The media’s preoccupation with the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, followed by the protracted nuclear crisis, had hardly subsided when the Arab Spring burst into bloom with its tense standoffs, between the old order and the new, erupting into violence, and actual war in Libya, with the West as a participant. All this drove the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan off the news, except for a brief flurry of reporting following Pastor Terry Jones’s incendiary exploits. (Personally, I don’t think there is anything to the story that the Quetta shura has made the reverend an honorary Taliban in recognition of his services to the cause).
However, the war in those distant lands has been grinding on in its usual fashion ‒ IEDs and suicide bombers killing soldiers and civilians (though there was the odd case of two US soldiers being killed by a US drone), coalition air strikes and SF night raids killing insurgents and civilians, the Pakistan army’s operations in its tribal areas continuing unendingly, young Taliban suiciders blowing up Pakistanis. The political and strategic games between the main players in the war have also been continuing, though it appears that they are now starting to take a significant new turn.
The three main protagonists ‒ the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan ‒ have ostensibly been fighting one war, but with different objectives. With the war reaching its final phase, these differences are now coming to a head. Hamid Karzai’s goal is to remain in a position of power in the future Afghan set-up. The US aim is to continue to retain a significant military and political presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan wants a friendly Afghanistan in the future in order to secure its rear against the Indian threat.
Pakistan believes that both the US and Karzai have shown themselves to be more friendly towards India than Pakistan. Therefore, in pursuit of its security goal, it has tried to preserve the Afghan insurgency as a viable force in both the current war and the future ‘peace’, in order to influence through them the final outcome of the Afghan conflict. Believing that the US will ultimately tire of a long, inconclusive war and depart (and aware that it is likely to remain financially dependent on the US for quite some time), Pakistan has tried very hard to get the US to accept it as a ‘strategic partner’ and guardian of US interests in the region (offering to help in satisfactorily ending the Afghan war and guaranteeing the resulting arrangement). However, instead of a partner the US has insisted on treating it as a client state, which riles the Pakistanis no end. On the other side, the US is royally ticked off that Pakistan doesn’t behave as any half-decent client state should.
Matters came to a head in this testy relationship with the Raymond Davis affair. When it was finally resolved, Pakistani hopes that this might lead to an improved equation between the two countries were shattered by the devastating drone strike that immediately followed his departure, which killed and wounded a large number of pro-government tribal elders and seriously embarrassed the military. (It is interesting to speculate whether this attack was due to faulty intelligence, or if it was actually intended to send a rather tough message to the military). In any case, it seems to have caused the military command to decide on a radical change of policy by ending their efforts to woo the US and, instead, pursuing other options.
On 13 April, the ISI chief, Lt Gen Pasha, representing Gen Kayani, the army chief, made a final attempt to win acceptance of the Pakistani offer in a Washington meeting with CIA boss Panetta and Admiral Mullen. The reply he received was so unequivocal that he cancelled his plans for a 3-day stay and left the same night (the reply was reinforced with another unilateral drone strike the very next day). Interestingly, on his way back he made an unscheduled and unannounced stop in Paris to talk to his French counterparts! His next stop was Ankara, Turkey, where President Zardari was meeting Turkish leaders. Besides briefing the president, Pasha also had discussions with Turkish generals.
Turkey, the (not unwilling) leader, by default, of the Muslim world, has been involved for some time in the Afghan war imbroglio. In Dec 2010 it hosted a tripartite summit attended by Karzai and Zardari, at which the former publicly urged Turkey to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban. In earlier efforts to get peace talks going (initiated by the UN and some European countries) Saudi Arabia had been the prime mover, but Karzai didn’t trust it, as he considered it too close to the US (and also Pakistan). He much prefers Turkey.
The Afghan peace process has been something of a political football among the players. Karzai, realizing that he was a dispensable commodity as far as the US was concerned, wanted to arrange a peace settlement with the insurgency that would assure him a role in the future set-up. Pakistan had no intention of letting the insurgents make any settlement that did not suit it, and blocked and scuttled all such attempts. The Taliban had no interest in a deal which left any foreign troops or military power in Afghanistan. The US wasn’t interested in negotiating any peace with the Taliban or other insurgents; it wanted to defeat them.
The continuation of the Afghan war with no victory in sight for either side has brought about changes in the attitudes of the holdouts against a peace deal. The Taliban now appear willing to explore that avenue, as does the US. The administration seems to have now concluded that, since a military victory in Afghanistan is not achievable (not least because Pakistan has not cleared the insurgents from its tribal areas) nor is it politically feasible to continue the war indefinitely, a negotiated peace is the only viable alternative. This was signalled by Secretary Clinton in her Feb 18 speech to the Asia Society (though you would not guess that from the press reports about the talk).
This switch in the US position has played an important role in the change in Pakistan’s policy; they realised that, if all the other players were eager to talk, they would be unable to hold up the process. If the US were not willing to involve them in the process, they would have to find other avenues. The switch also galvanized Karzai and his clan; a US-Taliban deal could leave them out in the cold. On Feb 25 the Higher Peace Council set up by Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban arrived in Ankara, and next day publicly requested Turkey to allow the Taliban to open an office in their country in order to facilitate peace negotiations. The Turks, aware of Pakistan’s opposition to such talks, were non-committal at the time, but their caution has been allayed by President Zardari’s April 13 statement in Ankara that Pakistan would not object to this.
A couple of days after Gen Pasha’s return from his failed Washington meeting a high powered Pakistani delegation, led by the Prime Minister and including army chief Kayani, Gen Pasha and several ministers, went to Kabul for a meeting with President Karzai and his top officials. The statements made by both sides after the meeting indicated that Pakistan was now going to facilitate and fully support Karzai’s peace negotiations with the insurgents, and would be part of the process. Even though there were nominal references to the US role, the inference was clear that Pakistan had now decided to fully back Karzai and cut the US out of the peace loop. Doubtless, Karzai gave the Pakistanis assurances regarding their security concerns.
It can be expected that the Taliban will soon be permitted to open an office in Turkey, and negotiations for an end to the Afghan war will proceed there between the regional parties, facilitated by the Turks. Even though this process would be based on the premise of an eventual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan (with the resultant loss of US influence in the region), the US will find it difficult (on both domestic and foreign policy grounds) to oppose it.
So, keep your eyes open ‒ somethin’s movin’ up in them thar hills!