Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, in a ceremony held at the new National Defense University built to train Afghanistan's future military officers, announced on June 18, 2013, that his country's armed forces were taking over the lead for nationwide security from the United States (US)-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) coalition. Karzai declared, "From tomorrow all of the security operations will be in the hands of the Afghan security forces." The 352,000 strong Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) will now execute all military operations across the 403 districts of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Till the last phase of the handover, they were responsible for 90 percent of military operations in 312 districts nationwide.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will now move entirely into a supporting role, and will provide support to ANSF on the battlefield when they require it. Explaining the future role of NATO forces, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen observed,
As your [Afghan] forces step forward across the country, the main effort of our forces is shifting from combat to support. We will continue to help Afghan troops in operations if needed. But we will no longer plan, execute or lead those operations. And by the end of 2014, our combat mission will be completed. At that time, Afghanistan will be fully secured by Afghans. From 2015, a new chapter will begin. Together with our partners, we are planning a new and different mission. The goal of the new mission is to train, advise and assist Afghan forces. We will also play our part in the broader international efforts, to ensure the long-term sustainment of the Afghan security forces.
Presently, there are about 100,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan, drawn from 48 countries, including 66,000 Americans. According to the Inteqal (Transition) Framework defined at the London and Kabul Conferences on Afghanistan in 2010, and US President Barack Obama's latest Afghan policy, by the end of the current year, 2013, NATO Forces in Afghanistan will be halved. At the end of 2014, all combat troops will have left and will be replaced, if approved by the Afghan Government, by a much smaller force that will only train and advise. A studied ambiguity has been maintained over the residual number of foreign troops that may remain after 2014. However, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Army General Martin E. Dempsey, stated on February 9, 2013, "we're not going from number to mission, we're going from mission to number", and that the yet undefined mission in Afghanistan would determine the number of American troops to be deployed there after 2014.
Though the negative impact of the premature drawdown has been discussed elsewhere, the successful transition is an appreciable development and President Karzai was rightly buoyant in declaring it. However, his exhilaration was cut short by another development that took place, on the same day, June 18, far from the country frontiers, but which could have far-reaching impact in Afghanistan.
On June 18, while opening their office in Qatar in Doha, the Afghan Taliban declared that they were ready to talk with the US. The US reciprocated instantly, announcing that its officials would reach Doha 'within days' for the talks. Though none of these two statements had the potential to irk President Karzai, it is the background development which infuriated the government of Afghanistan. After a meeting at President Karzai's palace, an Afghan government statement declared, "The opening of Taliban office in Qatar, the way it was opened and messages it contained, contradicts the guarantees given by the US to Afghanistan."
Significantly, a sign outside the new Taliban office in Doha proclaimed it as representing the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan". Moreover, the Taliban claimed that the office would allow it "to improve its relations with countries around the world through understanding and talks as well as help them establish contact with the United Nations and aid groups, and to talk to the news media." In addition, Taliban's insistence that "first we talk to the Americans" and "after we finish the phase of talking to the Americans, then we would start the internal phase..." convinced Karzai that the Afghan Government had been sidelined in the 'peace process'.
Kabul first objected to the use of the expression "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" by the Taliban, arguing that "such a thing doesn't exist". Rejecting participation in the talks, Karzai insisted that the Doha Office would be activated as a forum to try to re-establish Taliban's political legitimacy, especially in international circles, rather than confining itself to peace talks. Not surprisingly, Karzai halted negotiations with the US on the future Bilateral Security Agreement.
Subsequently, however, after constant US overtures, on June 20, 2013, Karzai's spokesman Fayeq Wahidi disclosed that the Afghan President was willing to join peace talks with the Taliban if the US follows through with promises he said were made by US Secretary of State John Kerry over the phone. Wahidi said Kerry promised Karzai that the Taliban flag and the nameplate—"Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan"—would be removed and that the US would issue a formal written statement supporting the Afghan Government and making clear that the Taliban office would not be seen as an embassy or government-in-exile. Wahidi stated, "If all those assurances and commitments the US had given, if we are assured that they will be fully put in place on the issue of talks in Qatar, we would see no problem in entering into talks with the Taliban in Qatar."
Karzai's concerns, it seems, have been somewhat met. The nameplate has been removed from the Taliban office. The flagpole inside the compound was apparently shortened and the Taliban flag—dark Quranic script on a white background—was still flying but not visible from the street. However, these moves have now made the Taliban unhappy. Senior Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail stated, in Doha, "There is an internal discussion right now and much anger about it, but we have not yet decided what action to take. But I think it weakens the process from the very beginning."
Whether the talks will really take place and the potential for their success are a different matter; what is of immediate importance is the volte face of the US. On October 27, 2011, the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, referring to talks with Taliban had observed, "We have been clear about the necessary outcomes of any negotiation. Insurgents must renounce violence, abandon al Qaeda, and abide by the constitution of Afghanistan, including its protections for women and minorities. If insurgents cannot meet those red-lines, they will face continued and unrelenting assault." However, it now seems that the apparent preconditions have themselves become the object of the negotiation. Jennifer Rene Psaki, spokesperson for the US Department of State, stated, on June 19, 2013, "We don't expect that they would decry al-Qaida and denounce terrorism immediately off the top—this is the end goal."
What prompted the US to get into talks with the Taliban is hardly a secret. Indeed, there has been little improvement in the security situation in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Annual Report 2012, released in February 2013, the Country recorded 6,131 civilian casualties (2,179 civilian deaths and 3,952 injuries), as compared to 5,636 civilian casualties (2,208 civilian deaths and 3,428 injuries) attributed to Anti-Government Elements. Similarly, UNAMA documented 782 improvised explosive device (IED) incidents which resulted in 2,531 civilian casualties (868 civilian deaths and 1,663 injuries) as compared to 2,460 civilian casualties (949 civilian deaths and 1,511 injured) in an unspecified number of IED attacks in 2011. Ironically, while Washington was expressing satisfaction over the proposed Doha talks, the Taliban was attacking an American base outside Kabul, killing four soldiers in rocket fire. Elaborating on the 'Doha Statement', which indicated that the Taliban would continue to fight the US in Afghanistan, the Taliban spokesman bragged, "The Mujahideen of the Islamic emirate from the other side also have taken all the preparations that will be effective for the destruction of America's nests."
The peace initiative led by the US must be assessed within the perceived short and long term interests of the troubled superpower. Media reports suggest that an immediate US goal is to secure the release of US soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, who is in Taliban custody since June 2009, in return for the release of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Over the long term, the US seeks an assurance from the Taliban that its Forces will not attack convoys carrying equipment and weapons of US Forces who are preparing to leave Afghanistan.
The US's latest outreach to Taliban is also to do with its realization that it needs Pakistan's help to exit from the land-locked Afghanistan at any cost. In return, it is trying to give some legitimacy to Pakistan's Taliban proxies—the 'Pakiban' as some commentators now describe them—in Kabul, via their recognition in Doha. Kabul did make an indirect reference to Pakistan's role in the context of the Doha office controversy, noting, "the latest developments show that foreign hands are behind the Taliban's Qatar office." The US, however, publicly acknowledged, on June 21, 2013, the 'constructive role' played by Pakistan in bringing Taliban and the US administration closer to reconciliation. US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson stated, "We are working closely with Pakistan. Pakistan played a constructive role in the opening of Taliban office in Doha. This is a big step and we greatly appreciate Pakistan's support."
The present US initiatives are driven, overwhelmingly, by fears of a chaotic flight of its forces in the last phases of the drawdown, under focused attack by the Taliban. In its moment of desperation Washington has, once again, fallen back on its unreliable 'principal ally', Pakistan, restoring the prime supporter of the Taliban and of terrorism in Afghanistan to a central role at the most sensitive phase of the 'transition'. Though there are arguments that "the Taliban is changing", as claimed by Masoom Stanikzai, head of the Afghan Government's High Peace Council secretariat, it is useful to recall that the Malim Shah Wali, the head of the High Peace Council in the southern Province of Helmand, was killed by the Taliban as recently as on May 1, 2013. The US faith in Pakistan and a 'peaceful' Taliban is wishful thinking, and will only plunge Afghanistan, and the wider South Asian region, into a deeper and lasting chaos.
Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Fellow; Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy: the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal