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No End in Sight to the War-Spawned Chaos Engulfing Afghanistan

The war has been awful for all involved--and without peace negotiations, it will stay that way.

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The tactic of “shooting and talking,” central to the surge, has produced lots of casualties but virtually zero dialogue—hardly a surprise. That approach has never worked in Afghanistan.

Part of the problem is that the call for talks is so heavily laden with caveats and restrictions—among them that the Taliban must accept the 2004 constitution and renounce violence and “terrorism”—that it derails any possibility of real negotiations.

However, Taliban leaders argue that the 2004 constitution was imposed from the outside, and they want a role in re-writing it. And they denounced international terrorism five years ago.

As Anatol Lieven—a King’s College London professor, senior researcher at the New American Foundation, and probably the best informed English-language writer on Afghanistan—points out, Americans consistently paint themselves into a corner by demonizing their opponents.

That, in turn, leads to “a belief that any enemy of the United States must inevitably be evil. Not only does this tendency make pragmatic compromises with opponents much more difficult (and much more embarrassing should they eventually be reached), but, consciously or unconsciously it allows the US government and media to blind the US public, and often themselves, to the evils of America’s own allies.”

For instance, the United States will not talk with the Haqqani group, a Taliban ally, even though it is the most effective military force confronting the NATO occupation. The same goes for Iran, even though Teheran played a key role in organizing the 2003 Bonn conference that led to the formation of the current Kabul government.

Iran also has legitimate interests in the current war. Because opium and heroin are not a major problem in the United States, Washington can afford to turn a blind eye to the Afghan government’s alliance with drug dealing warlords. Heroin addiction, however, constitutes a national health crisis in Iran and Russia.

It is not exactly clear what will happen in 2014. While American combat units are supposed to be withdrawn, in accordance with a  treaty between NATO and the government of President Harmid Karzai, several thousand U.S. Special Forces, military trainers, CIA personnel, and aircraft will remain on nine bases until 2024. That agreement was the supposed reason for the massive suicide bomb May 16 in Kabul that killed 6 Americans and 16 Afghans.  Hezb-i-Islami, an insurgent group based around Kabul and the eastern part of the country, took credit for the attack.

That attack underlines how difficult it will be to forge some kind of agreement.

Hezb-i-Islami pulled off the bombing, but the party’s political wing is a major player in the Karzai government, with its members holding down the posts of education minister and advisor to the president. Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also a rival of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and the bombing could just as well have been a maneuver to make sure Hezb-i-Islami has a seat at the table if talks start up. Hekmatyar has offered to negotiate with NATO in the past.

The Taliban itself is divided into several factions, partly because the Americans’ systematic assassinations of high- and mid-level Taliban leaders have decentralized the organization. The Taliban is increasingly an alliance of local groups that may have very different politics.

The Haqqanis have a strong presence in Pakistan, which requires that the organization maintain cordial relations with Pakistan’s Army and intelligence services. They scratch each other’s backs. So any understanding to end the war will have to be acceptable to the Haqqanis and Islamabad. No agreement is possible without the participation of both.

Instead of recognizing the reality of the situation, however, the Obama administration continues to ignore the powerful Haqqanis, sideline Iran, and to alienate the average Pakistani though its drone war.

 
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