National and International Issues

Afghan Reconciliation: Now a Tale of Two Open Taliban Letters

I started in mid February to pen my thoughts on the prospects for national reconciliation in Afghanistan–a question of fundamental importance in the quest for a modicum of peace and stability not only in our neighbour but also for peace and stability in our own country.

Going down memory lane and relying for the most part on one’s own recollection one took as the starting point; Sardar Daud’s overthrow of his cousin King Zahir Shah and making himself President of Afghanistan in 1975. From then on one can identify a wealth of occasions on which peace could have come to this country with internal divisions being overcome and a permanent settlement being reached with the neighbours. Daud had adopted an aggressive posture towards Pakistan and resurrected the Pushtunistan issue. But a couple of years later Daud was, I believe, prepared to change.

Had there not been change of regime in Pakistan in 1977, there was reason to believe that Daud, persuaded by the Shah of Iran’s largesse and the pressure exerted by Bhutto’s sheltering of Afghan extremists in Peshawar, was ready to come to a settlement with Pakistan on the so-called Pushtunistan issue. This prospect, while delayed, was still alive when the Saur Revolution–the Marxist takeover in Afghanistan–of April 1978 put an end to that prospect.

There was an opportunity again when the Soviets withdrew but the Mujahideen failed to act unitedly, not only against the Najibullah government that continued to receive Soviet support but even thereafter when the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the door to a Mujahideen takeover in Kabul. Instead the ensuing period of Mujahideen infighting brought more destruction to Afghanistan than had been caused by 10 years of Soviet occupation and gave birth to the Taliban movement.

The hope that the Taliban takeover of a large part of the country and the stability they brought would enable the working out of a compromise with the Northern Alliance was belied despite the efforts of the UN and Pakistan. Instead what emerged was an uneasy alliance with Osama bin Laden who had, for inexplicable reasons been allowed to move from Sudan, where he had no followers, to Afghanistan where he was a recognised model of Jihad. The ties he built with Mullah Omar, despite the misgivings of the other members of the Taliban Shura were, by Western accounts, the key to building the strength of the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan which led to the 9/11 attack. No effort, and many were made by individuals and officials from many countries, to get the Taliban to surrender Bin Laden to the U.S. succeeded because Mullah Omar felt that this would not be in accord with the Pushtun tradition (Pushtunwali) of protecting guests to whom shelter had been offered.

The destruction wrought in Afghanistan once the Taliban had rejected the U.S. demand for the surrender of Bin Laden was frightening. There was no air defence available. The deployment of U.S. aircraft, including stealth aircraft in a country with no radar coverage suggested that the U.S. was also using flights to Afghanistan to test the new aircraft as well as other new weapons in its arsenal secure in the knowledge that there would be no danger. Lethal Daisy Cutters and other weapons that one could only classify as designed for maximum destruction rained down upon the hapless defenders while the U.S. allies in the Northern Alliance sat on their haunches waiting for the Taliban destruction to be complete before making their unopposed move into Kabul and such other urban centres as Mazar-e-Sharif.

The CIA teams, many deemed heroic, streamed or rather rode into Afghanistan carrying valises and trunks full of cash to recruit local warlords who had been quiescent during Taliban rule but who were eager to join the Americans in the search for Al-Qaeda members or sympathisers. They were adept at using the new American connections to settle old personal scores terming enemies and rivals as Al-Qaeda or active Taliban. What they knew of the connections of these warlords with opium cultivation and trafficking was simply ignored as was the knowledge that these were the same people who would bring back opium cultivation and trafficking as a stable and peculiarly high source of income. Sixteen years later the results are easy to see.

Opium production is now 9000 tons as against the 180-90 tons that was produced during the last year of Taliban reign and that too in Northern Alliance controlled territory. Afghanistan has 3 million addicts–Pakistan has up to 7 million–and is a major conduit for export to the rest of the world, perhaps more so while Iran too struggles both with local consumption, which on a per capita basis is higher than Pakistan, and the ill effects of passage through Iran of narcotics to more destinations in Europe and elsewhere. Russia complains that the northern routes are used to transport heroin to Central Asia and via Central Asia. It too has a serious addiction problem and the voice it raises receives global attention because of its status and its genuine desire to curb drug trafficking.

I have recalled this past history primarily because I thought it should serve as a backdrop to the most significant offer for reconciliation and the rejection of which, to my mind was the reason that our neighbour has had to suffer another long period of internal strife and foreign troops presence.

By the end of 2001 to the beginning of 2002 President Bush could rightly claim that the Taliban had been vanquished and the elimination of the Al-Qaeda was around the corner. At this point according to two reporters-cum-authors, Mr. Anand Gopal and Mr. Steve Coll, both respected observers of Afghanistan and the region suggest that the Taliban offered to emerge from their hideouts in Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan and to live there as ordinary citizens in return for a general amnesty.

In the blurb for his book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes (2014) Mr. Anand Gopal says, “Taliban leaders actually tried to surrender within months of the U.S. invasion, renouncing all political activity and submitting to the new government. Effectively, the Taliban ceased to exist—yet the Americans were unwilling to accept such a turnaround. Instead, driven by false intelligence from their allies and an unyielding mandate to fight terrorism, American forces continued to press the conflict, resurrecting the insurgency that persists to this day.”

In a superb review of Steve Coll’s book, Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016, Sherard Cowper-Coles, UK’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and subsequently the UK’s special representative for Afghanistan says, “America won the war in Afghanistan. Or rather, it won the war it should have fought. The bases from which al-Qaeda had planned and prepared the 9/11 attacks had been destroyed. Its people had been killed, captured, or driven out, across the Durand Line into Pakistan. A wise America, a calm America, would have declared victory and moved on.” Obviously the mistake was not doing so.

Steve Coll himself talks of Taliban reconciliation efforts and the U.S. officials who believed this should have been worked upon. He quotes a CIA official Arturto Munoz as saying, “If you start shipping people to Guantánamo who many other Pashtuns know are not terrorists—if you start confusing horse thieves with terrorists—then they come to see that your idea of terrorism is impossible to accommodate. By our words and our actions, we destroyed the opportunity to take advantage of the Pashtun mechanisms for accommodation and reconciliation.”

There is much else in these two books–much of it is not favourable to Pakistan–but to me the main point was the ease with which an opportunity was missed.

And this brings me to the two Taliban open letters; the first dated August 14, 2017 was addressed to President Trump and was designed it seems to influence the AfPak policy he was expected to announce. In this letter the emphasis was on the fact that the Taliban were winning, “You are witnessing that Mujahedeen are wresting control of several districts from the corrupt regime in a one week span and are seizing so much equipment that they can continue fighting for a long time. They can easily take control of all major highways of the country and if it were not for fear of civilian casualties, they would conquer many provincial capitals currently under sieges…. therefore, it would be wise if you adopt the strategy of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan instead of a troops increase.” They gave a veiled threat of seeking alliances with America’s foes to “gain their independence and free themselves from your oppression.”

The tone is very different in the letter of February 15 which is addressed to the American people, the American Congress and to President Trump. Here they list, using the reports of the UN and even those of the SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction), the many problems that the President Ashraf Ghani’s government faces. It does not boast about the Taliban’s extension of its control but asks instead if the American forces which “used all their new powers and carried out 751 air strikes” have “retaken even a single inch of land from the Taliban or have they become even more powerful…”

The tone is defensive with regard to the situation on the ground. This is a significant difference suggesting perhaps that the unfettered use of American military power is having an effect but even more importantly there is a constant emphasis on the Islamic Emirate asking “America from the very beginning to solve her issues with the Islamic Emirate through talk and dialogue.” But this call for dialogue is for dialogue with the United States and not with what the letter calls the corrupt regime and its “two-headed system which is unparalleled in the established laws of forming a government throughout the world”. At one point however it does say that “the Islamic Emirate–as representative of its people–can solve its problems with every side through healthy politics and dialogue…” It offers the hope that “every side” also means the Ashraf Ghani led government.

Certainly, in the present circumstances when the Americans have abandoned ‘nation building’ there appears to be little prospect of any government in Kabul being able to win the battle of ‘hearts and minds’. As one American observer has put it, Afghanistan like Iraq, Syria and Yemen is close to being ‘a failed state war’. This occurs “because the host country government has not met the needs of its people, and does not create the civil conditions that can develop unity and broad popular support. The security threats posed by extremism and civil war are all too real, but so are the internal divisions, threats, and failures of host country governments that sustain such conflicts and turn them into self-inflicted wounds…

 The American and the Ashraf Ghani government’s response has been along predictable lines. The dialogue has to be Afghan owned and Afghan-led and any demands for another form of dialogue are rejected. The Americans know from the bitter experience of 2013 when the Qatar office of the Islamic Emirate was set up as a negotiating channel how quickly it collapsed when Karzai felt that this was giving the Islamic Emirate a status that eroded the legitimacy of his government. This had also been Karzai’s position on the many proposals put forth by the UN and other bodies to promote an informal dialogue between the Taliban and the representatives of the Karzai regime or other parties in Afghanistan in the 2012-13 period on the eve of the American withdrawal of American forces from active operations.

The question now is whether the February letter is the first step taken by the Taliban towards an Afghan-led and Afghan owned dialogue. This needs to be explored in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the USA which despite the current strains in the U.S.-Pak relationship is the best forum for promoting the dialogue that can perhaps bring about the desired talks. The offer that emerges from these talks must be generous enough to persuade all the Taliban that uniting under Haibatullah Akhundzada and authorising him to nominate a negotiating team may offer the best prospect. Is this too optimistic? Perhaps but no other viable alternative exists.

Certainly, in the present circumstances when the Americans have abandoned ‘nation building’ there appears to be little prospect of any government in Kabul being able to win the battle of ‘hearts and minds’. As one American observer has put it, Afghanistan like Iraq, Syria and Yemen is close to being ‘a failed state war’. This occurs “because the host country government has not met the needs of its people, and does not create the civil conditions that can develop unity and broad popular support. The security threats posed by extremism and civil war are all too real, but so are the internal divisions, threats, and failures of host country governments that sustain such conflicts and turn them into self-inflicted wounds…

Winning such conflicts requires a U.S. ally and the host country’s capability to "win" at the civil level as much as at the military level. The host country government or partner can sometimes be as much a threat at the civil level as at the military level…”

Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah may be able to institute needed reforms but without the needed financial and personnel support of the allies this will be a long struggle and take the sort of time that the country and the region cannot afford.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the USA and Iran. Presently he is Head of the Global and Regional Studies Centre in the Institute of Business Management, a Karachi based University.

Email: [email protected]

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