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Can a Civil War in Afghanistan be Prevented?

Paper No. 5533                                       Dated 23-Jul-2013

By Bhaskar Roy

The clock on Afghanistan will not stop ticking to give extra time to the main stake holders to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

The situation at the moment, given President Hamid Karzai’s political calisthenics, Pakistan’s new approach to worm into Afghanistan, the Taliban’s obduracy and the American tiredness, there is no question of the date of US and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan shifting beyond end of 2014.  

It is no secret that the Americans have been meeting Taliban representatives quietly in different places. Based on these understandings, the Taliban were allowed to open an office in Qatar for holding consultations with the other two main parties, the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai, the Pakistanis under the supervision of the US. The opening of this office on June 18 brought out some hidden and some not so hidden position of the main parties concerned.

The Taliban hoisted their flag and planted the plaque of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, queering the pitch for Karzai. The Taliban’s plea that those were their insignia when they ruled the country for six years from 1994 to 2000 did not sell with others. They were forced to take down their insignia, and the resultant events led to a temporary closure of the office.

Karzai had always demanded that talks with Taliban be held inside Afghanistan, but the Taliban steadfastly refused to do so.

The Taliban’s consistent stand has been that the Karzai government is an American puppet, and they would rather talk to the principals. But at the same time they were willing to talk to the Karzai government in Qatar along with the US. But Karzai appears to have taken the excuse of the Taliban flag and plaque and withdrew from the talks. True, the peace process is supposed to be Afghan led and Afghan made. But Karzai wants to be in full control, which is not possible.     

There were talks that the Qatar fiasco had created a rift in the Taliban. Taliban hardliners who were against opening of the Qatar office had planned to form a splinter group called Fidayee Mahaz (Suicide Front), but this was denied subsequently by Taliban spokesman Zaibullah Majahid. The Taliban is not a single command structure. They also have secondary support groups. Hence differences among them is not surprising.  

Karzai’s actions have come under focus now because as the President supported by the Americans, one would say reluctantly more recently, he remains a key figure. He has now taken his tirade against the US, blaming them of not having conditions before opening the Qatar office. In another turn of his position, he called the Taliban “brothers” and urged them to join the peace process and help to build a peaceful Afghanistan. His statement that recent developments indicated that foreign elements were waiting for an opportunity to misuse the peace process for their selfish goals and destroy Afghanistan is damaging to himself.

Although Hamid Karzai’s flip-flops are all too familiar by now, his above statement has raised questions inside Afghanistan. Casting aspersions on the US and the NATO forces and trying to embrace the main enemy appears gross opportunism. Karzai even down played (June 29) the Taliban attack on his office the previous week.

President Karzai also took umbrage with the US further by suggesting a Loya Jirga to decide on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US. He is also talking about going to the people on the BSA.

What is Karzai fishing for? Over the last two years or so the opposition in Afghanistan suspected that by any means he would try to extend his tenure which ends next year. He may even use the Jirga to make amendments to the constitution to extend his two-term limit. He may, suspecting the opposition, create a situation to impose emergency at an opportune time to extend his rule.

It will not be very easy for Karzai to maintain his position without harming Afghanistan even more. The main opposition parties, the Right and Justice Party, the National Coalition Party and the Afghan Millat, who have been maintaining a low profile so far are not willing to stand by mute. The question rises why would a Jirga be called when there is an elected Parliament in place. A Strategic Co-operation Agreement with the USA has already been approved and the BSA is an appendix to it.

Pakistan has been watching the development closely, and there is no indication that their Afghan policy has changed in a major way under the Nawaz Sharif government. According to a Pakistani media report (The Dawn, July 02), Pakistan’s new National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz proposed to the Afghan Ambassador in Islamabad a federal structure in which power is ceded in some Afghan provinces to the Taliban. This was confirmed by Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Ershad Ahmedi, but rejected.

Will Karzai fall in this trap that could lay down the road map for dividing Afghanistan? It is too early to conjecture.

At the moment Afghanistan’s situation is shaky. The international community had promised $16 billion aid after 2014 to shore up economic, social, education and infrastructure development. According to some assessments Afghanistan needs to be fully aided till 2024 to stabilize and be on its own.

Such support have suddenly become unreliable with Karzai picking a fight with US President Barack Obama. An irritated Obama has threatened “Zero option”, that is, not keeping any US military in Afghanistan post-2014 for security assistance and for training. This will have wide ramifications on international assistance much of which is controlled by the US.  

If Karzai continues to play his game, Afghanistan will be hard pressed to find jobs for thousands of Afghans employed by American and other foreign organizations. No foreign organization will remain   without   security.   The jobless   will,   by   all accounts, transit to militant organizations. Foreign direct investments in mining and infrastructure projects will also shy away under insecure conditions.

Not only the Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan but the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) which includes China as a major player, are worried. A warring Afghanistan will be a nightmare for them. Elements of the Pakistan Taliban, the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Pakistan (TTP) are already in Syria fighting alongside Al Qaeda related detachments. China suspects they would link up with Uighur separatists in Xinjiang. The TTP has also declared that they are part of the Afghan Taliban.

Islamic militants/terrorists from Central Asia, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Chechen guerrilla are already in the Pak-Afghan region. In an unstable Afghanistan fuelled by Pakistan’s ISI, a terror explosion cannot be ruled out.

China is in an unenviable position as of today in Afghanistan. They have retained links with the Taliban. Their co-operation with Pakistan is enduring. They will try to get the best of Afghanistan’s natural resources. But to the Islamist radicals especially the Al Qaeda, China’s treatment of its Muslim minority is not acceptable.

Iran, which also borders, Afghanistan, has an interest in the Shias. How Iran plays this is still not clear, but they will not keep quiet.

India has a challenge here. New Delhi has astutely kept out of getting involved in the political and sectarian issues and conflicts in Afghanistan. It has restricted its role to infrastructure, education and medical support. It has extended support now on military training. Unfortunately for Pakistan, Indians are still the most desired among the people of Afghanistan, while the Pakistanis are most hated.

The US must understand the importance of such historical affinity. US Vice President Joe Biden in India now should be explained how people-to-people trust built over centuries can be used to stabilize Afghanistan to the extent possible. On the other hand, relations between the Taliban and Pakistan are built on necessity and not trust. The Taliban understand they are being blackmailed by Islamabad.

New Delhi has difficult choices to make. A time, however, is coming near when relations with the Old friends in Afghanistan are reinvigorated. They are the hope for Afghanistan. It is time to explore unorthodox foreign and strategic policies.     

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@Yahoo.com)

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