat, where the Pakistan army largely emerged successful.
But despite that success, throughout 2008, Taliban militants re-entered Swat and engaged in battles with security forces. By 2009, the TTP had regained control of 80 percent of the area. Pakistan's security forces ended their subsequent offensives when the provincial government signed the Swat Agreement with Fazlullah and released Taliban leaders in exchange for the group halting its attacks on the military.
In April 2009, President Asif Ali Zardari's government signed an ordinance, dubbed the Nizam-e-Adl (System of Justice), allowing the implementation of shari'a law in Malakand, in return for halting violence. With the armed forces effectively abandoning the area, the TTP was granted de facto control over the area, interpreting the ordinance as a formal acquiescence by the Pakistani government to their ruthless rule. However, within days, the Swat Taliban tried to expand their control to the neighboring district of Buner, and violence against civilians and the military spiked. Emboldened by the government's policy of appeasement, the Taliban occupied the Swat district's largest city, Mingora, in May 2009, and advanced up to 60 miles away from Islamabad. This advancement prompted a strong military operation that ended with the Pakistani Army regaining control of Mingora, forcing Fazlullah to flee from the Swat Valley, and capturing or killing a number of Taliban commanders. Though the situation in the area remains precarious four years later, many claim it is far better than its darkest days.
Ejaz Haider argues that: "The notion that the state has never talked is factually incorrect. There have been a number of major and local agreements, some of which have failed and some that are ongoing. The issue of talking is not a wrong policy. The real issue is whether the state is sending signals of strength or weakness. With the APC, it seems to be the latter."
Third, and perhaps most troubling, is the fact that a militant group which rejects the Pakistani constitution, ruthlessly murders innocent civilians, and brazenly targets Pakistan's security forces is dictating the terms of the peace process. Zahid Hussain, author of The Scorpion's Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan, warns that "the Taliban terms are very clear. They have dictated exactly what they want. The unconditional talks are a bad idea. A move such as this dangerously legitimizes militancy and terrorism," thus providing more room for the Taliban to exploit any peace negotiation.
A jeopardized peace process
Policy analysts have begun criticizing the government's halt of the peace talks in reaction to Mehsud's death, arguing that if that if the violence was a determining factor, they should also have been halted when Niazi was killed or when countless innocent Pakistanis were butchered at the hands of the TTP.
Since 2003, close to 17,911 Pakistani civilians have been killed in terrorism-related violence. While Khan claims that the war in which Pakistan currently finds itself embroiled is "America's war," the truth is that escalating attacks against minority groups and innocent civilians on military bases, near places of worship, and in crowded urban areas have transformed it into Pakistan's war; one which must be fought against a breed of elusive and ruthless militants.
And this militancy is no longer confined to Pakistan's tribal areas, to be dealt with solely by Pakistan's military forces. The war has permeated Pakistan's villages, towns, urban centers, and mindsets. Haider notes: "In urban centers, police forces, along with specialized counterterrorism police units, are required to address mounting terrorist attacks. However, the state has had a stunted response to militancy. The state wants to talk, thinking it can achieve desired results where fighting has not been successful. That is incorrect."
Truly fighting this militancy requires not only army action, but also comprehensive political will. While the Taliban has remained clear, consistent, and adamant in their demands, the government has failed to create a consistent and unified political discourse against terrorism that counters the powerful militant narrative. Some analysts claim that Pakistani authorities are only too aware of how imperative a stable Afghanistan is to Pakistan's future. By brokering a peace deal with the TTP beforehand, Pakistan may be able to prevent any internal security distractions as it focuses on a post-2014 Afghanistan. Hussain argues that: "Ambivalence has made the government weak. The state has failed to take a decision. The Taliban, on the other hand, are buying time and regaining lost ground," yet all the while tightening the noose around the Pakistani leadership.
As has been seen in the past, despite the government entering into a number of peace agreements with and conducting a handful of military operations against the militants, conducting a reconciliation dialogue from a position of weakness has strengthened the TTP and allowed it to challenge the state. The sad reality of the entire exercise is that the TTP will not lose much if the talks don't take place. The Pakistani state, on the other hand, has already put too much at stake.
Arsla Jawaid is a journalist and Associate Editor of the monthly foreign policy magazine, SouthAsia. She holds a bachelor's degree in International Relations, with a focus on foreign policy and security studies, from Boston University and can be followed on Twitter @arslajawaid.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Dan Markey, No Exit from Pakistan: America's Tortured Relationship with Islamabad (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Since President Obama took office in 2009, there have been several books published highlighting the deception, failures, and flaws of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Most of these books, such as Mark Mazzetti's The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, and David Sanger's Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power offer insider accounts of the U.S. and Pakistani political dynamics that made it so, with a particular focus on U.S. counterterrorism policies and the war in Afghanistan.
All of these texts open a window into Washington's thinking, infighting, and attempts to fix what has become America's most tortured relationship. Nasr talks about Pakistan's "frenemy" status with the United States and whether it is in the U.S. interest "to stress the friend part or the enemy part." Sanger elaborates on Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who as Chief of Army Staff "understood the American paranoia about a Pakistani meltdown, and he took advantage of it." Mazzetti gets to the heart of the matter when he says that the CIA's war in places like Pakistan was conceived as "a surgery without complications," but became a "way of the knife" that "created enemies just as it has obliterated them," fomenting "resentment among former allies and at times contribut[ing] to instability even as it has attempted to bring order to chaos."
While American policymaking in Pakistan remains haunted by the demons of the September 11th attacks, even older demons linger on the Pakistani side, among them the memory of U.S. sanctions, American pressure on its nuclear weapons program, and the CIA's reliance on Pakistan's covert support during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. During a 1995 Senate hearing, then-Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel described the discontent of the Pakistanis, explaining that: "the key impact of sanctions relief is not military or financial. The effect would be primarily in the political realm, creating a sense of faith restored and an unfairness rectified with a country and people who have been loyal friends of the United States over the decades."
Dan Markey's new book, No Exit from Pakistan: America's Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, heeds Raphel's comments and attempts to answer the perennial questions of the relationship: why do they hate us? How did it get so bad? What are America's options for future relations with Pakistan? Markey roots his analysis in French existentialism, of all things. In French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre's play No Exit, "three sinners, all dead to the word" are subject to "eternal torment by each other," each both capable of and vulnerable to the punishment doled out by the others. Building on this idea, No Exit from Pakistan argues that while "Pakistan's leaders tend to be tough negotiators with high thresholds for pain, Washington can cut new deals and level credible threats to achieve U.S. goals. This is not a friendly game, but out of it both sides can still benefit."
Markey spends a good portion of the book summarizing themes, issues, and events since 1947 that explain this mutual vulnerability and mutual gain between the United States and Pakistan. And he covers the full gamut: Cold War cooperation, sanctions, anti-Americanism, energy, trade, infrastructure development, India, China, the Musharraf years, demographics, youth culture, Afghanistan, the Osama bin Laden Raid, the list goes on.
As an introductory primer for understanding what ails the relationship, this approach is constructive, especially in understanding the U.S.-Pakistan dynamics since 9/11. Markey also writes with a directness and honesty that should be appreciated in the context of one of Washington's most sensitive relationships. He accuses the Pakistanis of being addicted to U.S. assistance dollars, while claiming "Washington's top policymakers felt a personal animus towards Pakistan."
Markey also rightly focuses on new political trends and ideas in Pakistani popular culture that have been largely ignored in other accounts of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, as well as in the course of much of the policymaking in both countries. For example, when discussing Pakistani notions of abandonment and national honor, Markey highlights the nationalist anti-American sentiment that grew from nuclear sanctions both among the government and the Pakistani public. As a sign of progress, he notes the success of Pakistani pop band Beygairat Brigade, who released a video on YouTube in 2011 "with thinly veiled references to a wide cast of Pakistani xenophobes, religious extremists, and conspiracy theorists" with lyrics that "lampoon many of the notions associated with defending Pakistan's national pride."
Herein lies the strength of Markey's analysis - his acknowledgment of the grassroots efforts currently afoot that are trying to transform Pakistani politics. He identifies four complex and often contradictory identities of Pakistan: "the elite-dominated basket case," the "garrison state," a "terrorist incubator," and a "youthful idealist, teeming with energy and reform-minded ambition." Without this information, the casual observer of Pakistani politics can easily conclude that the government and its people are merely confused, duplicitous, careless - or all three.
It is hard to argue with the claim that knowing Pakistan is critical to understanding the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. But what of the Pakistanis - do they not need to understand why the United States behaves the way it does? Markey's approach puts the entire onus on the Americans to understand how complex Pakistan can be.
While he does outline a comprehensive set of options for managing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship - ranging from looking beyond Afghanistan, waiting until after 2014, "defensive isolation" which involves ending formal cooperation, to comprehensive cooperation - he fails to suggest which specific path the countries should take, or even how the United States and Pakistan might prioritize the management or mitigation of threats over time. Markey simply recommends that the solution for this troubled relationship is nothing other than "patient, sustained effort, not by way of quick fixes or neglect" and that "managing or mitigating threats over time is a more realistic expectation." But is he speaking for the United States, Pakistan, or both? It is not clear.
No Exit from Pakistan is more useful as a relationship management strategy than a policy prescription. But the United States and Pakistan seem to have already entered the realm of relationship management over disengagement. This proved true after a NATO cross-border strike in November 2011 at the Salala border post, where over 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed. Pakistan closed NATO routes for nearly seven months and the United States delayed coalition support funds payments. The two countries eventually resumed dialogue after the brief period of disengagement with the tacit acknowledgement that they had gone too far, especially so close to the pending withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
Ultimately, No Exit from Pakistan introduces some uncomfortable questions about ownership and blame in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. On the one hand, Markey blames the basket case quality of Pakistan on the country's political elites, who "sent their children to private boarding schools while millions of other children never learned to read. Too many sipped cool cucumber soup even as their countrymen struggled to find safe drinking water." But on the other hand, he recognizes that the $1.5 billion-per-year U.S. assistance pledge, known as "Kerry-Lugar-Berman," "was not grounded in an assessment of specific Pakistani development needs or America's ability to meet them."
This is perhaps the true perennial question Markey has set out to answer - who is responsible for Pakistan's problems? He would agree that the United States and Pakistan share in the blame. The decades-long focus of the bilateral relationship on security assistance, militancy, covert activity, and proxy wars has left much unattended by way of development, economics, and stability. Likewise, in Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven pushes for the recognition that the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan "has been responsible for increasing Islamist insurgency and terrorism since 2001." In Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes, it becomes acutely apparent whom and what is to blame. The book is a fictional account of the events leading up to the deaths of Pakistani military ruler Gen. Zia ul-Haq and American Ambassador Arnie Raphel in a C-130 plane crash in 1989. As they walk to the plane to enjoy a case of Pakistani mangoes, Zia says to Raphel: "Now we must put our heads together and suck national security."
The controversial writer Salman Rushdie tackled the same question from another angle in his 1983 work of fiction, Shame, which focuses on internal politics in Pakistan and relations between the East and West. Rushdie writes:
Wherever I turn, there is something of which to be ashamed. But shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture...you can find shame in every house, burning in an ashtray, hanging framed upon a wall, covering a bed. But nobody notices it any more. And everyone is civilized.
Rushdie's final reminder is simply: "Shame, dear reader, is not the exclusive property of the East."
While the anguish of Sartre's No Exit resonates strongly with the current psychology of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Rushdie's commentary on shame is a much stronger parallel. It too recognizes that both countries pursue their own interests even as they inflict harm upon themselves and each other. But it focuses on a much more embarrassing aspect of the mutual vulnerability: the fact that the harm, which has become so prevalent, is unacknowledged. Yet both move forward together because, as Markey says, "this is not a friendly game, but out of it both sides can still benefit," even though there is much to be ashamed about.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor to Dean Vali R. Nasr at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies and is a Senior South Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
No country aside from Afghanistan has more to lose than Pakistan from the coming departure of international forces. All post-2014 scenarios seem dark for Pakistan should the challenged Afghan state begin to unravel. In a protracted civil war, a reluctant Pakistan stands a good chance of being drawn into the conflict along with other regional powers. Taliban gains leading to a radical Islamic regime in all or most of Afghanistan, while once welcomed by Pakistan, may now result in empowering Pakistan's own militant extremists. Intensified fighting across the border is certain to push millions of new refugees into a Pakistan unprepared and unwilling to absorb them. Prospects that a successfully negotiated political agreement might some time soon avert these outcomes seem dim.
And yet, Pakistan does have one policy option that can result in a brighter scenario for itself and its Afghan neighbor. This opportunity has, in fact, been available throughout the course of the last 12 years, but it requires a strategic reassessment by Pakistan of its long-term national security interests, recognizing that they are best served when there is a stable, peaceful, prospering and, yes, independent Afghanistan. While Pakistan officially endorses this vision, its policies regularly undermine its achievement, above all by giving sanctuary and sustenance to Afghan insurgents. Instead, Pakistan should fully embrace efforts that improve prospects for the emergence of a moderate, economically improving, and accountably-governed Afghanistan. As University of Peshawar professor Ijza Khan advises, rather than pursuing a strategy focused on ensuring a friendly regime in Kabul, Pakistan should strive to win the friendship of the Afghan state and its people.
Convincing Afghans of Pakistan's good intentions will not be easy. Almost regardless of their political disposition, Afghans view their neighbor as overbearing and covetous, blaming it for much of the country's problems. Building trust is bound to be a slow process. Yet Pakistan is not without the means with which to allay Afghan suspicions. An economically-strapped Pakistani government cannot offer the kind of financial assistance that the West and Japan provide Afghanistan, or even match India's development aid portfolio. But Pakistan has advantages that come with geographical proximity, overlapping cultural and ethnic affinities, and established economic ties. It also has a relative abundance of human capital available with which to help strengthen the Afghan state.
To begin, Pakistan could agree to open the long denied trans-country routes that block India's trade with Afghanistan. Afghanistan's critical dependence on road links to the port of Karachi could be better secured and border impediments removed. Existing training programs in Pakistan for Afghan civil servants could be greatly expanded. Pakistan can do more to allay Afghans' beliefs that it is obstructing a peace deal with the Taliban and assure them that it has no plans to divide Afghan territory ethnically. Pakistan can also help secure Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled in 2014 and 2015, respectively, by using its not inconsiderable influence to limit Taliban interference. It could also place additional troops at the border to reduce infiltration, much as it did during elections in 2004 and 2005. Although largely symbolic, Pakistan might even propose a non-aggression pact. But all these trust-building actions would pale against a decision by Pakistan to withdraw its patronage of the Afghan Taliban. Simply put, it must be willing to evict, if not arrest, Afghan Taliban fighters and their leaders on its soil.
Admittedly this will be hard. It will incur risks for Pakistan, particularly inviting a backlash not just from Afghan Taliban in the country, but also from their Pakistani allies. Afghans may be driven into open alliance with Pakistani insurgents and other extremist groups against the state. Yet this is a fight that Pakistan must eventually undertake. It cannot continue trying to differentiate between good and bad militants and expect the country's endemic violence to end. Delay has only made the task more difficult. If there is to be a reckoning, Pakistan may find that dismantling the Afghan Taliban offers a less difficult first step toward eliminating all of the militant groups that are currently or will inevitably be challenging the Pakistani state.
Pakistan has much to gain from a strategic reappraisal. Aside from possibly avoiding an Afghan civil war and its consequences, Pakistan could expect to enlist Afghan efforts to deny Pakistan's Taliban insurgents the safe haven they have found across the border. Pakistan could feel confident that the Baloch rebellion is not being fueled from the Afghan side of the border and that India does not overplay its hand once NATO forces leave. More broadly, Pakistan should have less reason to fear India's role in Afghanistan. A stabilized, secure Afghanistan would find it unnecessary to look to India to provide a counterweight to Pakistan or worry Pakistan by maintaining an oversized army.
Building confidence between the two countries could also perhaps permanently defuse their long-standing dispute over the Durand Line that separates them. With improved security in Afghanistan, new life could be breathed into plans to construct a gas pipeline from the fields in Turkmenistan. A growing Afghan economy would open up new markets for Pakistani goods and services and improve opportunities for investment. And Pakistan's dreams of using Afghanistan as a road bridge to Central Asia to extend its commerce and political influence might finally become a reality.
Without reciprocating Afghan policies, friendly overtures by Pakistan cannot be sustained. But it is Pakistan's initiatives that will drive any embrace. More than any external power, its actions will determine whether the present Afghan state can succeed against the current odds. And through assisting its struggling neighbor, Pakistan may help secure its own future.
Marvin G. Weinbaum is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. He served as an analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003.
Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images
Dear Mr. President:
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is meeting with you on Wednesday with high expectations. He is a pragmatic business-oriented politician with a powerful electoral base who has shown magnanimity and deftness in allowing opposition parties to form governments in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces, and he backed the election of a nationalist Baloch as the chief minister in Baluchistan. While this could be seen as a policy of sharing the misery of trying to govern an ungovernable Pakistan, it could also be an attempt to work within a fractured political system. Regardless, he represents a chance to provide continuity for civilian governance in Pakistan and to build a relationship that goes beyond our immediate need to exit Afghanistan gracefully.
On Afghanistan, his advisors, both civil and military, will have told him that we need them badly; Pakistan tends to overestimate its leverage on such security issues. You will have likely been told by many yourself that we can get the Pakistanis to yield, if only we tighten the screws on them -- militarily via our aid program and the use of drone strikes, and economically via threats to withhold assistance directly or from international financial institutions.
We already have some credit on the latter. Pakistan has a new loan package with the International Monetary Fund, that we supported, though it remains to be seen if they will be able to deliver on the tough policy shifts they have to make to sustain the loan. This type of international financial support is an easier way for us to help or squeeze Pakistan without bringing Congress into the game.
As for the game itself, we can play the short game, focusing primarily on Afghanistan. In that case, making smoother payments from the Coalition Support Fund, and replacing Pakistan's heavily-used military materiel will help. Closer collaboration in helping them target their local Taliban fighters would also win points and cooperation.
Or, we could go for the long game and broaden our influence beyond the central government to the business community and the people of Pakistan. Large numbers of Pakistanis hate the United States because they have seen us support unpopular leaders, both civil and military, in the past. Sharif, a popular and business-oriented leader, appears to have the right instincts on a number of issues. He favors trade over aid, and he favors open borders with his neighbors. We could directly assist him by lowering the tariff rates on Pakistani imports, especially those on textiles -- at least to the level of European countries which have already given Pakistan that concession. Call it a level-playing field. At worst, you will lose South Carolina. But we will bring the emerging and powerful Pakistani business community to our side. In turn, it will help Sharif make the case domestically for open trade with India. You could also use quiet diplomacy with India to help it work things out with Pakistan on trade and border issues while waiting for the next Indian elections in spring 2014.
We also have a substantial proportion of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman funds that have not yet been disbursed and though that aid program ends next year, you could extend it for another two years without seeking additional monies and thus use the full $7.5 billion that has been allocated. Though this is not a huge amount when compared with Pakistan's needs, the symbolic value would be substantial.
Currently, Sharif is personally running the foreign, commerce, and defense ministries -- a tall order for any prime minister. But it allows us to deal with him on a wide range of issues at the highest level. His energy ministers are already working with our key officials and even intelligence collaboration exists, regardless of the underlying mistrust. If we can avoid looking for an obvious quid pro quo in the short run, we may be able to help the Pakistanis also play the long game.
In short, we may be able to do business with Sharif. Recall that he did help President George H. W. Bush with Somalia in the early 1990s.
You will have only a short time with him on Wednesday. Instead of having him recite his grievances, it might be better to have him define a path for the future that helps both countries, and offer to help strengthen his position at home as a result. He will get that. You do not get to be prime minister of Pakistan for a record third time without such smarts. Trust him. But tell him you will verify his moves once he gets home.
Shuja Nawaz is the Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's memories of Washington cannot be pretty. He was last in town in July 1999, when he met then-President Bill Clinton to discuss the escalation of tensions amongst India and Pakistan in the Kargil district of Kashmir, an area long disputed between the two neighbors. Four months later, Sharif was out of a job.
Sharif's own Chief of Army Staff, Pervez Musharraf, initiated the coup that led to his ouster after Sharif pulled troops out of Kargil -- at Clinton's urging -- to avoid any further escalation. His entrée into the "military's space" by initiating these troop withdrawals ultimately led to his downfall.
This time around, Sharif is in a much stronger position politically. His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, dominates the National Assembly as a result of its landslide victory in the May elections earlier this year. The military, a perpetual thorn in the side of the civilian government, is showing no visible signs of getting in Sharif's way for the time being. The government is about to receive a multi-billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund to breathe life back into the country's economy. Sharif's economic team seems to be making all the right noises on other aspects of economic reform, mainly in the privatization of state-owned steel mills and railways, as well as improvements in the energy sector.
This week, Sharif is in Washington, where he will meet President Barack Obama on Wednesday for an official visit at the White House. Meeting with Obama is typically a sign of strength for foreign leaders back home, but in Pakistan, the American president is so unpopular that Sharif wins no domestic brownie points for the meeting. In fact, it could hurt Sharif or be used against him. When he returns to Pakistan, any dramatic moves on security issues could be construed as a response to American pressure, real or not.
Furthermore, the strengths of Sharif's government are irrelevant under the current circumstances, especially on the issues the United States cares about the most. While his engagements with the American business and development communities will be more positive, Sharif will face "hard messages" from Obama and other American officials that won't be as easily answered. Among many issues, high on the White House's agenda will be the drawdown in Afghanistan, the lingering al-Qaeda threat in Pakistan, the recent uptick in tensions with India, and everlasting concerns about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. High on Pakistan's agenda will be pushing for an end to CIA drone strikes, asking for continued assistance in fighting the Pakistani Taliban, and seeking more information on NATO's plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan.
If it sounds like nothing's changed, that's because it hasn't. A combination of patronage, pressure, and mixed messages has always defined U.S.-Pakistan relations. In December 1998, when Sharif traveled to Washington at Clinton's invitation, security concerns at the time centered on India and nonproliferation. When President Asif Ali Zardari was in Washington in January 2011 for the memorial service of Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Amb. Richard C. Holbrooke, he was lucky Obama even met with him. Some American policy advisors at the time seriously questioned Pakistan's willingness to disrupt the Taliban, viewing the country's "double game" with the militants as reason enough to deny Zardari an audience with Obama.
While military ruler-turned-president Pervez Musharraf received a much warmer reception in Washington during his 2006 trip, he too faced the music when dealing with American officials on Pakistan's relations with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and its nuclear weapons program. Another military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, probably enjoyed the highest level of American patronage in the history of Pakistani leaders -- the result of his covert cooperation with the United States in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. But during his 1980 visit to Washington, even Zia faced pressure from the Carter administration to give up Islamabad's secretly expanding nuclear program.
Given the trends, it is apparent that Sharif will have the same kind of trip every other Pakistani leader to the United States has had: beset with unrealistic expectations in Washington and Islamabad; a scramble for "deliverables" identifying progress in the relationship; disappointment that the White House did not grant the Pakistanis the coveted "state visit;" mixed messages on both sides about how "hard" and "soft" the talking points were; and an underlying cynicism questioning the existence of the "unholy alliance" between the two countries. In all fairness, the same circumstances apply when American officials travel to Pakistan.
It is easy to get excited at the prospect of high-level engagements; such visits offer a potential pivot moment for bilateral relationships going through difficult times. We all know how badly the United States and Pakistan need a pivot, but the two countries may have already moved beyond that point. The visit occurs at a time when the countries have initiated a period of more subdued, private, and pragmatic engagement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to Pakistan in August was an initial attempt to "open a new chapter" in the relationship. The recent release of $1.6 billion in military and economic aid was possible because "ties have improved enough to allow the money to flow again." And while the recent decreased frequency of drone strikes does not appear to be coordinated, it probably doesn't hurt.
This new tone and approach can be helped along by strong diplomatic ties at the highest levels of government -- a condition that has been lacking in both U.S. and Pakistani policymaking circles for several years. Sharif's visit to Washington this week gives both him and Obama an opportunity to formally begin a professional relationship that could do just that.
But as in all things U.S. and Pakistan, a heavy dose of reality is recommended. The two countries face many potential pitfalls as they look towards 2014 when NATO departs Afghanistan, and high-level diplomacy alone cannot ensure that Pakistan and the United States successfully avoid them. Coordination between American and Pakistani militaries, intelligence services, diplomats, and development specialists will also be in demand; engagement on many of these fronts is still recovering from the conflicts of the past two years, whether it be the Osama bin Laden raid, the Raymond Davis incident, or the cross-border incident at Salala. At the least, the Sharif-Obama discussion will offer a taste of what challenges lay ahead and one way to engage on them.
Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor to Dean Vali R. Nasr at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies and is a Senior South Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
It is past time to shed the illusion that talks with the Afghan Taliban can result in a grand bargain that somehow resolves the Afghan conflict. The belief that there is, after all, nothing to lose in trying to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table is misguided. Three years of continuing American attempts to get talks going have had consequences that are anything but benign. These efforts have diverted attention from needed domestic reforms; undermined confidence in the critical economic, political, and security transitions underway with the departure of U.S. and other NATO forces; and harmed prospects for a viable Afghan state after 2014.
The damage accruing from mostly wishful thinking about reaching a comprehensive settlement with the insurgents is widely evident. It has planted doubts about American intentions and further strained Washington's testy relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai and his close advisors have interpreted American diplomatic initiatives as deliberately sidelining the Kabul government's participation in negotiations. Fears that the United States and Pakistan are working in tandem to strike a deal with the Taliban that would divide up Afghanistan have also worsened Kabul's already acrimonious relations with Islamabad. The Karzai government's own peace initiatives have also intensified differences with Pakistan, which is accused of blocking Taliban participation in talks. Karzai's recent visit with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, while cordial, is unlikely to end those suspicions.
But the most destructive fallout from the ill-founded prospect of a negotiated peace with the insurgency has been its effect on the Afghan people, only a minor fraction of who support the Taliban's return. The possibility that the Taliban might once again wield power has exacerbated ethnic tensions within Afghanistan. In particular, the country's northerners detect what they believe to be a Pakistani solution that cedes the south and east to the Taliban, who are then thought certain to make a bid for power over the entire country.
Overall, the possibility of a Taliban return to power has spread confusion among Afghans and intensified hedging strategies beyond those already occasioned by the withdrawal of foreign forces. Local and foreign economic investment has dried up, and the flight of human and physical capital has accelerated. Afghans in the provinces and districts, many ambivalent in their loyalties, have greater reason to distance themselves from Kabul. While Afghan leaders keep pursuing a political outcome, the country's security forces are being asked to take greater risks against the insurgency.
The allure of a political settlement in Afghanistan for the United States and others is, perhaps, understandable. With an outright military victory against the Taliban unlikely in the foreseeable future and an insurgency that faces great difficulty in overrunning the country, it is tempting to conclude that both sides are ready for a negotiated peace. A power-sharing agreement would presumably avoid further conflict and the high probability of a protracted civil war. Talks hold out the promise that with the Taliban and its allies joining a political process, a stable, inclusive Afghan government could emerge. Necessary compromises might shift the country in a more conservative religious direction, but an agreement, it would be hoped, could preserve the core of the Afghan constitution and protect the social and economic gains of the last 12 years. Certainly the Afghan people are anxious to see an end to 35 years of almost continuous warfare.
For departing coalition forces, a political solution would avoid testing the ability of the Afghan security forces to fend off the insurgency. By fostering an agreement, the United States and its allies could be absolved of the criticism that they will desert the Afghan people. Despite all they have failed to accomplish, these countries could say that the years of military involvement were justified by having laid the groundwork for a durable peace.
Afghanistan's neighbors also see the attractions of a political outcome as they all fear the uncertainties of a civil war that might follow the withdrawal of foreign troops. None would welcome an outright Taliban military victory that might spill extremist ideas and militants across their borders. Even Pakistan recognizes the possible gains from a political accord, albeit one that promotes its interests. Although it firmly backed Taliban efforts to wrest full power in Afghanistan until 2001, that was before Pakistan had to contend with a radical Islamic insurgency of its own.
Yet all of the various back channels employed by the United States to get the Taliban to start negotiating have only revealed that they have no strong incentive to stop fighting. The more tireless the U.S. efforts to get a peace process going, the seemingly more convinced the insurgents are of American desperation, and the more they believe their current strategies are working. While those in the West may doubt that there is a military solution, the insurgents apparently still believe in one.
Supposedly among an increasingly divided Taliban leadership there are those who favor holding peace talks, but even these alleged pragmatists offer little hope for serious negotiations. Privately they have made it clear that their side will not agree to a ceasefire and disarming, or accede to many of the basic principles of the constitution. The Taliban have shown no interest in negotiating directly with the Karzai government, and it is doubtful that they would accept the presence of any foreign military personnel in the country post 2014. The Taliban representatives who opened a political office in Doha proved to be mainly interested in winning the release of the group's prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in gaining legitimacy for the insurgency.
It is high time that the United States and its partners stop believing that there exists a shortcut to ending the Afghan conflict and a clear path for a graceful exit. The United States should instead concentrate its remaining resources and influence in the country on working with the Afghan government to improve its governance, development, and security forces. There may indeed be a political outcome in Afghanistan, but only when elements of the insurgency, seeing that the state is here to stay, conclude that time is not on their side and their grievances are best addressed within the system. Such a peace is likely to be realized through the gradual reintegration of insurgents in hundreds of small agreements across the country, not around a negotiating table in Doha or anywhere else.
Marvin G. Weinbaum is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. He served as an analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003.
Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
As the United States draws down in Afghanistan, seeks to rebalance towards Asia, and remains enmeshed in the Middle East, deliberations continue in Washington on a post-2014 Pakistan policy. But such discussions tend to view Pakistan through a South and Central Asian lens, from the Indo-Pak nuclear dynamic grounded in Kashmir (once again heating up) to the more nebulous New Silk Road initiative. Few analysts are creatively assessing how Pakistan might fit into the U.S.'s rebalance to Asia given the key role of its neighbors, India and China, and the potentially stabilizing effect of including Pakistan in a wider Asian economic web. Such an analysis partly turns on a question that has drawn scant attention: exactly how does Islamabad view the rebalance?
Last month, I spoke on the evolution and elements of the rebalance policy during President Obama's first term at the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, a leading think tank in Islamabad. My remarks coincided with the leak of the Abbottabad Commission report, a Pakistani inquiry into U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. Encouraging the audience of former senior diplomats, army officers, academics, and journalists to think beyond the terrorism-related concerns of the day, I inquired about how Pakistan perceives the U.S. rebalance to Asia and, irrespective of the U.S. posture, how does it intend to plug into the economic dynamism of the Asia-Pacific for its own benefit? Five views emerged that reflect the strain on Pakistan, and its relations with the United States, as it seeks to transcend its troubles and assess its position in the wider region.
First, to some, the rebalance is "old wine in a new bottle." The United States has always been engaged in Asia with its military bases both far and wide, so the talk of rebalancing is mere rhetoric. Moreover, Washington is incapable of acting strategically, as shown by its misguided forays into Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, the latter of which has had dire consequences for Pakistan.
Second, others claim that the rebalance is "pro-India" and "anti-China." As the Obama administration calls India a "key partner" in the rebalance, Pakistan continues to hear from its "all-weather friend" China that the policy is containment, plain and simple. Pakistan wants no part of a policy that bolsters its enemy and hems in its friend.
Third, attendants argued that the rebalance is irrelevant. Pakistan's priority must instead be to get its economic house in order and to overcome its "global pariah" status. To the extent it can lift its gaze beyond its borders, it has enough to contend with India and Afghanistan.
Fourth, further responses suggested that Pakistan's own efforts to look east through its "Vision East Asia" policy have been less successful than hoped. Attempts to enhance engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for example, have faltered; ASEAN continues to deny Pakistan full dialogue partner status. The reasons potentially range from a desire to ensure ASEAN's coherence to uncertainty about Pakistan's contribution to concerns about an unwanted import: militancy. China thus remains Pakistan's only viable avenue into the broader Asia-Pacific region. The same week I was in Islamabad, Pakistan's prime minister was in Beijing pitching a China-Pak economic corridor that would funnel in greater trade and investment.
Fifth, participants believed that Pakistan has little room to maneuver. The United States and China are great powers, while Pakistan is a small global player. It does not have the ability to act strategically in an analogous manner and meaningfully project itself into the Asia-Pacific region. Instead it is at the mercy of a new great game.
Given Pakistan's geography, travails, and anti-American sentiment, confusion and suspicion about the U.S. rebalance is understandable, just as the dearth of thought on how to tap Asia-Pacific's prosperity or apply relevant lessons is striking. Skepticism in Islamabad overlaps with that in Washington, where patience mutually runs thin given a fractious counter-terrorism partnership. Moreover, Pakistan is seen as a conceptual misfit in a policy anchored in the Asia-Pacific.
Yet the rebalance may be a more elastic concept and extend beyond the Asia-Pacific. In his remarks on "The United States and the Asia-Pacific" last month, Vice President Joe Biden underscored Latin America's role in the rebalance saying: "Our goal is to help tie Asia-Pacific nations together from India to the Americas." Meanwhile, others have argued that the rebalance should extend westward, beyond India, to include South Asia and the Middle East in an effort to match growing Chinese influence there.
Given this potential fluidity, the Obama administration should reassess how Pakistan relates to the rebalance as it searches for a coherent and constructive relationship post-2014. There may not be a fit but nonetheless, gauging and engaging Islamabad is a good place to start.
Ziad Haider is the director of the Truman National Security Project's Asia Expert Group. He served as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Justice and as a national security aide in the U.S. Senate. You can follow him on Twitter at: @Asia_Hand.
Ng Han Guan - Pool via Getty Images
Afghan perceptions of Americans and the United States come from a number of incredible historical tales, Cold War policies, conspiracy theories, and - of course - Hollywood movies, all of which have coalesced into a single image: Superman. But seeing the United States as the comic book epitome of power and invincibility cuts both ways. While it has often worked in its favor, it has also done considerable damage to America's reputation among Afghans.
The "Superman" image of the United States was first introduced to Afghans in a rather dramatic fashion almost two hundred years ago. In the early 1830s, Pennsylvania-born Josiah Harlan set out to become the king of Afghanistan. Although he ultimately failed to secure the country's throne, Harlan's military prowess and personality along the way impressed the Afghans and he was named the prince of Ghor, a province in central Afghanistan that had been the capital of the powerful Ghurid dynasty a few centuries earlier. Harlan returned to the United States 20 years later, but is remembered as the first American in Afghanistan.
For almost a century after Harlan's visit, Afghan-U.S. interactions remained uneventful. But in the 1950s, to counter the growing Soviet influence in Afghanistan, America came in as a "good warrior" - a Superman - fighting for the development of Afghanistan. As part of this new engagement, hundreds of American advisers, doctors, engineers, and teachers came to the country to build new dams, roads, and schools, enabling Afghans to experience American culture firsthand. During this period, Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in Afghanistan's volatile south, even came to be known as "little America."
During this time, many Afghans travelled to the United States on scholarships, some of whom played key leadership roles in the following decades. Hafizullah Amin, for example, the last Afghan communist president prior to the Soviet invasion of the country, received a master's degree in education from Columbia University in 1958. Although Amin called himself a staunch communist, the Soviets suspected he was secretly pro-American because of his time in New York.
After the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Superman image of the United States grew larger as billions of dollars in aid and arms were sent to the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the communists. This vision of America as a crusader for freedom was reinforced when Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, then-National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, stood at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and told a group of anti-Soviet fighters that "God is on your side."
But perhaps the most important contributions to this ethos have come from Hollywood. In the late 1980s, the film Rambo III, in particular, embodied the Superman image of America for Afghans. In the movie, Rambo, with his buffed muscles and thirst to kill Soviets, made all of the right moves to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. He braved the towering mountains of Afghanistan on a horseback. He displayed his ghairat (enthusiasm and honor) by accepting an Afghan challenge to play buzkashi, a national sport which is similar to polo. And he impressed Afghans further by effortlessly beating the best and toughest chapandaz (players). He even took up arms and joined a ragtag group of Afghan fighters to blow up a Soviet military base.
The movie was such a big hit in Afghanistan that even high ranking officials in the communist regime loved it, despite having initially banned the film. Thousands of VHS copies of the film were smuggled into Kabul and provided a massive boost to America's image. Afghans loved seeing the American superhero on their side, sharing their sorrows, and fighting ferociously against the "evil" communists.
But by the early 1990s, the Afghan cause had become a thing of the past. The Soviet Union had collapsed and many Afghans soon realized the world did not want to be bothered with their infighting. Neighboring countries, especially Iran and Pakistan - which many Afghans saw as the Lex Luthors of the region - vied for domination through the armed proxies they had fostered throughout the 1980s, while the United States was nowhere to be seen.
When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, rumors spread that the United States was covertly supporting them - speculations the militant group was happy to use as it indirectly strengthened its brutal image. Yet despite America's absence, its culture was still a touchstone for many Afghans. For example, the Taliban had banned watching movies and listening to music during their five-year rule, but it did not stop Afghans from going to great lengths and taking incredible risks to smuggle pirated copies of James Cameron's Titanic and watch them secretly in their homes. Realizing its attempts to isolate and "purify" the Afghan culture weren't working in Kabul and other major cities, the Taliban even used its religious police to check teenage boys for a "Titanic haircut" or fashions resembling those of the movie's main characters.
It was only after the tragic events of 9/11 that Afghans were finally exposed to the real "hard" powers of the American Superman. In October 2001, Afghans saw B-52 bombers circling high overhead and dropping bombs that shook the country's tall and seemingly invincible mountains.
With the Supermanimage of the United States in mind, many Afghans initially welcomed the arrival of the U.S.-led coalition forces and saw it as the beginning of a new era of change in the country. However, this did not last very long. The United States failed to deliver on its promises, and Afghan expectations for what the U.S. could achieve after the ousting of the Taliban were too high.
Since then, the failure of the U.S.-led international coalition to defeat the Taliban, a flurry of anti-U.S. propaganda from regional powers, and outbursts by Afghan government officials against the United States during times of tense relations have only served to worsen perceptions of America in the region.
For Afghans, the inability of the United States to get Pakistan to end its ties with the Taliban or to bring about the fundamental changes as it had promised, caused many to wonder "why?" Unable to find satisfactory answers, the people's high hopes gave way to pervasive conspiracy theories. By 2006, rumors, speculations, and fantastical theories about the United States had become more than an article of faith for many Afghans.
In fact, the current prevailing impression often espoused by the increasingly influential Afghan media and local political pundits is that the United States is nursing a grand plan to dominate the region through its presence in Afghanistan. Afghans have also come to believe that the United States, contrary to its frequently professed commitment to democracy and human rights, will make deals with any violent extremist group that could serve its interests, even if they are diametrically and violently opposed to democratic ideals and women's rights.
The recent debacle over the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar only strengthened these beliefs. To Afghans, the grand opening of the Taliban's office, complete with the movement's white flag and plaque proclaiming "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," was an affirmation that the United States, in collaboration with Pakistan, is now seeking to restore Mullah Mohammed Omar, the militants' reclusive leader, to power. At its press conference, the Taliban not only failed to recognize Afghanistan's constitution and even acknowledge direct talks with the government, but it also clearly stated that the militant's violent war, which is responsible for over 80 percent of civilian deaths, will continue. The fact that President Obama voiced his support for the Taliban's office, despite this uncompromising statement, shocked many in Afghanistan.
After 12 years of war, Afghans have learned to lower their expectations and expect contradictory statements from the United States, regardless of what popular Hollywood movies and shows such as 24 suggest. But all of this disillusionment, confusion, and widespread uncertainty has further deteriorated America's reputation and standing among Afghans.
As coalition troops prepare to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the United States needs to understand the power and importance of its image and Afghan perceptions in the context of Afghan war. If it is serious about fighting extremism and supporting democracy and human rights, it needs to make a clearer commitment to the Afghans actively fighting for democratic ideals, human rights, and women's rights. It also needs to show that America fully supports next year's presidential election, and that a peaceful transition of power remains a top priority for everyone invested in the region. Lastly, it needs to ensure that the Afghan security forces will receive the continued technical and financial support they need to succeed.
If it fails to do any of this, and continues with its often opaque and short-term policies, while seeking to desperately treat violent extremists as the inevitable power players in Afghanistan, the terror attacks of the last two decades could look like a sideshow compared to future threats emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
While Afghan-U.S. relations have been tense in recent months, and the window of opportunity is narrowing every day, a belief in the image of America as Superman still carries more weight with Afghans than U.S. boots on the ground. After years of "hard" power, the United States needs to understand the value of its "soft" power brand, especially in Afghanistan.
Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former producer for the National Public Radio's Kabul Bureau.
Najib Sharifi is the Director of Afghanistan New Generation Organization-a youth empowerment body based in Kabul. He is also a founding member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), a Kabul-based Afghan think tank.
John Moore/Getty Images
"Time is running out" to help nuclear-armed Pakistan's civilian government survive. That is what then-Senator John Kerry (D-MA) said in support of the recommendations of an Atlantic Council report that was released in February 2009. The report, which provided a comprehensive look at Western relations with Pakistan, estimated that, at that point, then-President Asif Ali Zardari's government had between 6 and 12 months to enact successful security and economic policies or face the prospect of collapse. "There is still time for us to be able to help the new civilian government, turn around its economy, stabilize the political system, and address the insurgency" festering in the eastern tribal lands on the Afghan border, said Kerry.
Kerry and his co-sponsor of the report, former senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), stressed that efforts to defeat extremist Islamist militants in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan required help for the people of both strife-torn countries. Speaking from his and Kerry's own experiences in the Vietnam War, Hagel warned that "if you lose the people, you lose everything. We cannot lose the people of Afghanistan, the people of Pakistan."
Today, as Kerry emerges from his first and much delayed visit to Pakistan as the current U.S. Secretary of State, he must have been struck by a sense of déjà vu. The mission that he and Hagel, now the U.S. Secretary of Defense, defined in 2009 remains largely unfinished. Pakistan has another civilian government facing an uphill task after the depradations of the previous one. Complicating the situation is the continuation of U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani soil that anger the Pakistani public and undermine the government's ability to work with the United States, and Pakistan's uncertain behavior regarding the Afghan Taliban that leads it to hedge in bringing them to the reconciliation table. Mistrust still pervades the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
Despite the change in names and positions, it is clear that with the anticipated clash of expectations regarding the hard economic and political realities of Afghanistan and South Asia, Pakistan today faces a tough task ahead, just as it did in 2009. Righting the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will take a longer-term plan of action, similar to one the Atlantic Council outlined four years ago. No Band-Aid approach of financial flows or even arms and equipment will work. The detailed recommendations provided in the 2009 report, and validated by discussions with Pakistan's leaders, including then-opposition leader Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's current Prime Minister, remain unimplemented. Secretaries Kerry and Hagel might do well to dust off the report they co-sponsored and see if they can persuade the Obama administration and the American public to appreciate the gravity of the situation in South Asia, while emphasizing the need for Pakistan to take ownership of its problems at a faster pace than the new government appears to be doing for now.
Re-starting the dormant Strategic Dialogue, as Kerry did last week, is just one component of this bilateral relationship. Pakistan should rapidly select and appoint a person of intellectual and political heft to be its ambassador in Washington, as leaving that slot vacant has sent a negative signal. The much delayed invitation from the White House to Sharif is welcome as a signal of the rebuilding of a relationship that was badly cracked by the successive events of 2011, truly the annus horribilis of this fraught "friendship." It is critical that the United States uses this reengagement to shore up the civilian government in Pakistan, even while it depends on the Pakistani military to help it exit Afghanistan in an orderly fashion.
It will be even more critical for Pakistan's civilian government to exhibit a strong desire and ability to take charge of key ministries. Energy appears to be front and center, and rightly so, though Sharif may want to rethink taking over the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence. Being prime minister is a large enough challenge; he should let other professionals run these key ministries. If civilian supremacy is to be established with confidence in Pakistan, Sharif needs capable persons running those ministries fulltime and should let them rationalize their operations and produce doctrines that are practicable and far-reaching.
Restoring the quality and strength of the federal and provincial bureaucracies is another key element in institutionalizing policy making. Pakistan's problems are too big to be left to the highly personalized "kitchen cabinet" or Punjabi loyalists. Signals matter too. Last week's selection of the new president did not reflect the need to honor a person of national or international standing with that post. Sharif chose a loyalist whom few in Pakistan knew before his nomination. Being a decent person, though necessary, is not enough for the job of Head of State. Sharif had much better candidates at hand but missed an opportunity to restore the grandeur and dignity of the office of President.
On regional relations, Sharif has the right instincts of a good businessman and he needs to stick with them. Open borders with India and Afghanistan can only bring longer-term stability and peace. But then why the inordinate delay in granting India Most Favored Nation status? There will be short-term costs for some trade sectors, for example the Punjabi agriculturalists, but those can be mitigated by persuading India to roll back some of its internal subsidies, allowing both sides to gain from the increase in trade. A regional approach to energy, involving central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India may be far more effective than the pipe dream of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline that has floundered on the shoals of global politics and threats of U.S. sanctions. Joint Indo-Pakistan private sector investments may be the key to rapid results, starting with export-oriented operations that will not threaten domestic producers or markets; provided the bureaucrats can be persuaded to loosen their grip on the rules and regulations that weigh things down.
But what can the United States do regarding its relations with Pakistan? First, the administration can create a center of gravity for decision making on Pakistan, ensuring that there is a cohesive and comprehensive approach rather than departmental policies that may run at cross purposes. Then, it needs to ensure buy-in from the Pakistanis for its aid programs, including the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill for $7.5 billion that will end in 2014. Adding transparency in financial flows from the United States to the central Pakistan government and down to the provincial level will allow the Pakistan people to trust the U.S. assistance and show that promises are measured against ground realities. It should also change the pattern of expenditures so the aid monies flow into Pakistan and stay there, rather than flowing back to Washington consultancies.
Pakistan has the technological and managerial skills to implement, monitor, and evaluate aid projects to international standards. What it lacks is institutional capacity at the policy making level to make sound economic and financial decisions. This will require investing in centers of excellence across the country, where Pakistanis can learn the tools of decision making, and a new breed of managers and entrepreneurs is fostered. Pakistan needs help with its infrastructure, to connect itself internally and with neighbors, but the economy will only stabilize and grow if policy making keeps pace with its growing needs. A stable polity and growing economy will provide a platform for educating and developing productive jobs for the nearly 100 million Pakistani youth that are currently below Pakistan's median age of 22 years.
But this window of opportunity is narrowing for the governments of Pakistan and the United States. Sharif's honeymoon with the Pakistani population will likely be shorter than expected, as high hopes clash with the inability of the government to deliver results rapidly. As such, he will need to approach these issues in parallel rather than seriatim. To best help Sharif in these efforts, the United States would do well to review, update, and implement the recommendations that then-Senators Kerry and Hagel supported in 2009. If it does not, it will likely repeat the bilateral relationship rollercoaster ride of the past decade and suffer the consequences.
Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
U.S.-Afghan relations, rarely tranquil, are close to a crisis point. President Hamid Karzai, furious over how the opening of an Afghan Taliban office in Doha was handled, is refusing to resume dialogue with the United States about a bilateral security agreement until the Taliban meet with his officials. His calculation is that the United States needs him more than he needs the United States.
President Obama is calling his bluff and floating the idea of a ‘zero-option', a full withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014. The drawdown of foreign troops is already a growing source of anxiety for Afghans, who fear international abandonment, and adds to a sense of unpredictability for the country's neighbors.
Unblocking the U.S.-Afghan impasse would reduce this uncertainty, and enable Afghanistan and its partners to focus on the key elements of its political transition: credible elections and national reconciliation.
The security and logistical challenges of holding elections in Afghanistan are huge. The recent passage of key election laws is welcome, but has not dispelled concerns that Karzai will seek to either delay or manipulate the elections to allow himself or his family to remain in power beyond April 2014, when his constitutional mandate expires.
The elections will undoubtedly be flawed, but they can still deliver results that are accepted as legitimate, if the government acts decisively to establish an effective, independent electoral system in line with the Afghan Constitution. The democratic transfer of power could be a legacy for Karzai.
But elections deliberately subverted could trigger unrest and undermine reconciliation, as well as alienate international donors and jeopardize continued western aid, which underpins the Afghan government, its security forces, and the gains made since 2001 in development and human rights.
Crucially, a new president with popular legitimacy, supported by the international community, could give momentum to the faltering peace process.
For years, the United States rejected talks with the Taliban in the belief that it could defeat them. Unable to outfight or outlast the insurgents, it now favors a political solution. The problem with that, however, is that at this stage of the conflict, enmity and mistrust between the parties is engrained, U.S. influence is diminishing, and the Taliban are gaining ground.
But the insurgents do have reasons to talk. Taliban leaders are fatigued from years of fighting, they fear a worsening conflict, and they are looking for international credibility. The withdrawal of Western forces removes their most powerful recruiting tool and an important source of unity. When the mujahedeen forced Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in 1989, the rebels fractured and fought amongst themselves.
Even so, hard-line elements of the insurgency fiercely oppose compromise; groups within the Afghan government, or central and northern political factions, fear losing power; and other groups fear losing rents from the lucrative war economy. Each of these groups may try to disrupt or derail any reconciliation efforts. The Taliban's struggle for perceived legitimacy will also hamper the process: the movement's office in Doha is reportedly closed.
The United States alone cannot overcome these challenges; they require international action. But what can the international community do to give political transition in Afghanistan the best chance of success?
First, it can build on the recent passage of the electoral laws to press for credible elections, with independent and empowered oversight institutions. It can support civic education initiatives and efforts to maximize safe participation in the polls.
Second, it can appoint a mediator for Afghan reconciliation. A conflict as complex, multi-layered, and deep-rooted as the one in Afghanistan cannot be resolved by the parties themselves. It requires a mediator that is trusted by the parties, up to the task, and preferably, backed by the United Nations. Most importantly, this mediator would help the parties establish what is so evidently missing: a structure for the talks. In other words, an agenda, principles, and a framework. The mediator would also work to reduce the mistrust that exists through confidential talks, involve regional states -- especially Pakistan -- and avoid Doha-style imbroglios.
Third, it should recognize that the priority is to enable Afghans to reconcile their differences peacefully -- an objective which should inform regional engagement, too. The international community should not be center stage during this process, but it can help by supporting an inclusive national dialogue among Afghans about their aspirations for the future. Initiatives of this kind -- including one supported by the U.N. in 2011 -- should be strengthened and expanded. To be sustainable, any negotiated peace must reflect the will of the Afghan people.
The prospects for peace in Afghanistan are in the balance. What is required above all is a coherent approach to the 2014 political transition. The West must use its leverage to assert the primacy of politics over violence, which will require credible elections and a structured peace process. Each would reinforce the other and each would be a step towards peace. There is no time to lose.
Michael Keating is a Senior Consulting Fellow at Chatham House and a former deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.
Matt Waldman is an
Associate Fellow at Chatham House and a Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy
School of Government.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Good intentions and clear political willingness to commit significant resources has meant that, waste and inefficiencies aside, the U.S. has been able to muster military and financial support for the war in Afghanistan from nearly 50 nations. Recently, however, Afghan and Coalition allies, along with other influential regional power brokers such as India, are starting to publicly question U.S. policy in Afghanistan, particularly the decision to engage with and support the Taliban in opening a political office in Qatar.
For reasons discussed below, the dialogue between the Taliban and the U.S. should continue, quietly and with limited objectives. But public, ill-choreographed, overly ambitious, and unrealistic attempts at reconciliation will continue to make the Doha peace process a dangerous and distracting sideshow that will hurt rather than support U.S. foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan.
For some time, the U.S. has been coordinating with other stakeholders to jump start reconciliation efforts between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Less than a month ago, that effort culminated in a rather embarrassing press conference for the opening -- according to the Taliban banner in the background -- of the political office of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." Afghan officials and many other governments, including the U.S., reacted harshly to what appeared to have been a serious miscalculation of the Taliban's intentions.
To be fair, Secretary of State John Kerry quickly admitted that "the United States is very realistic about the difficulties in Afghanistan," and acknowledged that a final settlement "may be long in coming," emphasizing that if the new Taliban office in Qatar proved unproductive, he would push for its closure. Similarly, the new Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador James Dobbins, reiterated support for the Afghan-led reconciliation, admitting that the Taliban's consequential press conference "may have been a combination of misunderstanding and a desire for a certain propaganda victory, which I think turned out to be - from their standpoint - disappointing." Placing such emphasis on reconciliation in the first place, however, was neither appropriate nor useful in achieving U.S. national objectives in Afghanistan and the region.
In fact, the disastrous grand opening of the Taliban office represents the first time that the U.S. has yielded political initiative to the Taliban - even if fleetingly. Or as the Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedel puts it, "instead of being treated as insurgents or terrorists, the Taliban got the symbols of statehood."
Furthermore, it has brought the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) negotiations to a halt. No matter how well intentioned the U.S. administration was in its avid support of Afghan-led reconciliation efforts, its attempt to take such an active role in the process has backfired. Many worry, however that President Karzai's emotional overreaction to the Taliban office will damage U.S.-Afghan relations even more than the U.S. attempts to restart the talks. This is particularly concerning given the July 9 report that President Obama is keeping the "zero option" -- removing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 -- on the table.
Beyond the immediate negative impact, however, hurrying reconciliation or looking for quick fixes also increases the risk of potentially calamitous outcomes. For example, continuing to support public engagement with the Taliban - who are in full ‘summer offensive' swing - while there is no national consensus for reconciliation, may lead to a spiral of violence and a fragmentation of the Afghan polity along ethnic, anti-Taliban, and fundamentalist lines. From there, it is not too far-fetched to imagine a return of al-Qai'da to an ungoverned and insecure environment.
Equally dangerous, in the near term, is that the uncertainty is also encouraging former mujahedeen commanders to consider rearming fighters to guard against their sense of abandonment by the U.S. These warlords, some of whom are still in the Afghan government, find it incredibly difficult to understand how the Americans, having sacrificed so much fighting the Taliban, are now bringing the insurgent group in from the cold.
Also of concern is that many Afghans believe that the so-called Taliban representatives in Doha owe their allegiance and loyalty more to Pakistan than the senior Afghan Taliban leadership; thus, arguably, giving no guarantee that negotiations in Doha will have any positive impact in Afghanistan at all in terms of reduced violence. Expectations in Kabul are that even if negotiations in Doha are wildly successful, rank and file Taliban in the field will not adhere to deals made there. Furthermore, no matter how much some have tried to convince the Western audience that digging ditches on a development project for $15 a day will convert the "$10 a day Taliban" to the side of the Afghan government, the fighters are not just in it for the money.
Furthermore, at least for now, the Taliban and the Afghan government are either incapable or unwilling to conduct substantive peace negotiations in Doha or anywhere else. The Taliban do not recognize the Karzai government as legitimate, and the Afghan government, for its part, is in no position to offer a "deal" to the Taliban that is going to be supported by the majority of the opposition groups and, more importantly, the majority of the Afghan people. As such, the U.S. should stop wasting effort and political capital on starting a process that is going nowhere for now, and should focus talks on limited and manageable objectives such as the near-term issue of prisoner exchanges and the mid-term objective of severing Pashtun tribal support to al-Qai'da and affiliated militants along the Af-Pak border. Reconciliation prospects are, at best, a long-term process that the U.S. can support, but cannot lead. It should not, particularly in its nascent stages, be taking center stage over other much more significant and meaningful issues.
This well-intentioned but ill-conceived meddling in Afghan reconciliation efforts has created a perhaps unfair -- but dangerously persistent -- perception that there is a convergence of interest between the U.S. and the Taliban, and a divergence of strategy between the U.S. and its allies. Although the Obama administration is trying to quickly correct this misperception, the damage is done. As the U.S. contemplates its next move, it needs to not only reconsider its position on Afghan reconciliation but also its relationship with the Afghan government - the other half of the reconciliation efforts.
In order to affect a real, sustainable, and positive outcome in Afghanistan, the U.S. is better off focusing less on reconciliation and, instead, reassessing and reaffirming its relationship with the Afghan government. Reaching a conclusion in the negotiations over the BSA and declaring the size of the residual presence in Afghanistan post-2014 are two important issues the U.S. could start with.
While achieving a peace deal in Afghanistan in time for the coalition withdrawal at the end of 2014 would be ideal, it is also highly unlikely. Instead of making attempts to entice both the Taliban and the Afghan government to substantive but rushed peace negotiations, the U.S. must refocus on providing solid, albeit conditional, aid and support to the Afghan government in return for progress, as outlined in numerous international community conferences. Rather than focusing on what has turned out to be a reconciliation sideshow in Doha, the U.S. should focus its considerable resources on improving Afghan governance and strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces.
Holding the Afghan government accountable for the poor governance and corruption that undermine economic progress and deny future opportunities to Afghans struggling to find jobs in a business environment plagued by bribery, uncertainty, and predatory behavior are much more important to peace in Afghanistan than reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. Coupling these challenges with the rampant narcotics production problem, the flight of many Afghan diplomats and other government officials out of the country, and lost opportunities such as the failure to capitalize on vast economic opportunities in the mining sector, makes open negotiations with the Taliban in Doha a sideshow, not the real challenge for Afghanistan's future.
But, like it or not, the Taliban now have a political office in Doha. The international community's demand on the Taliban political office should be simple: ultimate reconciliation will be an issue decided by Afghans, but as long as the Taliban attempt, via violent means, to forge an Afghanistan similar to that which existed pre-9/11, the world will not accept them as a legitimate entity. The U.S. and its allies - including Afghanistan - should insist that with such legitimate public representation comes responsibility in full view of the international community.
Throughout history, even the most polarized enemies sought open channels of communications. No one should consider dialogue between foes a bad thing; the key lies in identifying common ground in order to minimize violence and active fighting. If the most charged discussions remain private, and public declarations are carefully choreographed, the chance of embarrassment is minimized. Afghans should always be the lead in discussions with the Taliban office in Doha, but without pressure from Western partners expecting miracles; at least not until after next year's Afghan presidential elections.
It will probably take a very long time to see an eventual positive outcome in Central Asia, or to dissect the failures responsible for not getting there. However, efforts in Afghanistan don't have to end in disaster. For things to improve, American foreign policy must find a way to remain well-intentioned but also imaginative, with strategic and inspirational vision, worthy of what most around the world consider the most powerful nation on earth.
Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Much has happened in Afghanistan since 2001, and there is heightened uncertainty about the country's political future with the security handover being completed, conflict with the Taliban continuing - despite attempts to begin a reconciliation dialogue in Qatar, the withdrawal of international troops proceeding, and the 2014 presidential election approaching. While the situation on the ground is quite different from when the Bonn Agreement was signed nearly a dozen years ago, the Bonn experience can, to some extent, inform current thinking about Afghanistan's upcoming political transition.
The 2001 Bonn Agreement involved an agreed transfer of power from one nominal head of state, Burhanuddin Rabbani, to another, Hamid Karzai, after the fall of the Taliban regime, and occurred without substantial violent conflict both during the negotiations and over the three-year period covered by the Bonn process. This is exceptional given that leadership changes in Afghanistan during the past century have occurred through assassinations, coups, forced exiles, and, between 1978 and 2001, devastating wars and civil conflict. Since a peaceful transfer of power is also a primary objective of the current political transition, it is worth reviewing several key components of the Bonn experience:
Some possible elements of continuity with the current political transition are evident. Many current Afghan political actors were part of or affected by the Bonn process; fragmented, personalized, factional politics remain extremely important; organized political parties (especially nationally-oriented ones) remain weak; there is no obvious candidate for head of state (for the first time in an Afghan presidential election, no incumbent will be on the ballot); and a number of actors - including some members of the "loyal opposition" to the Karzai government - desire to come to a consensus or at least agree on broad parameters in advance of the election. However, the differences are more striking.
First, all aspects of the Bonn Agreement were finalized when it was signed at the meeting, including the choice of interim head of state. A national presidential election is a fundamentally different process.
Second, negotiations at Bonn were kept on-track (and basically not allowed to fail) by heavy international pressure to conclude an agreement quickly and, during the following three years, to ensure timely implementation of the Bonn roadmap. Although the 2014 presidential election provides an ultimate deadline for any pre-election negotiations, their success is by no means assured.
Third, in 2001, the Afghan government had been devastated by two decades of protracted conflict and did not have any impact on Bonn. Now the government has built up considerable capacity and power, which can be deployed to influence the current political transition.
Fourth, in late 2001, the international community's engagement in Afghanistan had just started and was growing, whereas next year's presidential election will occur alongside the international military disengagement from Afghanistan and declining international financial support.
Fifth, the Taliban - widely regarded as defeated and irrelevant during the Bonn negotiations - are currently seen as an important force in the country, and are being actively courted by the international community in parallel reconciliation efforts, which may distract attention from the political transition; moreover, the Taliban clearly have the capability to be a disruptive force in the upcoming elections.
Based on these major differences as well as elements of continuity, here are some questions to consider as the political transition moves forward:
Thinking about these questions probably tells us more about the mindsets of some actors from the time of Bonn who remain significant political players today than about how the 2014 political transition might actually proceed. While some may be enamored with behind-the-scenes negotiations, allocating ministerial and other top positions in advance, and perhaps even hoping for an outside entity to serve as "broker," key factors that made the Bonn process viable and sustained it for three years are no longer present. Whatever may be decided in advance, things could go off-track before, during, or after the 2014 presidential election. Moreover, any agreements reached among various political actors and groupings (sometimes termed a "national agenda") would not necessarily have the internationally-backed force and staying power of the Bonn Agreement. Thus, while there may be similarities to certain features of Bonn, a Bonn-like scenario seems unlikely for the current political transition. Nevertheless, the Bonn experience provides an illuminating counterpoint to weave around and inform thinking about 2014.
William Byrd is an Afghanistan senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.
Oliver Multhaup/DPA/Getty Images
Though direct talks between the Afghan Taliban and the United States appear to be back on track after some protocol issues with the Taliban's Doha office were resolved, questions remain over President Hamid Karzai's continuing commitment to the dialogue process. Just one day after the Taliban inaugurated its office in Qatar, Karzai pulled the Afghan government out of the presumed peace talks, furious over the way the office was opened. On the surface, it was the display of the Taliban flag and the plaque reading "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" that angered the Afghan government. However, as U.S. and Qatari officials scrambled to diffuse the crisis, it became clear that the Afghan government's rancor at the Taliban press conference went beyond those issues; but why?
It is no secret that Karzai remains opposed to direct talks between the Taliban and the United States. Eighteen months ago, when a Taliban representative appeared in Doha to start direct negotiations with the U.S., initially Karzai opposed the move vehemently, recalled his ambassador from Qatar and rejected any talks which did not include the High Peace Council (HPC), Afghanistan's government-constituted negotiating body. The Afghan government also insisted that the talks be held inside Afghanistan, or alternatively, Saudi Arabia.
Since the first attempt at direct U.S.-Taliban talks was aborted in March 2012, there has been intense international diplomatic engagement with Karzai and his inner circle over this issue. Diplomats from Germany, Norway, the United States, the United Kingdom and Pakistan -- the most critical regional actor -- have tried to mitigate the Afghan government's objections and put forward proposals that incorporated Afghan demands that the peace process be ‘Afghan led.'
When Hina Rabbani Khar, a former Pakistani foreign minister, repeated ad nauseam that Pakistan supported an intra-Afghan dialogue, she was voicing the view favored by Kabul and communicated to Pakistan through various official and unofficial channels. And it made sense. War cannot be ended by just the two main fighting parties, in this case, the Taliban and the United States. There has to be a broader process of political settlement between a number of Afghan factions, including the Taliban, who have been fighting each other for decades. While some of these factions are represented within Karzai's inner circle and the HPC, several of them are part of the opposition and have no trust in the council.
According to Pakistani diplomats, Karzai had pledged to kick-start an internal Afghan process that would develop consensus on the peace talks and bring all of the powerful factions not currently part of the government or the HPC on board. This internal consultation was a necessary first step towards building a national consensus and producing a credible roadmap for talks with the Taliban. However to date, no such process is visible, and there is a shared view emerging in both U.S. and Pakistani policy circles that Karzai would like to see the dialogue process postponed until after the Afghan presidential elections in April 2014. At this point, even limited talks with the Taliban will have to address political structures in post-2014 Afghanistan. While Karzai and his inner circle would likely aim to keep the status quo, both his political opponents and the Taliban could use the peace talks to push for an entirely new set-up.
Karzai is also unhappy with the role Pakistan has played in coaxing the Taliban back to the negotiating table, and in convincing the U.S. that approaching 2014 deadlines demand a resolute move forward on reconciliation. In Pakistan's view, the time has come for the Obama administration to set a firm policy direction, which will in turn help convince a number of fence-sitters within Afghanistan and around the region that the U.S. is serious about exploring political channels to end the war.
Nobody expects quick progress with regard to the talks, but with tentative confidence building measures such as prisoner exchanges, the United States and the Taliban can set the stage for a comprehensive peace process amongst the Afghans themselves. There is also a growing constituency within Afghanistan that supports a political resolution to the conflict. If the Karzai government persists in standing against the tide, his inner circle and presidential nominee will likely be marginalized in the next election. As far as the joint U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement is concerned, it is an issue that can be resolved after the new president is sworn in. The U.S. must not allow itself to be blackmailed over the issue by an outgoing president with a narrow support base.
The next few days and weeks will likely show how far Karzai is willing to go in his opposition to direct U.S.-Taliban talks. Most of the Afghan government's concerns regarding protocol irregularities have been addressed. The Taliban have been persuaded to remove the flag and the objectionable plaque. Both Karzai and Obama have indicated that the Doha talks will now go on, and will not be derailed in the face of recent Taliban attacks. Obama admitted in his comments last Thursday that he had anticipated difficulties during the reconciliation process, but difficulties related to Karzai's own narrow political calibrations must not distract U.S. policymakers from the course that leads towards peace.
Simbal Khan (Ph.D.) is a Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a Senior Research Fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
June 18, 2013, marked a day of starkly contradictory events in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai and visiting NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced the fifth and last tranche of the security transition, with NATO forces handing over the complete ownership and leadership of all military operations across Afghanistan to their Afghan counterparts. Ordinary Afghans welcomed this development as a major step forward in their quest to consolidate Afghanistan's democratic gains.
On the same day, it was also expected that an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-executed peace initiative would be launched with the opening of a temporary venue in Doha, Qatar, facilitating the start of peace talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and Taliban representatives. It took the Afghan government almost two years to reach this critical point and to form a national consensus on the principles that would govern the peace process. Many consultations were also held with regional and international stakeholders, including the United States and Pakistan, which as two members of the "Core Group" agreed on the governing principles, clearly articulated in the Peace Process Roadmap to 2015.
The "Core Group" members agreed that in order for the peace process to succeed with sustainable outcomes, the Taliban must accept the Afghan Constitution and respect the democratic gains of the Afghan people, including the Constitutionally-protected rights of women. They must also cut ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, while verifiably renouncing violence. And it has been emphasized time and again that any external interference intended to influence the peace talks would jeopardize and stall the process.
However, as Afghanistan's leading strategic partner, the United States provided the Afghan government with specific guarantees against any possible violation of the above basic principles. The name of the venue in Doha was agreed to be the "Political Bureau of the Afghan Taliban," nothing more than a political address to be later relocated inside Afghanistan. But much to the dismay of the Afghan people and government, as they were still cheering the last phase of the security transition, Al Jazeera enthusiastically began broadcasting an elaborate inaugural ceremony for the "Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" in Doha as its top news story.
Qatar's Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali bin Fahad Al-Hajri, and Taliban representatives unveiled the plaque that bore that name -- under which the Taliban had committed unspeakable atrocities against the Afghan people, systematically destroying their cultural heritage and economically isolating their country from the rest of the world. And a white flag -- under which the Taliban and al-Qaeda had masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 American citizens -- was hoisted on a tall pole outside the venue in an area of Doha that houses most diplomatic missions.
Symbolically speaking, the premeditated event that unfolded before the eyes of the international community betrayed not only the ongoing sacrifices of the Afghan people, but also those of their regional and international allies and friends for the institutionalization of peace and democracy in Afghanistan. The Afghan people were shocked by, and continue to express their outrage against, the way the event was organized and took place. To Afghans and most of their key allies, it seemed as if the forces of terrorism were being rewarded at the expense of the democratic gains made in Afghanistan, a remote possibility that no one could have logically predicted would happen.
But it unashamedly did, inviting a strong international reaction in support of Afghanistan's peace conditions. The people and government of Afghanistan are particularly thankful to India and Russia for their immediate, principled reactions against the blatant violation of their peace conditions. The government of India has rightly cautioned against creating "equivalence between an internationally recognized government of Afghanistan and insurgent groups," which would legitimize insurgent groups or "convey the impression of two competing state authorities for Afghanistan." Similar statements of support from Canada, China, Iran, Germany, Italy, and others have called on the Taliban to accept the Afghan Constitution, cut ties with terrorist networks, and cease violence against civilians, all while cautioning against any imposed measures on the Afghan-led peace process.
In Afghanistan, the unexpected Doha events have unprecedentedly unified the Afghan people in support of their elected government's efforts to reject any peace deal that infringes on their sovereignty and the democratic achievements of the past 12 years. The Afghan people have not been losing their children day after day, year after year, just to return to the same foreign-installed "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" that violated the very basic human rights of Afghan women, and that harbored al-Qaeda, which first terrorized the Afghan people and then masterminded the tragedy of 9/11.
Afghans remain disappointedly astounded at the way radicalism has been allowed to triumph over their new democracy. But they hold the moral high ground, and are firmly determined to consolidate the strategic gains of the past decade against the terrorism that continues to find a home and institutional support in Pakistan. Now is the time for the international community to recommit to standing by the Afghan people and helping them realize their democratic aspirations for an Afghanistan free from the dark forces of extremism and terrorism.
Afghans deserve moral and material support and respect for their decade-long sacrifices to institutionalize peace and democracy in their country. Failure to deliver on these basic expectations would surely take Afghanistan back to the 1990s, a scenario few want to repeat. The only way forward is to help sustainable peace take root in Afghanistan, and to protect it from any previously tried and failed shortcuts that cost both democracy and liberty.
Shaida M. Abdali is Afghanistan's ambassador to India, and formerly served as his country's deputy national security adviser.
FAISAL AL-TIMIMI/AFP/Getty Images
The United States, Afghan, Qatari, and Pakistani governments have all voiced their support for the opening of a Taliban office in Doha in order to promote peace negotiations. Some consider transforming the Taliban from an armed insurgency into a legitimate political group to be the critical first step in the Afghan peace process. However, to date, reconciliation efforts have stalled and focus more on rhetoric rather than substance.
There is no concrete evidence that Taliban leadership is either worn down or desperate to reach a peace agreement. Attempting to secure his legacy as a peacemaker, Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to reach an agreement before the end of his term in April 2014. Because the Taliban have also cooperated somewhat with this principle of reconciliation, it is not immediately clear why the current approach has achieved nothing.
The answer is that the Doha peace process has been riddled with unrealistic expectations, and remains hopelessly inconsistent. Such reconciliation efforts without strategy and clear objectives reflect a hook without bait - while encouraging, these talks are doomed to fail without significant reform. Only with realistic expectations, a coherent strategy, national solidarity, and lots of patience, will reconciliation stand a chance of materializing.
Where We've Been Thus Far
The reconciliation offer requires three specific things from the Taliban: ending violence, breaking ties with al-Qaeda, and accepting the Afghan Constitution. The fourth, less advertised condition is the acceptance of a residual ISAF element in Afghanistan post-2014. At a recent summit in London, British, Afghan and Pakistani leaders set a six-month timeline to reach a peace settlement.
But substantive results are unlikely to emerge until after the 2014 Afghan Presidential elections. This is the single most important date in the reconciliation process and will set the tone for future debate. A six-month deadline to reach an agreement is not only unrealistic, but also damaging to the credibility of the process.
A more realistic approach to the peace process would be both accepting that this dialogue will take a long time and recognizing the importance of Afghan national consensus on the issue. Key stake-holders should focus efforts on reaching internal consensus between now and mid-2014, when the elections will take place. With reconciliation playing a significant role in Afghan political dialogue leading to the elections, the next president should enter office with a clear mandate on how to tackle engagement with the Taliban. Any further wavering will increase the likelihood of infighting amongst regional powerbrokers and warlords.
Negotiations are also unlikely succeed until the majority of Coalition Forces leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Why would the Taliban want to reconcile with the Afghan Government on the eve of ISAF's withdrawal? Still in control of significant swaths of land across the country, the Taliban will be hesitant to strike a deal until it becomes clear that Afghan security forces can maintain control without ISAF support.
Lessons Learned and Relearned
The most opportune moment for reconciliation has likely already passed. The Bonn negotiations, which took place immediately following the Taliban's swift defeat in late 2001, failed to peacefully incorporate Taliban loyalists into the new government. At that point, the Taliban were the defeated foe and their long-time enemies, now at the forefront of Afghan politics, circumvented any reconciliation efforts.
When the Taliban re-emerged as a significant threat between 2006 and 2009, Coalition COIN strategy focused more on marginalizing the Taliban through the "clear-hold-build-transfer" model, and did not pay enough credence to reconciliation efforts.
Additionally, the Afghan-led reconciliation process is fractured. While Afghan security forces are more focused on reintegrating individual insurgents willing to give up the fight, President Karzai's reconciliation program is focused on reaching a deal with the Taliban core leadership. This is not a "grand bargain" with the Taliban, but rather a presidential appeal to Afghan nationalism in an attempt to erode Pakistani influence on the Afghan Taliban's senior leadership. The result of the two incongruous approaches has been failure.
A Change in Direction is Required
For the peace process to work, it must change course. First, there must be national solidarity and consensus on the peace platform. The current plan, though basic, does not have widespread support among loyal Afghan opposition parties, such as Afghan Mellat, Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan, or Jamiat-e-Islami. In fact, the process appears monopolized by a small group of Presidential Palace senior aides, rather than made transparent in order to seek buy-in from a wider sector of Afghans.
Second, we must understand the influence of external regional and international players on the Taliban as well as the Afghan government. Finally, the lead negotiators will need time to develop the proper relationships between opposing parties; this role is probably best handled by a group of mediators, supported by the key western stakeholders and accepted by all sides. All indicators point toward limited progress between now and the April 2014 Afghan elections.
The current Afghan government faces opposition from all the major ethnic groups in the country. Most ‘loyal opposition' parties and leaders - some of which are presidential contenders - are missing from the negotiating tables; these are the political parties featuring moderate Afghan party leaders who have worked with NATO over the past twelve years. By ignoring the "loyal opposition" parties, reconciliation officials are also excluding from the negotiation table the largest segment of the Afghan population - the youth. Afghan political leaders are increasingly paying attention to the youth-movement in an effort to "get the vote" from the most dynamic - and potentially volatile - segment of the population.
Part of the reconciliation process must start inside urban centers, where the majority of the population and the biggest opposition to the Taliban live. Only with a national consensus on reconciliation will the peace process move to a stage in which the Qatar office can start delivering results. This will take time and considerable trust-building measures.
While Pakistani support to the Taliban is an undeniable issue, the fact remains that poor governance from the Afghan government and deficiencies in the Afghan security apparatus make areas of the country vulnerable to insurgent (as well as criminal elements) influence. If the Qatar peace process is to work, all involved must understand that the peace terms can only be Afghan-generated. External entities can facilitate the peace process but cannot set the terms. One of the challenges for the reconciliation process is that few possess the patience to approach it as a long term process. Many hours of deliberation and countless cups of tea will be required to build the trust and goodwill necessary to start the reconciliation process and a vital - to the ultimate peace - drop in violence.
In order for the international community to support the peace process and help it move forward, the Taliban must be better understood. Although the Taliban are most often associated with their strict adherence to Shari'a Law and violent insurgent tactics rather than their Foreign Ministry's diplomatic efforts, they have pursued basic diplomatic solutions in the past and may still be open to such activities. Twelve years of conflict since the end of the Taliban's regime have made it difficult, but not impossible, to leverage Taliban diplomacy in future negotiations.
Ultimately however, no reconciliation can start unless there is pause in the carnage supported by the Taliban senior leadership. Similarly, there must be a willingness on the part of the Afghan government to adhere to some form of cease-fire. The negotiating parties must be willing to compromise, as concessions are essential for both sides to achieve realistic goals.
The most important thing the United States can accomplish on reconciliation this year is to give up on the idea that reconciliation will be accomplished this year. Only by realizing how far the reconciliation process is from the end goal can the U.S. avoid doomed-to-fail quick fixes that reinforce hopelessness. The U.S. must see reconciliation in the context of the political transition that will come after the mid-2014 Afghan Presidential elections. A good first step toward national reconciliation will be the commitment of each candidate to making the peace process a key element of their platform and laying out their plan to achieve lasting peace during their term.
With this more modest understanding of 2013 as the year to begin a real dialogue rather than expect results on reconciliation, there are three key components that set the table for future breakthroughs.
First, international engagement must be persistent and consistent rather than episodic and occasionally even working at cross-purposes. More specifically, this means committing to the Doha process, which is the closest credible option for most Afghan factions, and having permanent international staff working with the parties, rather than visiting delegations. Similarly, clarity of purpose from these engagements would be useful, as the Coalition and the Afghan Government send conflicting signals on whether insurgent groups are considered the "enemy" or, albeit "upset," brothers.
Second, the United States and its allies must recognize that real reconciliation in Afghanistan requires the involvement of all parties, not just the false binary of the Karzai Government and the Taliban. Talks must include other armed resistance groups, as well as the loyal opposition (i.e. parties and individuals who choose political means of opposing government policies without violence) which has consistently acted as the Afghan government's conscience and challenged the carnage caused by the fighting between the government and insurgents. Given that this latter faction probably represents a substantial majority of Afghans and aligns most closely with priorities of the international community, reconciliation must not further marginalize them.
Third, much of the 2014-2019 Presidential term should set the conditions for reconciliation. In effect, the new Afghan President should be sworn in with a national agenda and a mandate to push toward a potential breakthrough during their time in office. But reconciliation should not be attempted at all costs. In other words, unless there is real intent to stop the violent insurgency in earnest, the idea of negotiations is absurd. For example one cannot expect positive results on reconciliation efforts when civilian casualties are going up significantly. According to the U.N. data, 3,092 civilians were killed or wounded in the Afghan conflict between 1 January and 6 June this year, with children accounting for 21 per cent of all civilian casualties.
Ultimately, true reconciliation will take generations to materialize. Abandoning the current failed ‘foolosophy' in favor of a more realistic - but much longer term - approach is a good first step in our collective "12-step process" to reconciliation recovery.
Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Dr. Kamal Alam specializes in 21st century relations between Arab states, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistan's new government takes office this week, and optimism is in the air.
Pundits point to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's (PML-N) resounding election victory on May 11, and suggest it will use this mandate to implement critically necessary policy reforms. Presumptive prime minister Nawaz Sharif, observers insist, is more mellow and mature than he was during his previous terms as prime minister. They cite his post-election conciliatory moves-from a visit to the hospital bed of political rival Imran Khan to an invitation to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to attend Sharif's swearing-in ceremony.
Some of this optimism is warranted. But let's be realistic: despite Pakistan's political transition, the nation's troubling structural realities-from reform-resistant vested interests to state-sponsored support for militancy-remain entrenched. We should therefore keep our expectations in check, and hope for relatively modest achievements from Islamabad's new leadership. These include improving the economy, stabilizing civil-military ties, and maintaining adequate relations with India and the United States. Success, however, will hinge on four unpredictable factors.
Wildcard #1: Tax reform
Sharif appears determined to address Pakistan's sinking economy and debt-driven energy crisis. The PML-N's election manifesto depicts "economic revival" as a chief concern, and in recent days PML-N officials have said they hope to phase out costly subsidies and institute energy pricing reforms.
The question, however, is if the party can truly engineer an economic recovery. The answer will depend on Pakistan's ability to secure new revenue sources-and expanding the national tax base is a much-needed step (according to one recent report, only 768,000 Pakistanis-0.57 percent of the population-paid income tax last year).
Given its dire economic straits, Pakistan is likely to request a fresh loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-and the IMF will probably condition future lending on tax reform. How much political capital is Sharif willing to expend to produce this long-elusive outcome? How hard will Sharif, who has made a fortune in the sugar industry, push back against entrenched agricultural interests that resist tax reform?
Recent comments by Sartaj Aziz, a former finance minister and top PML-N official, raise additional questions. Aziz said the PML-N isn't yet ready to approach the IMF, and will instead focus on its own economic recovery efforts. Optimists may interpret this to mean the government will use the next few months to implement reforms before going to the Fund. Pessimists, however, may conclude that Islamabad simply wants to go it alone-a troubling prospect for a country with dwindling reserves that, if needed, could cover only five weeks of imports.
Wildcard #2: Pervez Musharraf
The man who overthrew Sharif in a 1999 military coup is now under house arrest outside Islamabad. What Sharif chooses to do with Musharraf will help shape the trajectory of the premier's volatile relationship with the institution that once ousted him.
In 1997, Sharif won an election by a wide margin-and promptly used this mandate to challenge the military's authority. Some may fear he'll use his latest large mandate to again undercut the military-not necessarily by challenging its authority directly, but by taking a sharply anti-military position on a key policy issue. One possibility could be pushing for more reconciliation with India than the military is willing to sanction.
However, early indications suggest the two sides are ready to bury the hatchet. Sharif is blaming Musharraf personally, not the military as a whole, for the events of 1999. One week after the election, Sharif held a three-hour meeting with General Ashfaq Kayani-and the army chief pledged full cooperation on all of the issues that Sharif wants to tackle. Soon thereafter, the Finance Ministry released budgetary projections for the next fiscal year. Strikingly, defense services funding allocations were 15 percent higher than those in this year's budget.
So does this all portend smooth sailing for civil-military relations? Not necessarily. The army wants Musharraf out of Pakistan, and Sharif has reportedly informed Kayani that he'd like Musharraf gone before taking office. However, the PML-N announced last week that it plans to try Musharraf for treason-a prospect that would anger the army, which is already displeased about its former leader's detention. It's still possible a deal will be brokered that sends Musharraf back into exile-and perhaps one is already in the works: This week, rumors abounded that he will visit his ailing mother in Dubai. Yet if a trial does take place, Sharif's relations with the military could again be plunged into crisis.
Wildcard #3: Extremism in Punjab
Militancy in Pakistan's most populous province threatens prospects for better ties with India-and the economic benefits that would arise from rapprochement.
Sharif desires improved relations with New Delhi-and trade normalization is a prime objective. Economists estimate that normalization would increase bilateral trade from less than $3 billion to $40 billion. It would also bring much-needed relief to Pakistan's free-falling, revenue-starved economy by placing at Pakistan's disposal, literally next door, one of the world's largest and fastest-growing markets.
Such a tantalizing vision, however, could be shattered by militancy in Punjab. This province, which borders India, is the PML-N's stronghold-and a bastion for anti-India militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which orchestrated the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Some, like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), are based in southern Punjab. Others, like Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, have a strong presence in Rawalpindi, the city that hosts Pakistan's military headquarters. LeT leader Hafiz Saeed lives free in Lahore.
Neither Sharif nor his brother Shahbaz-the last chief minister of Punjab's provincial government, which the PML-N has run for years-has dealt with this problem. During the recent election season, the PML-N chose cooperation over confrontation. Punjab's law minister campaigned with the leader of one sectarian extremist group, while rumors abounded of a PML-N electoral alliance with another.
Encouragingly, Sharif promises to be tough on anti-India militants-he has vowed to ban speeches that "incite jihad" against India, and specifically singled out Saeed's. Yet questions remain about his actual willingness to target these actors (some Indian analysts allege-without elaboration-family "links" to the LeT), much less his ability to do so (Pakistan's security establishment has long regarded these anti-India groups as strategic assets). Ultimately, Sharif's ability to boost ties with India will depend on the extent to which he confronts the militants who wish to destroy it.
Wildcard #4: The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP)
This province, which abuts the militancy-ravaged tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, will be governed by Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The PTI stridently opposes U.S. drone strikes, and favors non-military solutions to extremism, including peace negotiations with the Pakistan Taliban (TTP). The PTI's ability to stabilize this volatile region, just across the border from where the United States is fighting a war, will bear heavily on Islamabad's relations with Washington.
Sharif's relations with the United States have been relatively friendly since the 1990s, when as premier he worked closely with Bill Clinton (photographs of the two leaders adorn the walls of Sharif's Lahore mansion). Though Sharif's campaign rhetoric featured sharp criticism of drones and the U.S. war on terror, his post-election comments about Washington have been cordial. Last week, during an appearance with James Dobbins, the new U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sharif said the two nations would work "in complete cooperation to curb terrorism."
KP's PTI-led government, however, could jeopardize this goodwill. If it engages the TTP, the latter could enjoy more freedom of movement in KP-affording it greater opportunities to target the NATO supply vehicles that pass through the province, and to intensify its cross-border attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Such a prospect would pose a conundrum for Sharif, who wants a workable relationship with Washington yet also shares the PTI's desire to talk to the Taliban. Would Sharif, to protect his relations with Washington, pressure the PTI to change course? Or would he honor the party's engage-the-TTP position, and throw his support behind the PTI?
Either way, the PTI will be tested immediately. Last week, after the TTP's top deputy was killed in a drone strike, the organization withdrew its offer of talks with Islamabad and threatened new attacks. The PTI's response to stepped-up violence will have major ramifications for American efforts in Afghanistan-and also for Pakistan, which receives billions of dollars of U.S. aid.
There's reason to believe Pakistan's new government can kickstart the economy, peacefully coexist with the military, improve relations with New Delhi, and cooperate with Washington. Yet it's important to acknowledge the spoilers that could sabotage each of these prospective success stories. Pakistan, after all, remains a troubled country where soaring hopes are often sorely dashed.
Ultimately, by keeping our expectations about Islamabad's new leadership in check, we set ourselves up for less disappointment-while also allowing for the possibility of being pleasantly surprised.
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is available at email@example.com or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
The Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF), agreed to at the July 2012 Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan, started out with high hopes. International donors pledged to provide Afghanistan with $4 billion in civilian aid per year through 2015 and to continue significant support through 2017 and beyond, while the Afghan government committed to governance improvements and a democratic political transition as per the Afghan Constitution. Less than a year into the implementation process, however, serious obstacles are being encountered.
As noted in a recent paper, the old adage about work in Soviet-era centrally-planned economic systems -- "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us" -- appears to be increasingly applicable to TMAF implementation, which is being undermined by:
- Doubts about the realism of some pledges made by both sides, specifically the degree of genuine commitment by the Afghan government to improving governance and fighting corruption, and the level of international funding that will actually materialize in the face of donors' budget constraints and disappointment over limited Afghan progress;
- Short-term priorities that may sideline TMAF implementation, most notably the international community's preoccupation with its military exit strategy, and the Afghan government's focus on political maneuvering in the run-up to the 2014 election;
- Adherence to process, fulfilling the "letter of the law" and "checking the box" on benchmarks, which is being emphasized at the expense of substance; and
- Focus on the TMAF for its own sake, which is, perhaps, distracting both sides from achieving actual results and positive outcomes.
Furthermore, there is a risk that TMAF implementation will degenerate into a "blame game," with each side accusing the other of failing to live up to its side of the "bargain" and using perceived failures as justification for falling short on its own commitments.
A few examples illustrate these themes. Recent convictions of Kabul Bank senior executives involved in the theft and misuse of some $1 billion in deposits and other bank funds were presented by the Afghan government as evidence of its fulfilling commitments regarding the bank, but there was a perception internationally that the verdicts were too lenient. Regardless, the practical point is this: with the principals of Kabul Bank convicted on some other fairly minor charges but not on money-laundering charges, the government cannot initiate formal procedures to seize the stolen assets already identified in other countries, and an opportunity for the Afghan state to recover hundreds of millions of dollars has been lost -- irrespective of whether TMAF benchmarks regarding corruption were met or not.
Some efforts by international donors to move aid "on-budget" -- providing funds to the Afghan government for disbursement through its national budget and administrative mechanisms -- seem questionable. Most donor funding is currently "off-budget" -- channeled bilaterally -- but at the Tokyo conference, donors committed to putting at least 50 percent of their aid on-budget, a laudable objective, as part of the shift toward Afghan leadership during the transition. It was recently announced, for example, that the installation of a third turbine at the Kajaki hydroelectric plant (in a conflict-ridden part of Helmand province) would be turned over to the Afghan government, despite massive and ultimately unsuccessful international efforts to complete the project. It is unclear how the Afghan government will be able to succeed where the international community failed.
Intruding short-term priorities can also trump making mutual accountability work. The international imperative of a timely and smooth withdrawal of foreign combat forces may be interfering with efforts to hold the Afghan government accountable for its performance. For example, international pressure for action on Kabul Bank has greatly eased as the coalition has become increasingly focused on its military exit strategy. It also appears that the IMF-supported macroeconomic program, which provides balance of payments support and the critical IMF "certification" that enables funding through trust funds and other budget support, is likely to remain officially "on-track," even if the government's performance falls short of its targets (for example in the crucial area of domestic revenue). No one wants to deal with the consequences of going off-track, namely a budget crisis.
On the Afghan side, short-term political considerations in the run-up to the 2014 presidential election are sidelining and distorting TMAF implementation. Expectations that the government will take meaningful actions to improve governance, especially against high-level corruption, will become all the more unrealistic as the election approaches. There are also signs of possible manipulation of some TMAF benchmarks for narrow political purposes. For example, the Afghan government has strongly advocated that 100 percent of international funding for the 2014 presidential and the 2015 parliamentary elections be on-budget, ostensibly related to the TMAF benchmark of moving more aid on-budget. However, without safeguards to preserve the independence of electoral authorities, this may increase their vulnerability to interference or at least undermine public confidence in the elections (I am grateful to my colleague Scott Smith for making this point).
It is also uncertain to what extent the Tokyo pledge of civilian aid will be delivered. Based on Afghan and international experience, actual aid commonly falls short of pledges for a variety of reasons, and it would be surprising if the Tokyo pledge turned out to be an exception to this general pattern. Moreover, given that the pledge was slightly above even the high-end scenario ("accelerating progress") put forward in the World Bank study Afghanistan in Transition: Looking Beyond 2014, it seems clear that donors saw this amount as a "stretch target" -- something to be aspired to only if there is strong progress by the government in improving governance and fighting corruption in the spirit of the TMAF's objectives, prospects for which are doubtful in the short run.
Aside from these concerns, the TMAF is generating a substantial amount of paperwork, which may further distract those involved from substance. The government's "anti-corruption decree" of July 2012, intended to be a vehicle for implementing the TMAF, contained more than 150 specific action points/benchmarks, called for a large amount of reporting, and would be no small task to monitor.
Overall, the larger goals that animated the Tokyo conference and the promise of the TMAF are being undermined during implementation. But this should not come as a complete surprise given experience with conditionality, benchmarks, and similar arrangements in other countries, as well as in Afghanistan's own recent history. Such mechanisms do not work well in the absence of a reform constituency in the country that can leverage conditions and push reforms, if objectives and targets are overly ambitious or multitudinous, and if a medium-term perspective is lacking or is dominated by short-term priorities.
But how to move forward? Rather than investing more effort in trying to fix and fine-tune the TMAF, let alone add benchmarks or revisit the respective "failures" of both sides, the Afghan government and its international partners need to clarify and manage their own and each other's expectations. This will be particularly important in the immediate future while the challenges of elections and political transition, as well as the withdrawal of international combat troops, dominate the landscape.
Both sides can responsibly pursue their respective, clearly-defined objectives, while staying realistic about overlaps and disconnects. Progress would be facilitated by clear and honest communications. The main objectives of Afghanistan and the international community are interdependent and in many ways broadly consistent -- provided they are responsibly pursued and include a wider, medium-term perspective rather than solely serving narrow and short-term interests. The international community's key short-run priority is to withdraw most foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and achieve a smooth security hand-over. For this hand-off to be sustainable, the achievement of several key Afghan national objectives is required, most importantly a successful presidential election and political transition, resulting in an effective new government administration and (later) parliament that are perceived to be legitimate both internally and externally.
Once these key milestones of the current political and security transition are successfully achieved, the TMAF, if tempered by realistic ambitions and timeframes, may provide the basis for a productive partnership between Afghanistan and the international community over the medium term.
William Byrd is an Afghanistan senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Despite the sweeping changes occurring across Asia, visits to Pakistan by the Chinese leadership remain remarkably routine affairs. Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Islamabad this week, his first since becoming premier in March, was no exception.
Step 1: Deck the streets with banners proclaiming "Long Live Pak-China friendship."
Step 3: Shower timeless rhetoric on the "all weather," "higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey," "iron brother" friendship.
Step 4: Host meetings with the political and military leadership and address Parliament.
Step 5: Issue a joint statement weaving it all together.
Step 6: Prepare for post-visit op-eds praising relations (or the rare critique) in Pakistan and commentary elsewhere on Pakistan's lustrous role in China's "string of pearls" strategy in the Indian Ocean.
So, despite all of the standard pageantry, did anything interesting happen this time around? Six points come to mind.
First, in a conspicuous symbol of robust Sino-Pak defense cooperation, Li was escorted into Pakistani airspace by six jointly manufactured JF-17 fighter aircrafts. Between 2008 and 2012, Pakistan accounted for 55% of Chinese arms exports, pushing China into the ranks of the world's top five arms exporters this year. Despite the logic of a close military relationship driven by historical (read India) and commercial imperatives, China's state news agency has described Beijing as looking for "pragmatic" military cooperation with Pakistan -- a reflection of growing asymmetry in both rhetoric and expectations, even in a sector of close collaboration.
Second, both China and Pakistan are in various stages of a leadership transition, which requires forging new personal ties in a relationship that has held steady across governments for sixty-two years. Pakistan was the second leg of Li's first overseas visit (India was the first), and Li was the first foreign leader to visit Pakistan since general elections were held on May 11. Li's visit notably included meeting with Prime Minister-elect Nawaz Sharif, whose party prevailed in the polls but has yet to officially form a government.
Third, the issue of Uyghur militancy likely made its way into Li's talking points. A video recently emerged showing young children firing weapons at a training camp, reportedly in northwest Pakistan, affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) -- a militant Muslim separatist group in China's restive Xinjiang region which borders Pakistan. The veracity of the video aside, a rare strain in the relationship in recent decades has been such Uyghur militants lodged and training in Pakistan's tribal belt. Although Pakistani cooperation has been forthcoming in eliminating members of the ETIM, a "common threat" according to the joint statement, the issue remains of concern to Beijing, especially as the broader region contends with how a post-2014 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will reorient a hydra of militant groups.
Fourth, the two countries inked a nebulous accord on a "China-Pakistan Economic Corridor" that underscores an oft-repeated yet largely thwarted desire to expand energy and commercial ties. In February, China acquired control over the Gwadar port in Pakistan's own restive Baluchistan province, a deep sea port that China helped finance and develop in part to diversify its energy supply routes. Meanwhile, Pakistan's economy remains crippled by an energy crisis that Li flagged as a priority area of cooperation. Such aspirations, however, remain captive to Pakistan's chronic insecurity, examples of which shadowed Li's visit. The National Crisis Management Cell directed a suspension of cellular service upon his arrival -- a security measure to prevent the remote detonation of explosives -- and the day before, a bomb blast in Karachi narrowly missed a bus of Chinese port workers, among the 13,000 in Pakistan who have been targeted before.
Fifth, Li's two day visit in Pakistan was preceded by a three-day visit to India. Such scheduling matters figure prominently in the Indo-Pak dynamic, bedeviling many a trip to the region by senior U.S. officials. Yet Li's port of embarkation and duration of stay does not seem to have generated much rancor in Pakistan -- a sign of confidence in the countries' relationship. Indeed, with Sino-Indian border tensions ramping up and inevitable friction between Asia's two rising and neighboring giants, Li's proposed "handshake across the Himalayas" to India may be genuine, given a robust annual trade of $60 billion. However, China will continue to reach out to Pakistan with the other hand.
Sixth, whereas prior joint statements have referred to the importance of Sino-Pak cooperation in the "region," the current statement refers specifically to the "Asia-Pacific region" - potentially implicating the U.S. rebalance to Asia. China has its work cut out across Asia, repairing fractured ties over border and maritime disputes that have created strategic space for the United States. Neighboring Pakistan provides a welcome reprieve for China from fence mending and hard-charging nationalism. Given a longstanding boundary agreement, agreements on maritime cooperation and boundary management, for example, were easily reached during Li's visit. With voices in China calling on Beijing to increasingly look westward even as America tries to rebalance east, how Pakistan fits into the picture (a possible bridge with China?) is a question with which Washington must contend.
Li's visit may have been high on pageantry yet the prestige China enjoys in Pakistan is unparalleled with a 90% approval rating. How it will exercise its influence and with what effect in Pakistan is a question that will become increasingly important as the U.S. scales back in South Asia. Perhaps the next trip will shed just a little bit more light (but don't hold your breath).
Ziad Haider is an attorney at White & Case LLP and the Co-Director of the Truman National Security Project's Asia Expert Group. He served as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Justice and as a national security aide in the U.S. Senate. You can follow him on Twitter at @Asia_Hand.
When Amb. James Dobbins arrives at the ground-floor offices of the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan he will find a depleted staff, a moribund peace process and a mandate riddled with colossal diplomatic challenges. Secretary of State John Kerry called today's state of affairs a "pivotal moment" for the two nations. But it is also a critical moment for U.S. involvement in ending the conflict President Barack Obama once called the war "that we have to win" and now wants only to "responsibly" wind down.
Dobbins is a veteran of uphill assignments. He oversaw the return of the American flag over a newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2001. In addition to Afghanistan, he has served in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia. Not exactly a list of luxe diplomatic posts.
As Dobbins prepares to assume his post on 23rd St, a series of open questions await his attention. Three of the biggest are below.
1) Troops: Just how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014? That question remains unanswered as the United States continues to negotiate an agreement with Afghanistan on the shape of the U.S. military presence post-2014. Gen. James Mattis, who most recently served as the commander of U.S. Central Command, is on the record pushing for more than 13,000 troops. Most numbers out of the Pentagon and the White House come in at less than that. The State Department's Robert Blake noted recently that "we are still in the process of thinking through what our final military presence will be in Afghanistan after the end of the transition at the end of 2014." Exactly when that will be and what shape it will take remains to be seen.
Also an open question: how many Afghan troops will be needed? And how many will be funded? Those two numbers may well end up being different. And the latter should be known sooner rather than later.
2) Peace process: Right now there is not one of substance to speak of. What shape might one take? The window for action is rapidly closing as frustration between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains very much alive, with Afghanistan arguing that Pakistan looks favorably on Afghan instability. Will Afghanistan and Pakistan agree to agree on conditions for talks? And what role will the Americans take? Sec. Kerry met last month in Belgium with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and vowed to "under-promise but deliver" as the sides "continue a very specific dialogue on both the political track as well as the security track." What, if anything, the dialed-down dialog yields will be watched carefully as nearly all sides agree that a diplomatic solution - one in which human rights are not made the price of peace - is the lone shot at a lasting and durable peace.
3) Transition: whither and at what pace will security, political and economic transitions continue? So far, the economic transition has been bolstered by GDP numbers that have been better than expected. As the World Bank noted, "rapid economic growth" has been accompanied by "relatively low inflation." But the government is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign coffers for its funding -- civilian aid alone is "estimated at more than US$6 billion a year, or nearly 40 percent of GDP" - and as those dollars dry up, the questions of stability and security arise immediately. A recent IMF report mentioned by the New York Times notes that tax evasion, corruption and declining growth all mean that the government will find it tough to pay even half of its bills this year. Stories of graft and CIA-filled slush funds do not lead to greater confidence in the Afghan government from either the American public paying for it or the Afghan people who will pay the price of chaos and a political power vacuum.
These are only the most pressing of a rash of questions sure to occupy Amb. Dobbins on Day One. Fortunately for both Sec. Kerry and Amb. Dobbins, the SRAP position does not require Senate confirmation, so they can get down to work quickly - as they must. The U.S. is speeding toward the end of the NATO combat mission, and both diplomats will soon be hard-pressed to find answers.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images
In his compelling account in Foreign Policy of his time working for the Obama administration, Vali Nasr portrays his boss, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, as an energetic and skillful diplomat whose efforts to begin peace talks with the Taliban were systematically undermined and sidelined by a White House more concerned about domestic politics and more persuaded by the Pentagon's strategy of sending more troops than a strategy of "patient, credible diplomacy". According to Nasr, Holbrooke died literally with the secret to ending the Afghan war on his lips, unheard by Barack Obama, "the president who did not have the time to listen."
It is to Holbrooke's credit as a leader and as a man that someone as passionate and eloquent as Nasr has taken the task of defending his legacy. But is he persuasive? In reading his article, I often found myself drawing exactly the opposite conclusion than he did from the same anecdote. For example, he vents his frustration at Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who he says obstructed Holbrooke because Lute "thought he knew Afghanistan better". But since Lute had been covering Afghanistan in the National Security Council since 2007 and had previously served there, he probably did know Afghanistan better than Holbrooke, who was only appointed in 2009. Here, it would be just as easy to perceive Holbrooke as a blowhard, than as the beleaguered victim of a turf war the Nasr portrays. When Nasr describes the "internet start-up" dynamic of Holbrooke's office, with its "constant flow of new ideas, like how to cut corruption and absenteeism among the Afghan police by using mobile banking and cell phones to pay salaries; how to use text messaging to raise money for refugees; or how to stop the Taliban from shutting down mobile-phone networks by putting cell towers on military bases," a reasonable person could be excused for seeing in this frenzied creativity a lack of focus and a dissipation of energy that might be fatal to a complex diplomatic endeavor, rather than the laboratory of the solution to Afghan stability that Nasr implies.
For Nasr, Holbrooke had the diplomatic solution to the Afghan war, but he was actively undermined by the administration in pursuing it. My problem with this thesis is that there was an area where Holbrooke did have carte blanche to use his diplomacy, and in my view he used it rather badly. That area was the 2009 Afghan presidential election.
In 2009, I was the Special Assistant to Kai Eide, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). I already had some experience in the Afghanistan. I had first visited Afghanistan in 1994 for a French NGO. I returned in 1995, when I spent a year running a humanitarian project for the same NGO, and returned again in the summer of 1997 to do research. From 2001 to 2011, I worked almost exclusively on Afghanistan for the UN, and had been part of the UN team that set up the 2004 elections. By 2009, when I went to Kabul to work for Eide, I had some knowledge of the country, its recent history, and its elections.
Before meeting Holbrooke, I knew of him only by his reputation: he had negotiated Dayton, he was close to Hilary Clinton, he had visited Afghanistan several times, he thought outside of the box, and he attracted talented staff-all of these qualities that Nasr describes very well. In sum, I had an open mind and I looked forward to what his reputed talents might bring to the Afghan imbroglio, which was becoming increasingly complex as the presidential election approached. We knew that 2009 would be a complicated year and the various parts of the international community in Afghanistan would have to work closely together to get through the election in particular.
It was therefore surprising, in terms of the US-UN relationship, that shortly after his appointment Holbrooke made disparaging public remarks about Eide's leadership at the annual Munich security conference. Eide, who read them in the press in Kabul, complained immediately to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Jim Jones (with whom he had excellent relationships). They passed them on to Clinton who apparently spoke to Holbrooke. A phone call was set up between Eide and Holbrooke to smooth the waters, but it ended very badly, with the conversation heating quickly and both men hanging up on each other.
A few days later Holbrooke came to Kabul. Holbrooke clearly had no intention to "reset" his relationship with Eide. His first comment on meeting Eide was, "When does your contract expire?" As an observer, I tried to discern the logic in Holbrooke's antagonism. It only made sense, I thought, if Holbrooke was sure he would be able to get rid of Eide, which is what we suspected that he wanted. But until he achieved that, why wouldn't he try work with Eide? After all, Eide had a trustful relationship with Karzai, close relations with most of the cabinet, and was in charge of a formal mandate to support the upcoming presidential election. According to Nasr, Holbrooke practiced "the type of patient, credible diplomacy that garners the respect and support of allies." What I witnessed was an impatience and lack of respect that alienated allies.
When I look back, it strikes me that Holbrooke didn't really have a plan to get rid of Eide. Instead he substituted his will for a strategy, then acted as if he had already accomplished what he had sought when he clearly had not. By doing so, he sidelined allies without removing his enemies.
Never mind the failed removal of Eide, what about Karzai? Holbrooke gave every impression that he wanted to use the 2009 election to unseat Karzai. Holbrooke's second question to Eide during that breakfast meeting was who he thought would be a viable alternative to Karzai. (Eide chose not to respond.)The method he selected was to persuade a number of prominent Afghan politicians to run against the incumbent. This strategy became an open secret and a running joke among politicians in Kabul. In his book about his time in Afghanistan, Eide recounts meeting then-Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud at a social event. Eide asked how he was and Massoud responded that he was lonely. "I must be the only person in Kabul whom Holbrooke has not invited to challenge Karzai for the presidency," he said.
Holbrooke's decision to encourage a variety of candidates to run was undoubtedly motivated by Afghanistan's two-round electoral system, which requires a candidate to win 50% of the votes in the first round, or the top two vote-getters face of in a second round. Holbrooke surely calculated that a large number of first round candidates would be likely to siphon votes from Karzai, making it more difficult to reach 50%. This was good as far as the political arithmetic went, but it missed several factors that were critical to the Afghan context. First, potential Karzai opponents wanted to be the candidate blessed by America-they wanted to be Queened by America, not to be a pawn among pawns in a grander U.S. strategy to bring Karzai below 50%. Pawns, after all are easily sacrificed once they've fulfilled their purpose. And once these candidates realized that Holbrooke was making the same deals with rivals, some of the more serious ones dropped out. Second, Holbrooke underestimated Karzai's real strength. Just because he didn't like him, and just because many Afghans were clearly frustrated with their president, didn't mean that they wouldn't vote for him in the end.
Again, as with his antagonism toward Eide, I was left wondering whether Holbrooke had a plan, a strategy based on a serious reading of ground truths with options for action based on different scenarios. Or was this like the cell phone towers and the text messaging for refugees-just part of the constant flow of new ideas?
Once it was clear that Karzai would get the most votes, the objective changed: instead of getting rid of Karzai, it became desirable for Karzai to not win the first round, and go to a run-off instead. Two days after the election, Holbrooke, then-U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and a few advisors came to breakfast at Eide's Kabul residence. The discussion was mostly about how to plan for the release of the election results, the need to avoid statements that were not founded in actual facts, and so forth. Everyone agreed that no public comment should be made until the official results were out. Holbrooke, nonetheless, argued that given the fraud, the election had to go to a second round to ensure the legitimacy of Karzai's win. Eide warned him not to raise that with Karzai, whom Holbrooke was scheduled to see later that day. "You have to understand that he sees you as someone trying to get rid of him," Eide cautioned. Holbrooke dismissed the warnings with a joke. He and Karzai were the best of friends now, he said.
But during his lunch with Karzai, Holbrooke ignored Eide's advice and mentioned the need for a second round. Karzai was understandably apoplectic. Most of the votes were still being counted. Hardly any preliminary results had come in. Yet Holbrooke was already dictating what outcome would be legitimate and what would not. This seriously damaged an already patchy relationship. An election needs winners and losers, but if it is to serve its political purpose, an election cannot be a means of humiliation.
This controversy was soon overshadowed by what became the real story of the election, the massive fraud that had taken place, which as Sarah Chayes pointed out in her article on Nasr's piece , was dismissed by Holbrooke in the run-up to the elections. While the fraud prevention measures set in place by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) had failed, the detection measures had worked. What remained were the mitigation measures. Getting them to work was an incredibly painful process that required much negotiation, cajoling, pressure, and creativity on the part of the international community working with the electoral institutions, some that were more cooperative than others.
The four month-crisis that followed the election began with a courageous order from the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to reinstate the fraud triggers it had suspended-in other words, to set aside the votes that were deemed to be tainted by fraud. Weeks of negotiations were spent to get the IEC and the ECC to agree to the terms of an audit of the fraudulent votes. Then both campaigns had to be convinced, and the audit's methodology painstakingly explained and defended. When the audit was completed, and the results showed Karzai was below 50%, it took several weeks for Karzai to be convinced that the audit was correct. Every day brought winter closer, and the time in which a second round could be held became shorter. The role of the international community in the audit was crucial, as was its role in keeping the main parties engaged in the process. Eide, in particular, played a central role, and was even able to broker a meeting between Karzai and his primary challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah to see if, face-to-face, they could find a solution (they couldn't). But Holbrooke's actions had taken away or dulled many of the tools needed to solve the crisis. Eide's credibility was badly damaged by his public disputewith Peter Galbraith over how to handle the electoral crisis (Holbrooke had pressured the UN Secretary-General to appoint Galbraith, an old friend, as Eide's deputy a few months before). The U.S. embassy in Kabul had been undermined by Holbrooke's positions. The entire international community was under suspicion by Karzai.
I remember when the crisis finally reached its resolution. I was sitting with Eide and Tom Lynch, a member of the UN election team, in Eide's residence. He was waiting for a former Taliban to arrive for a meeting. Just before his visitor was due to arrive, Eide received a phone call from Eikenberry. "Come to my residence immediately. I think we have news." Eide did not want to stand up the Taliban, so he told Lynch and me to represent him. Eikenberry was there, along with the French and British ambassadors and a few embassy aides, waiting expectedly.
But the person who walked into the room a few moments later, saying that after several long nights of negotiation he had convinced Karzai to accept the second round, was not Holbrooke. It was John Kerry. Senator Kerry, while visiting Kabul that week, had managed to earn Karzai's trust. Karzai asked him to extend his stay while the negotiations over the elections continued. Kerry had become an accidental diplomat, but he played his unexpected role with great skill. Holbrooke, the professional diplomat, had spent all his powder in the early stages of the game. I have no idea where he was when the great Afghan electoral crisis of 2009 was finally resolved, but he was nowhere near the action in Kabul.
It is not surprising that, in his defense of Holbrooke, Nasr focuses on reconciliation - a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. This was the great "what if?" In his defense of Holbrooke, Nasr writes that Holbrooke, just before his death, had "found a way out that just might work", but refused to tell his wife "until he told the president first". Then, of course, he died, taking his McGuffin with him. This is amateur movie plotting, not political analysis.
Obama is a convenient scapegoat for the failed reconciliation effort, and on that Nasr makes a strong case. But there is no scapegoat for Holbrooke's election strategy. Nobody in the White House or the military stood in his way. It was his strategy, which he designed and implemented, on which he took forceful decisions. And yet the end result was to contribute to creating a crisis whose effects still linger. Every time a member of the international community raises with Karzai a legitimate measure that might ensure a better 2014 election, Karzai mentions Holbrooke, and everyone backs off.
Nasr's Holbrooke was a champion of diplomacy. I would argue that his significant talents were less those of diplomacy, and more those of a gifted translator of American power. Diplomacy requires the navigation of hostilities, the building of alliances, and the seeking of leverage. It is more than a pro-consul-like projection of power, even if that power is projected with intelligence and stubbornness, and appears to achieve results. Both the cynical and the serious definitions of diplomacy emphasize the need to often convince actors to act against what they perceive as their best interest, either by deceit (Sir Henry Wotton: "a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country"), distraction (Will Rogers: "diplomacy is saying ‘nice doggy' until you find a rock"), or deception (Daniele Vare: "diplomacy is the art of letting the other party have things your way"). All of these involve subtlety, calculation, strategic clarity, and the husbanding of alliances. Those were the skills called for during the 2009 election. In Holbrooke's way of operating throughout that event, I saw something closer to the opposite of those skills.
The pity is that, if America is indeed weakening-which is Nasr's larger thesis-it will need much more classical diplomacy and much less Holbrookean bluster. But as long as Holbrooke is held up as the model American diplomat, our foreign policy will seem increasingly like empty thunder, and then we'll know what weakness really means.
Scott Smith has covered Afghanistan for many years with the United Nations, including as a special assistant to the head of the U.N. mission there in 2009 and 2010, and is the author of Afghanistan's Troubled Transition: Peacekeeping, Politics and the 2004 Presidential Elections. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia's School for International Public Affairs. The views expressed here are his own.
As the Obama administration seeks to "responsibly withdraw" from Afghanistan by 2014, it must also retool its policy toward a more strategically important, nuclear-armed, and volatile Pakistan. Given U.S. engagement and leverage with Pakistan will only further decline, and its current single digit approval rating in Pakistan, it needs all the help it can get to contain a hydra of militant groups from tearing Pakistan apart or triggering a war with India. To the extent that external actors have a role to play in Pakistan's internal stability - the onus, after all, lies with its own leadership - the United States might find the most unlikely of partners in Pakistan's northern neighbor and "all-weather friend:" China.
Sino-Pakistan relations have consisted of four phases. After diplomatic ties were established in 1951, relations cooled as Pakistan sided with the United States against seating China in the United Nations. The 1962 Sino-Indian war and 1963 Sino-Pak boundary agreement cemented ties against a common adversary; China became and remains a vital source of military and nuclear technology for Pakistan. In the late eighties, a thaw in Sino-Indian ties - trade between the two rising economic giants is now six times that between China and Pakistan - and the spread of militancy into China's restive Xinjiang region from Pakistan diluted the relationship. Since 9/11, Chinese concerns about Pakistan's stability have only deepened with attacks on some of the 13,000 Chinese workers living in Pakistan.
Three lessons for the United States emerge from this narrative.
First, while China remains committed to Pakistan, especially to balance India, its position on Indo-Pak relations has shifted. From threatening intervention in the 1965 Indo-Pak war to former President Jiang Zemin urging the Pakistani Parliament to put Kashmir on the back burner and focus on development in the nineties, to the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister engaging in unprecedented shuttle diplomacy following the 2008 Mumbai attacks that nearly brought both sides to war, China is emerging as a key crisis-manager in South Asia - in large part to maintain regional stability for its own economic growth.
Second, despite these shifts, China retains a high favorability rating in Pakistan at 90%. Underpinning this credibility is China's perceived unstinting support vis a vis India and economic assistance, generally in the form of soft loans with no grating conditionalities, that have resulted in a range of prominent infrastructure and defense-related projects in Pakistan.
Third, China is increasingly focused westward. Since 2000, China's "Go West" policy has sought to tackle underdevelopment in its vast western regions, including Xinjiang. Pakistan can potentially provide an outbound route for goods from Xinjiang and an inbound maritime route through its struggling Gwadar port for an increasingly Persian Gulf-oil dependent China. Similarly, an influential essay titled "Marching West" making the rounds in China's policy circles argues for expanding ties with China's western neighbors. In contrast to a tense Pacific, China's west, the essay contends, is also fertile ground for Sino-U.S. cooperation, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Given China's potential crisis-manager role in South Asia, its standing in Pakistan, and its concerns about militancy therein, China and U.S. interests seem to converge. This runs askance of the "string of pearls" theory that views Pakistan as a central element in China's evolving grand strategy in the Indian Ocean, potentially to U.S. detriment. Consider, however, the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2030 report. In one of four scenarios for the future of geopolitics it outlines, the optimal one is a "fusion" of Sino-U.S. interests - sparked by their jointly defusing a looming war between Pakistan and India.
Operationalizing this convergence will not be easy. The Chinese have less reason to press Pakistan on militancy given its forthcoming assistance in clamping down on the group of greatest concern to Beijing: the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Here, the United States must flag to the Chinese the risk of "mission creep" by other more sophisticated militant groups based in Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba, a lethal terrorist group that has primarily targeted India, has also noted the mistreatment of Chinese Muslims in its manifesto, "Why We Wage Jihad." On Indo-Pak relations, China's role is complicated by its balancing strategy; border tensions with India; and Pakistan having ceded a portion of the disputed Kashmir territory to China in their 1963 boundary agreement over Indian objections, technically making China a party to the Kashmir dispute. Indeed, India strongly opposes Chinese involvement in South Asia, including a mere reference to U.S.-China cooperation in the region in a 2009 joint statement. However, its view might change if it perceived China to be playing a stabilizing role.
Despite a crowded agenda, the United States and China must think boldly at the highest levels about their strategic convergence in Pakistan. The administration should encourage Beijing to host the next meeting of the Friends of a Democratic Pakistan - revitalizing the group and widening China's role as a stakeholder in Pakistan. The process of putting together and hosting the meeting may nudge Beijing to more broadly assess its interests and exposure in Pakistan as U.S. engagement in the region scales back. Additionally, both sides should quietly consider a crisis-management and coordination mechanism on Pakistan - one that will require the State Department to think across traditionally siloed regional Bureaus.
A final lesson from history: citing Pakistan's pivotal backchannel role in the normalization of Sino-US relations, Premier Zhou En Lai subsequently remarked to Henry Kissinger that "the bridge that helped them cross (the divide)" must not be forgotten. As the Obama administration scales back in South Asia and rebalances to the Asia-Pacific, navigating new chasms with a rising China, Pakistan might yet again serve as a bridge.
Ziad Haider is an attorney at White & Case LLP and Co-Director of the Truman National Security Project's Asia Expert Group. He served as a White House Fellow in the US Department of Justice and a national security aide in the US Senate. Follow him on Twitter: @Asia_Hand.
As Americans try to make sense of the latest salvo of rhetoric coming out of Kabul, Afghans are also perturbed by confusion engulfing their country's prospects at a time when both sides are expected to soberly focus on immediate challenges, maintaining Afghanistan's stability, and making sure that America's longest war is not perceived as a defeat when the mission ends in 2014.
Instead, all sides are witnessing a gradual erosion of bilateral trust that can be traced back at least as far as the controversial 2009 Afghan presidential elections. President Hamid Karzai has alleged that Western powers were trying to undermine his candidacy, while Afghan politicians accused his campaign and each other of fraud.
Evolving perceptions of U.S. and Afghan intentions since then continue to spark both nations' suspicions, raise questions about respective motivations, increase casualty counts on all sides, and test the strategic partnership that is essential to a successful transition process encompassing the security, political and economic sectors.
Such conditions can become untenable and strengthen the agenda pursued by most Taliban and their regional extremist support network.
The latest controversy was sparked a few hours after twin suicide attacks in Kabul and Khost killed scores of civilians last week. During a speech on International Women's Day, President Karzai accused the United States and the Taliban of unintended collusion and of holding back-channel talks. Without offering further details, he suggested to the Taliban that their attacks will create a sense of insecurity that could end up prolonging the U.S./NATO engagement, and criticized the United States for holding secret talks with the insurgent group that do not involve him.
In a convoluted way, the Afghan president is trying to convince elements of the "patriotic Taliban" to step up and put a stop to the carnage that is hurting ordinary Afghans. It is also not clear what evidence exists that continued Taliban atrocities are what the U.S. and NATO governments desire in order to have an excuse to prolong their presence in Afghanistan. Karzai has failed to explain how such a scenario aligns with the ongoing talks his government is carrying out with the U.S. and others on the post-2014 presence of troops to fight terrorism and train and support Afghan forces.
In his comments, Karzai also claimed that Americans and other countries are eyeing different elements of Afghanistan's mineral reserves, which he said would be negotiated taking Afghan interests into account.
There may be an element of truth to the claims, but both the Taliban and U.S. officials denied the accusation and offered strikingly opposite commentary. Many Afghan pundits, including opposition political parties, were highly critical of the tirade, describing it as far-fetched and provocative.
A week later, in an interview broadcast in Kabul on Thursday, Karzai offered a more positive assessment of his relations with the United States, and said that his comments were not meant to be critical, but corrective.
Whether Karzai's rant was purposefully timed during the top Pentagon official's visit or not, Chuck Hagel's first visit as Secretary of Defense did not go as planned. He was hoping to resolve two outstanding issues: one regarding the transfer of prisoners to Afghan custody, and the other Karzai's recent demand that Special Operations forces be withdrawn from Wardak Province. Although discussions are ongoing, neither issue was resolved during the conversations that took place hours after Karzai's diatribe.
Some commentators floated the notion that Karzai was getting back at Hagel because of sharp comments that were attributed to the then-Senator in 2003 during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which President Karzai was grilled by U.S. lawmakers. Heads of state are not usually asked to testify before Congress, and the Afghan ambassador at the time was fired for erroneously scheduling the event, though Karzai's staff had previously approved the president's appearance before the Committee.
The issue that seems to have rattled Karzai the most, however, is linked to his suspicion that the U.S. government is undermining his lead on the peace process by holding secret talks with Taliban representatives.
Karzai is not entirely incorrect when he says that secret contacts are underway between U.S. intermediaries and high-flying Taliban representatives who are now "sipping coffee" with Westerners in the Gulf and Europe. However, he is wrong to assume that these contacts amount to negotiations on the future of the country. The American interlocutors are mostly go-betweens who advocate dialogue and may not have the full blessing of the American government.
The Taliban say they are interested in talking to the Americans about a prisoner exchange, which would also help boost their political credentials through interactions with the international community, whereas Washington is partly using the contacts to convince Taliban leaders to enter into talks with Kabul. With the Taliban adamant so far about not recognizing Karzai as a stakeholder, the U.S. effort should not be seen as counter-productive.
If one is to assume that the "patriotic Afghan Taliban" - as Karzai described them in a speech this week - are actually in touch with him, they are not responding in kind, preferring instead to remain anonymous, since none have dared to advocate a desire to enter into peace talks with Kabul yet. This means that the so-called reconcilable Taliban are either being restrained by their more extremist counterparts, are not in a position to engage right now, are not willing to recognize Kabul, or do not exist as at all.
On the issue of prisoner transfers from U.S. to Afghan custody, Karzai's weekend ultimatum was once again rejected, as U.S. officials expressed misgivings about dangerous individuals who they fear Afghan officials will release. Instead of discussing the merits of the process and arriving at a mutually acceptable solution, the two sides have so far stuck to their respective positions.
With regard to the demand that U.S. Special Forces vacate Wardak province after allegations of civilian mistreatment last month, Karzai's request has yet to take effect. With parts of the province under Taliban control, and Wardak serving as a strategic entry point into Kabul, American officers, local leaders and even Afghan security officials have questioned the validity of the demand. So far, neither side has offered a mutually satisfactory solution that would not jeopardize the security situation and put the capital at risk.
Following the weekend outbursts, Karzai's spokesman lamented that the President is not taken seriously when he demands that his Western allies take practical steps to address all contentious issues, especially his demand for exerting more pressure on Pakistan, seen by Kabul as backing Afghan Taliban efforts.
Regardless of their actual origin, Karzai's pointed accusations nowadays are part venting, part drama and mostly motivated by political calculus. They are undoubtedly also intended to influence the upcoming presidential elections and the legacy Karzai wants to leave behind when he steps down in 2014.
However, his excessive use of the public pulpit - instead of diplomatic and political channels - could reduce the effectiveness of his overtures. This type of in-your-face politics may not win him many converts in Afghanistan, or help realize his political aspirations.
What is less apparent to Karzai and his politically motivated cronies is the public relations impact in Western nations, as well as the strategic communications bonanza that such rhetoric provides to his domestic and regional detractors.
Although Karzai is justified in the eyes of many Afghans when he complains about civilian casualties and chastises the West for waging war in Afghan villages instead of pursuing terrorist in their hideouts in the tribal regions of Pakistan, his choice of venue, rhetoric and timing undermines the real intention.
Provocative claims not only exacerbate public confusion, but they also dampen support for the Afghan mission in troop-contributing nations where questions about further engagement already abound.
Contrary to the delusional belief within Karzai's inner-circle that the West needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the West, the country cannot afford to alienate those who have contributed to the positive changes that have taken place over the past decade, and who are committed to continue to help beyond 2014.
This is not to say that mistakes were not made over the years, that certain strategic and tactical decisions were not erroneous, or that Western policies have all been thoughtful. There is enough blame to be shared on all sides, but now is not the time to engage in finger pointing or scoring points.
At the same time, Afghan sensitivities that are known to benefit the armed opposition need to be taken into account, as all sides need to engage in more coordination and trust building, and aim for solutions to technical or legal concerns.
However, if Karzai's intention is to engage in political flirtation with America's enemies, either in the hope of becoming the peacemaker or to be remembered as the nationalist who accelerated the Western withdrawal, his plan could backfire and end up damaging his domestic political base. Many Afghans consider the core Taliban (with the exception of some who are not in a position to act) as a pariah radical group supported by hardline regional actors. By alienating his base, there is a risk that Karzai could become a weak lame-duck president earlier than expected.
What Afghan leaders need to be reminded of is that hardcore Taliban and regional detractors are the beneficiaries of fractured domestic politics and incoherent international relations. There are powerful networks in the region (and some within the country) that want to destabilize the country and damage Afghan relations with the international community. Those are detrimental for stability and the transitions Afghanistan and many others are facing over the next two years.
This delicate situation requires better management of frustration and rhetoric on both sides in order to accomplish the goal of meaningful strategic partnership.
Omar Samad is President of Silkroad Consulting. He was Afghan Ambassador to Canada (2004-2009) and France (2009-2011), and Spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistan's new engagement in efforts to find a peaceful end to the conflict in Afghanistan has been received with optimism in the West. In just the past month, members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council visited Islamabad for discussions with Pakistani officials, Pakistan Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Kabul to sign an agreement on border security, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasool visited Islamabad for talks, and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khan met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Brussels to discuss their cooperation on counterterrorism in the region.
However, a deeper look at Pakistan's recent behavior reveals that these events may represent more of a change of tactics than a change of mind. Admittedly, the ethnic divisions, widespread corruption, and weak central government that plague Afghanistan also have Pakistan worried about a failing government in its backyard. It is possible that a focus strategic depth really has been overpowered by this looming threat. But it is more likely that the government of Pakistan still clings to the long-held strategic depth objectives, while choosing now to take a more indirect approach to reaching it.
With the 2014 withdrawal of NATO combat troops from Afghanistan looming, Pakistani officials now say they just want to be recognized and given a seat at the negotiation table with the Taliban and other Afghan factions.
But at the same time, of course, Pakistan also still wants to minimize India's presence and restrict its increasing influence in Afghanistan in the future. Since the 1960s, when the doctrine of "strategic depth" was first developed, Pakistan -- both right and wrongly -- has been obsessed with addressing its paranoia of Indian-Afghan encirclement. The Pakistani government now seems to be downplaying the security-centric goal of strategic depth, though this should not be taken to mean that Pakistan has abandoned this ultimate aim.
"The post-withdrawal Afghanistan should not be an enemy, if it is not going to be a friend," says a diplomatic source referring to the strategic depth doctrine of Pakistan's security establishment.
There are reasons behind this apparent change in tactics. Pakistani policy makers have now come to believe, with a heavy heart, that a Taliban-led regime like the one before 2001 in Afghanistan is an unrealistic dream.
Persistent U.S. drone strikes, with or without the consent of the Pakistani government, have forced Pakistan to come to terms with the reality that modern technology has now replaced the conventional means of hot pursuit, and it is far easier for the United States or other powers to target their enemies without sending ground troops.
And, the United States has adopted silence over the sticky issue of asking Pakistan to conduct military operations against the dreaded Haqqanis in North Waziristan, while the hardliners in the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) in Pakistan have gone into hibernation and adopted silence over drone attacks.
To give credence to the impression of shedding the strategic depth policy, Pakistan recently freed several Taliban prisoners, while another batch, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who has reportedly established contacts with the Afghan government, may also be freed shortly if the United States agrees.
Now, the Pakistani side seems to be confronted with two key questions regarding stability in Afghanistan after 2014, and the future of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Although Pakistan has been persuaded through the ‘carrot and stick' approach not to be a spoiler if it is not going to buttress the peace process, policy makers in Islamabad are weighing their options in a divided Afghanistan, not geographically but on ethnic and factional basis.
In the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Pakistan sees a Taliban-controlled south, Haqqanis leading in the south-east, and the rest of Afghanistan under the non-Pashtuns -- led by ethnic Tajiks. In this scenario, Pakistan will get a secured border even though the government in Kabul remains hostile (in other words pro-India).
In this way, Pakistan will not only ensure its influence in the strategically important southeastern part of Afghanistan, but could also push the TTP and other Pakistan-based militant groups, including the Kashmir-focused jihadis, into the Haqqani- and Taliban- controlled parts of Afghanistan.
Before 2001, the Kashmir-focused jihadi groups had established bases and training camps in the areas that Pakistan expects to come under the influence of Haqqanis in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. Those regions could house sleeper cells of Kashmiri fighters, whom Pakistan could later use as a balancing factor in case of Indian support for Baloch independence-seekers.
The Afghan Taliban spokesman, however, in a December 18, 2012 interview with the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) said they would never accept a divided Afghanistan. Quoting the Taliban spokesman Zabeehullah Mujahid, AIP said "we will not allow anyone to implement methods of disintegration in Afghanistan." The spokesman added that their ‘jihad' was meant for full control of the country rather than struggling for a particular part or chunk of land.
Informed sources told this writer that during recent negotiations, both the U.S. and Afghan sides assured their Pakistani counterparts that due consideration would be given to their concerns about the future Afghan government and the Indian role.
"Now Pakistan's response is wait and see. The Pakistani side has placed some concerns and conditions on the table and watching what is being picked and what is left by the Americans and the Afghan side," said a parliamentarian involved with a few round of meetings.
"The recent Taliban release was Pakistan's goodwill gesture. The next step will be taken when the Pakistani side sees some ‘positive' development," added the lawmaker. A number of observers in Islamabad are of the view that the release of Mullah Baradar is that ‘next step,' which will be taken after the desired ‘progress'.
The other important decision for Pakistan is the role it will play with regard to the TTP and other militant groups after 2014. On December 4, 2012, a senior provincial official told the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa cabinet that "we should not expect an end to the ongoing Taliban attacks in Pakistan with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan." The provincial government has limited options: it can either accept the Taliban by holding talks with them and attempting to bring them into mainstream politics with a give-and-take approach, or it can try to root them out with the use of force.
However, the thinking in Islamabad is somewhat optimistic. It is believed that the Haqqanis will return to areas under their influence in eastern Afghanistan like Khost, Paktia and Paktika, while their local allies and the pro-Pakistan militants led by Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadar will either merge in the tribal society or join their brothers in arms across the border.
And as and when needed, they could be used by Pakistan to browbeat the Indians and the government in Kabul, or keep the Pashtun nationalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan in check. In the past few years, the nationalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA have frequently been the target of Taliban attacks.
As for the TTP, it is believed that the group will lose its moral ground for fighting against the Pakistani government and security forces once international forces leave Afghanistan. The number of their sympathizers will drop which will affect their recruitment, training and missions. The rest will be done through decapitation of the leading figures to shatter its organizational structure.
However, this is the most simplistic view of the TTP, which has humbled the Pakistani security establishment by launching daring attacks in high security zones all over the country with the help of its al-Qaeda, IMU and sectarian allies. Besides, the mishandling of the word Jihad, either knowingly or unknowingly on the part of the country's security establishment, has created a Taliban mindset in the new generation who could be easily provoked in the name of religion - thanks to the weakening economy, poor governance and justice system, rampant corruption and non-availability of social services.
Unfortunately, neither the democratically elected government, nor the powerful military establishment has so far hinted at any strategy for de-radicalization. Instead, policy makers, as usual, are obsessed with their external relations and reputations. With no rational approach on how to deal with the post-withdrawal militancy scenario, the scourge of radicalism and terrorism will continue to haunt both Afghanistan and Pakistan even if we assume for a while a successful withdrawal and peaceful handover of authority in Afghanistan.
Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. Khattak has worked with Pakistan's English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan's Pajhwok Afghan News, and has also written for Christian Science Monitor and London's Sunday Times. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
With a second term assured, President Barack Obama has a shot at making a huge difference in greater South Asia, an opportunity that he failed to take in his first term. This may now be the time for a new hyphenation across the map of that critical part of the globe: bringing together a string of countries ranging from Iran, through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Bangladesh. For this may be the center of gravity of Asian stability and growth in the next couple of decades, if the United States and its partners get their policies right. But first, the President needs to create a center of gravity for decision making on this region in his own Administration, reaching across the aisle and bringing in new blood to rejuvenate his efforts to bring peace. Then he must help create a network among the nations of this region that is based on their own self-interests and from which the United States would profit immeasurably.
The President could use the emerging forces of democracy, gender equality, and civilian supremacy rather than military might as the catalysts for change in the region. No carrots or sticks, but moral suasion, applied quietly and confidently to help these countries build confidence amongst themselves.
India is perhaps the most critical part of this new opportunity. Under a Prime Minister who has dared to think of peace and normalcy even with arch enemy Pakistan, India needs to be encouraged to open its borders to its neighbors for trade and travel, opening far wider the door that has been cracked open in recent months. A paranoid Pakistan that fears hot borders on the east and the west could be helped to get over its concerns. Pakistan must recognize that it is in its own interest to create normalcy with its neighbors, for it cannot afford to continue on the path of military or economic competition, especially with India. Rather, it can catapult its economy to new heights by becoming a regional partner. The United States could also bring together support for strengthening Pakistan's recent overtures to all Afghans, not just the contiguous Pakhtuns, whom Pakistan wrongly saw in the past as its assets.. There are signs that Pakistan is prepared to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan. Much could be done to support that trend by helping open trade and power (gas and hydroelectricity) routes to central Asia. In both these countries, civil society and civilian governments are the key to progress and stability. Pluralism, gender equality, education, and health may be the foundation stones to help them gain their footing as democracies.
This means shifting the focus of expenditures from guns to butter over time. The United States has a great position in that regard, as a strategic partner to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India for the time in history. It can also open the door to engagement with Iran by bringing Iran back to the table on Afghanistan's future stability. By helping create regional ownership for Afghanistan's future it can find a way to exit gracefully from the region. India, again, will be key in creating transparency in its relations with Afghanistan to help Pakistan overcome its suspicions of being hemmed in on both sides.
The region has been ready for some time to create an atmosphere of trust, though much remains to be done on the issues of cross-border terrorism and non-state actors. Civil society groups have started benefiting from the opening of trade relations and visa regimes. The current limited transit trade arrangements need to be extended from Kabul to Dhaka. The cross pollination of ideas -- especially among the burgeoning youthful populations of the region - and the greater involvement of women in their societies, will help ensure that there is no slipping back toward obscurantist thinking of the past. Those positive trends are growing and cannot be turned back, come what may.
President Obama can ride these emerging waves to truly earn his Nobel Prize of four years ago by helping bring lasting peace to greater South Asia. Perhaps he could start by visiting two border posts in the first few months of his second term: Wagah, where India meets Pakistan, and Torkham, where Afghanistan and Pakistan meet, and calling for keeping the gates that now close daily to remain open forever. This would be a grand legacy for the 44th president of the United States.
Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
A beat was missed on U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon's late July visit to Beijing. Described in the Chinese press as a "fire extinguisher visit," it came as tensions continue to ratchet up in the South China Sea and the United States continues to butt heads with China over Iran, Syria and theoretical war plans. These disputes obscure the one area with scope for much greater cooperation between China and the United States: Afghanistan. Building on mutual goals in Afghanistan could have a positive effect on the overall relationship, showing that the distance between the two sides is not the Pacific-sized gulf that it is sometimes made out to be.
In discussions with Chinese officials about their objectives, the uniform answer is "a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan." This is almost identical to answers given by their American counterparts. That said, there is a difference in tone that reflects the underlying concerns that craft it.
For Beijing, Afghanistan is primarily a domestic problem. With a common border in the sometimes lawless Wakhan Corridor, what happens in Afghanistan can potentially spill over into some of China's most sensitive spots. This past spring, we visited China's border in Wakhan and witnessed the ease with which militants or smugglers can cross over. Even if trouble from Afghanistan does not cross directly into Chinese territory it is likely to have a destabilizing effect in Central Asia to the north, and Pakistan to the south. China has invested heavily in both, and both have strong trade and cultural links to China's underdeveloped and at times restive Xinjiang province. Beijing's interest in Afghanistan turning out positively is first and foremost about China's internal cohesion.
For Washington, the problem of Afghanistan is physically far away. The decision has been made to withdraw all combat troops by 2014, so the discussion is no longer what to do about the country, but how to exit in a dignified manner. What security concerns the United States continues to have will be covered by the residual force left behind, but the overriding priority is for the draw down from Afghanistan to not descend into chaos as soon as the majority of American and NATO forces leave. In our recent visit to Kabul, we could not help but note the principal focus of U.S. officials on this one goal. Washington's interest in Afghanistan turning out positively is about leaving behind a country more hopeful than when U.S. forces arrived.
This clear confluence has led American diplomats to encourage their Chinese counterparts to invest in Afghanistan's future. Beijing has responded in its own way. Chinese state owned enterprises (SOEs) have invested in a copper mine southeast of Kabul at Mes Aynak and an oil field in Amu Darya. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is seriously looking into a trans-Afghan natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China that does not necessarily rival U.S.-backed plans for a similar line to Pakistan and India.
China's engagement is not only economic. It made Afghanistan an ‘observer' member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at its June summit. While in Beijing, President Karzai also signed a strategic partnership agreement with his Chinese counterpart. Last week, China's Central Military Commission publically called for closer ties with the Afghan Defense Ministry.
There is also increasing evidence of low-profile cooperation with the United States on the ground in Afghanistan. There have been joint U.S.-China training programs for Afghan diplomats, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton providing a recorded message to open one session. Beijing has also indicated that it would be willing to provide counter-terrorism training for Afghan forces, coordinated with U.S. efforts. Chinese officials we spoke to in Beijing and Kabul were quick to downplay their potential role in the future of Afghanistan. But, their actions show that they understand the regional implications of the looming U.S. withdrawal.
A neighbor will always be more aware of the blighted house next door than will someone living across town. The limited collaboration between American and Chinese officials on the ground in Afghanistan is a pragmatic and sensible step. Their principals in Beijing and Washington should support them by discussing the modalities of a partnership for Afghanistan's future.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Their joint research can be found at www.chinaincentralasia.com.
The July 31 U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing for ambassadors-designate Richard Olson (for Pakistan) and James Cunningham (for Afghanistan) exemplified the contradictory nature of U.S. relations with Pakistan. The foreign policies of the two countries are at irreconcilable cross purposes, which may converge in time, but not in the foreseeable future.
At the outset of the hearing, John Kerry, the committee's chairman, acknowledged that Pakistanis have suffered greatly in the fight against terror, and also underlined that "Pakistan remains central to what happens in Afghanistan." Ambassador-designate Richard Olson echoed Kerry's remarks, saying, "I don't have to tell you how important Pakistan is to the United States."
Later, Olson responded positively when asked about Pakistan military's doctrine of "strategic depth" (a concept in which Pakistan uses Afghanistan as an instrument of strategic security in ongoing tensions with India by attempting to control Afghanistan as a pawn for its own political purposes).
"My sense is that the Pakistani military and Pakistani government has moved away from [strategic depth]," the ambassador argued, probably drawing cues from Pakistan's gradually expanding dialogue with arch-rival India. Most of the Western skepticism of Pakistan's role in Afghanistan has been embedded in distrust of the so-called doctrine of strategic depth, a dynamic which outside observers have been reluctant to acknowledge is changing for the better.
However, Ambassador Olson also reaffirmed the United States' concern about the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, describing it as "one of the toughest challenges that the U.S. faces." Olson's characterization only reaffirms the long-held view that the Haqqanis must remain a priority of the U.S. security establishment for their part in several deadly suicide bombings in and around Kabul since 2008. The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill requiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to report to Congress on whether the Haqqani Network should be designated a foreign terrorist organization, and if not, why.
But according to a recent New York Times report, based on one senior American official's estimate, Haqqani operations account for one-tenth of the attacks on ISAF troops, and perhaps 15 percent of casualties.
The NYT quoted a senior Obama administration official as saying "I am not convinced there is a command-and-control relationship between the ISI and those attacks." Yet the storm gathering around the Haqqani Network, believed to be holed up in North Waziristan as a protective umbrella for al-Qaeda Central, betrays the American security establishment's unease with the group. It also points to a future course of action in which Americans may zero in on the Haqqanis as the single largest source of instability in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Network is credited with just about ten percent of the total attacks on U.S. and ISAF forces.
And herein lies Pakistan's predicament; its ties with some non-state actors, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, as well as the India-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), undermine its foreign relations.
These groups sit at the heart of Pakistan's rocky relationship with the United States, Afghanistan and India. The former two view the Haqqani Network as the biggest impediment to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. The latter considers Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that staged multiple deadly attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, to be an existential threat.
But as far the Pakistani security establishment is concerned, these militant groups have long served as valuable foreign policy instruments. And since Islamabad's Afghanistan policy is not contingent upon America's desired endgame in the war-torn country, declaring a total divorce from these outfits seems improbable under the current circumstances.
This raises the possibility of these groups periodically rocking the Pakistan-U.S. alliance through terror strikes. This begs the question: can the United States -- and India in particular -- decouple their dialogue with Pakistan from terrorist strikes attributed to the Haqqanis or Lashkar-e-Taiba?
Probably not. And this constitutes the basis for the difficulties ahead; unless both Washington and New Delhi can see visible signs of "change of mind" in Islamabad and Rawalpindi (where the military establishment is headquartered), they will keep prompting Pakistan to safeguard their "security interests" by disassociating with the Haqqanis and Lashkar-e-Taiba, ratcheting up pressure on Pakistan in whatever way possible, thereby disallowing the creation of a true U.S.-Pakistan alliance.
That is why former ambassador Husain Haqqani advises both Pakistan and the United States to focus on being friends rather than "allies" because "deviating national [security] interests" run contrary to the basics of an alliance. The focus, he said, should be more on trade, engagement among civil society groups and politicians. In Amb. Haqqani's opinion, creating economic and civil society linkages promises greater security than a security partnership that has consistently been characterized by mutual suspicion and distrust.
Pressures stemming from domestic politics -- the upcoming Presidential election in the United States this November, and the political turmoil in anticipation of a general election in Pakistan later this year -- essentially rule out a quick convergence of two conflicting narratives. A gradual but substantial build-up in mutual trust in the months ahead looks impossible, too; Pakistan is not likely to crack down on the Haqqani Network the way Washington proposes. Nor does Pakistan hold sway over other partners of the Haqqanis, like Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
While foreign expectations that Pakistan might serve as a bridge between this tripodal insurgency and the Kabul regime may not be entirely realistic, it still should not prevent Islamabad from reshaping its national security paradigm in a way so as to earn the trust of the international community. One of the requirements would of course be to alter the nature of its relations with non-state Pakistani and Afghan actors.
Top-most Pakistani civilian and military officials say the change is underway, but it is not, however, going to happen overnight. We must keep our volatile socio-political context in mind, they insist.
History dictates that the United States, while pursuing its long-term geo-political objectives, should openly acknowledge the policy changes in Pakistan, the way ambassador Olson did before the Senate Committee. This will give Islamabad more confidence to continue the policy-fixing -- if not transformation -- path, and thus create space for a more productive engagement.
Officials at Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs insist that this would also mean that unless the United States recognizes the compulsions that geography and the cross-border demography places on Pakistan, and until the country is allowed to fashion relations with countries such as Iran in its own way, the path forward will remain fraught with bickering and disagreements.
Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the forthcoming book Pakistan: Before and After Osama, Roli Books, India.