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Afghanistan’s talking cure

Posted by seumasach on January 20, 2010

Qaribur Rahman Saeed

Asia Times

21st January, 2010

The upcoming London Conference on Afghanistan must seize the opportunity to bring warring sides together instead of escalating the presence of international troops. Negotiating channels are open and could produce a lasting peace for the beleaguered nation.

Representatives of the 43 nations in the International Security Assistance Force of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan meet on January 28 against the backdrop of 2009 being the deadliest year for civilians and military personnel since international forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001. The 2,412 civilian deaths recorded last year were 14% higher than in 2008, according to the UN. The independent icasualties.org reports 520 military coalition deaths last year, 76% more than in 2008 and more than three times the number of soldiers killed in Iraq in 2009.

In the eight years since international forces began their occupation, there has been little change in the lives of ordinary people. Half the population lives under the poverty line and, according to some reports, bitterly cold weather in some provinces is currently adding to their perils.

Corruption and inefficiency among senior officials on one hand, and the malicious designs and ill intentions of the bureaucracy and drug-mafia on the other, have jeopardized good governance. Expectations that President Hamid Karzai’s re-election would bring political change were soured by his presentation of the same faces with the same agenda and background in a new cabinet line-up.

Afghans paid US$2.5 billion in bribes over the past 12 months, or the equivalent of almost one quarter of legitimate economic production, according to a UN report this week.

An attack on buildings in Kabul on Monday added to fatalities, with five people killed and 71 injured, the BBC reported. Three Afghan soldiers and two civilians, including a child, were killed. Officials said none of the attackers, who were said to be Taliban, survived. “It will cast a shadow over the international conference in London next week,” Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai told the BBC.

The channels for a peaceful solution between conflicting sides in Afghanistan are open and available. At this very time, contacts have been established and views exchanged between delegations of the Kabul regime and opposition parties. According to sources close to opposition party Hezb-e-Islami, at the request of the regime, the party will send a high-level delegation to the capital for deliberations with “internal and external” sides. An informal Taliban delegation already exists in Kabul.

In his swearing-in ceremony in November, Karzai said he would call for a Loya Jirga – a gathering of regional leaders and tribal chiefs – to find the solution to the conflict.

However, the call for a Loya Jirga will be more useful if the participation of opposition parties is ensured. Calling such a meeting without consent of the opposition will be a waste of time and money. Participation will be possible if the international community shows a pure intent for the real solution.

Many expectations prior to US President Barack Obama’s announcement late last year of a new strategy for Afghanistan were shattered by the announcement itself. Many Afghans had predicted that Obama would take a wise decision that would save innocent lives as well as those of uniformed men and women sent to the beleaguered country. However, with one hand on the Nobel peace prize and a loaded rifle in the other, he said he would send 30,000 troops more troops into the battlefield. The brutality of American-led troops in the Narang District of Kunar province in the deaths of 10 villagers, including eight children, in December defamed Obama’s message. Had he more moral courage, he would have returned the Nobel peace prize to the Norwegians.

For the time being, more than 110,000 foreign troops are on Afghanistan soil, and a planned surge of 30,000 more US soldiers and 6,800 from other NATO member states by late 2010 makes the withdrawal of foreign forces seem far away.

The killing of innocent people in the past as well as in recent days has caused a rift between Karzai and the NATO alliance. While innocent lives continue to be lost through NATO operations, the gulf will widen. The Afghan president has condemned the killings in Kunar and has promised to investigate.

Civilian deaths in coalition air strikes are a contentious issue in Afghanistan. US commanders have made protecting civilians a top priority in the new American war strategy aimed at countering the Taliban. Western generals announced an increase in the size of the so-called Afghan National Army (ANA) and the police force to make them capable of defending against militant attacks.

However, the composition of the ANA itself has led to a loss of confidence of the majority Pashtoon tribes in the country. According to the available data, around 70% of the personal are from the Northern Alliance, itself the creator of instability in Pashtoon-settled provinces. The composition of the police is the same. The language of the army also has been changed, resulting in Pashtoons who don’t know the other language not daring to go to either army or police. ANA and police in Pashtoon areas are also conducting operations more brutal than NATO forces, according to locals.

Confidence between the Afghan army and foreign troops is meanwhile diminishing. According to some reports, Afghan police or military personnel have staged incidents in which their mentors have been killed. In one report, an Afghan soldier on December 29 opened fire on US-led forces, killing an American and injuring two Italians. In early November, an Afghan policeman killed five British soldiers at a checkpoint in Helmand province. Two American soldiers were fatally shot in a similar incident in March. The frequency of such attacks points to resentment among Afghan soldiers at the US-led military presence, according to analysts.

Meanwhile, the continuous resentment about the foreign military presence in Afghanistan is causing NATO countries to rethink plans for sending more troops. Germany and France may even withdraw. Support in the US is falling and the British government is under huge pressure to withdraw.

As new troops pack their bags for the war in Afghanistan, a new poll shows that a majority of Canadians say the eight-year conflict is not winnable. The Ipso Reid survey found 66% of Canadians polled disagreed that “the build-up of troops will ultimately create a military victory over the Taliban”.

Experts have warned that the surge in US troops will lead to more battles and more deaths among foreign soldiers and Afghan civilians. Most US and European analysts are of the view that the conflict cannot be won by increasing the foreign military presence alone.

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has proposed talks with “moderate” Taliban groups and has suggested that a new NATO strategy should make greater distinctions between insurgents in Afghanistan.

“One will have to think about … what Henry Kissinger called ‘communications channels’. Not every insurgent is of equal danger to Western society,” zu Guttenberg told Welt am Sonntag newspaper. “There are differences between the groups in Afghanistan that radically oppose anything Western and whose goal it is to fight our culture and those that are simply immersed in their own, local culture.”

Talks with moderate Taliban could be constructive, “so long as one doesn’t set oneself a trap,” he said.

Meanwhile, the number of Germans who oppose the Bundeswehr’s mission to Afghanistan is increasing. According to a new ARD-Deutschlandtrend survey, some 69% of Germans favor withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Only 27% believe that Bundeswehr troops should stay, a drop of 10 percentage points since the last survey in September. The survey also revealed that more than three-quarters of Germans no longer trust their government to provide “full and honest” information about the Afghanistan mission.

Opinions on the political process are divided, with reportedly severe differences about upcoming parliamentary elections between the Afghan government and its international supporters. US congressmen have urged Karzai to delay the next parliamentary ballot until electoral reforms are in place, reports say.

The Afghan government is determined to hold legislative elections in May and will pick up the bill if the international community refuses to pay, the president’s office said on Tuesday.

Hopefully, the London gathering for Afghanistan will not ignore that eight years of military occupation of Afghanistan have failed to produce peace and will take the peace proposals of the opposition parties seriously. When peace and security prevails, then everything is possible for Afghanistan to rebuild.

Qaribur Rahman Saeed is an Afghan politician and former Afghan diplomat. He can be contacted at qrsaeed@hotmail.com

(Copyright 2010 Qaribur Rahman Saeed.)

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