After U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Marc Grossman’s visit to the Gulf States, India and Afghanistan this week, there has been a lot of talk and speculation about the American decision to start talks with the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani media—both print and electronic—is rife with stories, with some analysts claiming it represents acknowledgment of the extent of American hubris and others quick to insist that it was inevitable that the Americans would leave Afghanistan.
Secret talks and negotiations between the US government and the Afghan Taliban began in November 2011. However, it is only recently that the US government has acknowledged these talks. US officials have repeatedly asserted that the talks would be “Afghan-led” and would be combined with confidence building measures like the Taliban opening an office in Qatar and renouncing terrorism in exchange for the release of some Taliban members from Guantanamo Bay.
In order to understand the American decision we need to look at it in the context of some important issues. It needs to be placed in the context of policy statements made not only by President Barack Obama but also his senior officials, like Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, that while the United States is going to remain a military power it is no longer going to maintain its ability to wage two major conflicts at one time. While this does not mean that the US will not be able to deter a second adversary if it is already fighting one at the time, the reduction in defense expenditure means that adjustments need to be made.
This was evident in the attempt for the last year or so by the Obama administration to encourage American allies, whether NATO or non-NATO, to shoulder some of the burden of policing their regions. This was evident during the Libya conflict, during the East Asia Summit and during the recent US-Australia strategic talks.
However, this does not mean that the US will no longer be interested in Asia; instead the opposite is true. President Obama has repeatedly stated that ties with Asia are critical and the US will continue to maintain its presence in Asia. During his trips to East, South and South East Asia President Obama has emphasized that while the US will remain engaged, it also hopes its regional partners will play their role.
Moving from the global context to the regional context, what we see is that the Obama administration tried for the last three years to build a relationship with Pakistan that was not limited to certain specific issues but had a broader long-term strategic dimension as well. The hope was that this strategic relationship would help resolve Pakistan’s fears vis-a-vis its neighbors, especially India and Afghanistan, and about American intentions towards Pakistan and the region. This in turn would help in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan, in joint cooperation while dealing with the radical Islamist groups operating in the region and provide the Americans with a way to maintain strategic ties with region, albeit with a reduced military presence.
Unfortunately this has not happened. And a decision seems to have been made within the US administration that a limited tactical engagement is the preferred way to go once again. The fact that when Pakistan shut down the land routes to NATO, the US preferred to use the more costly and arduous northern routes to access Afghanistan than to ‘make quick peace’ with Pakistan reflects a decision by certain quarters of the American administration to send a message: that America does not need Pakistan as much as Pakistani leaders believe America does. Similarly, while there has been a decline in the drone attacks, because the Americans are desirous of not wanting to destabilize the already weak civilian government any further, these attacks have not completely stopped either.
If we now move to American domestic politics, what we see is that with presidential elections due later this year, a weak economy and high unemployment and growing disenchantment with foreign engagement within the American populace the Obama administration is keen to find ways to reduce American military footprint abroad.
The decision to hold talks with the Afghan Taliban has not been taken because American strategists and policymakers now consider the Taliban as representative of the Pashtuns. There are some American analysts who do but there are many others who do not. According to Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings Institution, the key question for the United States and the international community is “whether they can establish the security and economic superstructures necessary to improve governance in Afghanistan.”
Richard Weitz, defense analyst at Hudson Institute, argues in a recent piece in The Diplomat, that while setting up an office and having legitimate interlocutors is important, it is “only the first step of many that will be needed for a viable and durable Afghan peace settlement. And, despite recent positive developments, the odds are still against one.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated, “We don’t have any idea standing here today what the outcome of such discussions could be. I think all of us are entering into it with a very realistic sense of what is possible.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has expressed support for the peace process but the Pentagon is equally focused on applying pressure on the Afghan Taliban, the Al Qaeda and affiliated groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Soon after a video that showed American marines urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan surfaced in the media, Secretary Panetta promised “an exhaustive investigation” and expressed concern that “this kind of video can be misused in many ways to undermine what we are trying to do in Afghanistan and the possibility of reconciliation.”
The decision to hold talks is one of realpolitik: the issue of finding a mutually satisfactory way for the US to reduce its military footprint in Afghanistan and yet maintain some presence which guards American strategic interests in the region and beyond. While Iraq was portrayed as President George W Bush’s war, Afghanistan has often been portrayed as President Obama’s war. While President Obama is not going to be the president who lost Afghanistan, he faces the tough task of finding a way out with honor and dignity and as few American lives lost as possible.
Former Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was tasked with the unenviable job of trying to build a strategic partnership with Pakistan and with Afghanistan. The current incumbent, Ambassador Marc Grossman, both because of events which occurred in the first half of 2011 and because of growing American disenchantment, was tasked with trying to build a more limited engagement and with focusing more on reconciliation and rehabilitation within Afghanistan.
The decision for talks with the Afghan Taliban is part of a broader process which includes continued developmental aid for Afghanistan, support for democracy and democratic institutions in the country, encouragement of international and regional support for Afghanistan and a gradual military drawdown starting in 2012 and continuing till 2014. The US is currently negotiating a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan and hopes to have this ready as soon as possible unlike in the case of Iraq.
While the US and Pakistan have often disagreed on issues there has been a dangerous slowdown in interactions starting with the May 2, 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden and especially after the November 26, 2011 killing of Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan refused to participate in the Bonn conference on Afghanistan in early December 2011 and also shut down its land routes to NATO supplies for Afghanistan. The two countries have not had any detailed talks since end-November as Pakistan is currently re-evaluating its foreign policy, especially its relationship with the US. All this is happening in the context of new crises for the civilian government including a confrontation with the judiciary and the security establishment.
There is a growing belief on the American side that the US and Pakistan are not going to see eye-to-eye on Afghanistan, on the Afghan Taliban and other allied groups operating in the region and on India’s role in Afghanistan and the region. There will, however, still be limited counter terrorism cooperation, mainly with respect to some factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Al Qaeda as well as economic and development related aid.
Pakistan’s strategists and policymakers have always sought a pro-Pakistan Afghan government and their cultivation of radical Islamist groups like the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and their allies lies in the belief that these groups would be proxies or assets of Pakistan within Afghanistan. Pakistan’s security establishment has always sought a role in any talks with Afghan groups, whether it be during the 1980s and 1990s or in 2011-2012.
The American administration is going ahead both with talks as well as with limited operations and drone attacks. It is understandable that the civilian government, primarily for domestic reasons, has to assert its independence by demonstrating periodically that it can ‘stand up’ to the Americans, but if Pakistan’s leaders and strategists want to guard their national interests in the region, especially in Afghanistan, it is imperative that they participate in the American-backed talks with the Afghan Taliban. Staying out of these talks or throwing a spanner in these talks by supporting their proxies is not the way responsible countries behave.