The Afghan dilemma

Victor Korgun

The development of the situation in Afghanistan over the last 12 months has been influenced by the new US strategy approved by President Barack Obama in April 2009. As opposed to the strategy of George Bush the strategy of Obama’s government implies not only strengthening US and NATO military presence in the country but also trying to solve the country’s domestic problems: poor economy, corruption, drug traffic, inefficient government, weak local armed forces and police. However drug traffic is not seen as a very important issue because considering that the consumption of Afghan drugs in the US is smaller than in Europe. Also within the new strategy Obama also linked Afghanistan with Pakistan into one knot of problems called “AfPak”.

Until recently we have not seen any significant changes in the Afghan policy of Washington. In January-September of 2009 the US government officials were mainly busy with the problem of presidential elections in Afghanistan, shuffling numerous possible candidates in Kabul. Another couple of months they were thinking about the controversial results of the elections and finally with heavy heart they agreed to recognize Hamid Karzai (who they were sick and tired of) as the reelected president. Than the White House and the Congress began to work on a ruling on bringing more troops to Afghanistan. In December 2009 and January 2010 Washington was preparing for an Afghan conference in London and only in February operation Mushtarak was launched in Helmand province, which was the beginning of practical implementation of the new strategy.

In 2009 the military situation in Afghanistan was getting worse. By early 2010 Taliban militants were present on 80% of the Afghan territory. Since the spring of 2009 Taliban militants have been active in the Northern and western provinces of the country, which were regarded relatively quiet areas, and recently Taliban leader Mullah Omar has appointed shadow governors in 30 of 34 provinces of the country. Taliban militants attacked the UN representative office, banks and the ministerial buildings in the capital of Kabul and hampered the arrival of new NATO troops and ammunition to the country via the Northern route.

But when we speak about 80% of the Afghan territory, it does not means that the Taliban movement has full control over these areas. We can distinguish three level of Taliban military activities. The low level of activity (80%) implies any form of military presence. The medium level (20-25%) implies that Taliban influences some aspects of social life (trade, security, settlement of tribal conflicts), has partial control over communications, protection of opium plantations, drug traffic. The high level means that Taliban fully or partly controls a certain area – Taliban has its people in local administration, in business, in court, educational and healthcare intuitions. They foster the production and sale of drugs, control the observance of religious rituals. In those areas we can see close interaction between Taliban and local leaders (world lords, tribal khans linked with drug traffic). According to different data Taliban control 5-10% of the country’s territory on the high level.

As for the support Taliban enjoys among local citizens it varies depending on a number of factors. Ethnical factor: Taliban enjoy the strongest support in the Pushtu districts (up to 20%), and have few supporters in the districts where national minorities live. Among the Khazar tribes Taliban has almost no support, among Turkmens it is not more than 2%, among Tajik and Uzbek people its not more than 3-5%). Economic factor: Taliban is especially respected in the areas with poor economic development (the South and the South-East). Military factor: Taliban gets strong support in the districts of military actions (the South and the South East). Political factor: Talban has very little support in the districts controlled by NATO forces (the North East, first of all in the Panjshir valley area) Drug factor: Taliban receives stronger support in the areas of drug production.

However these are variables and the level of support in every specific case in a certain region mainly depends on the current military and political situation. If there is high level of the level of unemployment and corruption in a district, if there was a natural disaster or a crop failure, if authorities discriminate the interests of farmers by liquidating opium fields and leaving them without any income source, where the positions of Islam are strong, the support of Taliban gets stronger.

The attitude of local people towards Taliban often depends on the position of local and regional leaders (tribal heads, elders, heads of religious sects and institutions, who influence sentiments of the local people). The attitude of the local leaders towards Taliban also varies depending on the level of corruption and the amount of bribes given by the central authorities to local elite. It is not a secret that governors of the Afghan provinces receive from the central government and Western partners big subsidies in exchange for ensuring security in their provinces.

While Taliban is positioning itself more and more as a serious military and political force, we have to clarify what Taliban is and how to deal with this movement. With many different views of Taliban approaches to the settlement of the Afghan crisis are changing. Everyone admits that it is impossible to solve the problem only by force and the talks are necessary. It is not clear with whom exactly the global community should negotiate.

Washington says it won’t deal with terrorists. Moscow is against any dialogue with the people who are “blurred with crimes”. However in January 2009, before the conference on Afghanistan in London Russia excluded five Taliban leaders from the black list of terrorists who should be trialed.

In some countries, including Central Asia, Taliban is seen as a national liberation movement people there uphold the demand to withdraw Western troops from Afghanistan and call for cooperation with Taliban. European politicians fail to share the same view of possible talks with Taliban.

There is a wide spread point of view that it is necessary to hold talks moderate Taliban members but nobody knows who they are. Many people are convinced that Taliban is the organization of Islamic extremists so there can’t be any moderate members. They explode schools, kill pupils and teachers, priests, officials, peasants everyone who cooperate with the official Afghan government. Taliban militants are very cruel to locals. They cut off their hands, noses, make people blind and often behead them, even women. To foreigners they are more loyal, they often kidnap them but they seldom kill them.

According to Richard Holbrooke Obama’s special representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan, moderate are those Taliban members who are with the movement not because of the ideology. These common Taliban members account for 70% of Taliban members in the country and it is possible to convince them to take the side of Karzai by creating them normal conditions for living. These units don’t have a single leaders (many commanders are subordinate to Mullah Omar only nominally) so it is necessary to approach everyone of them individually.

In his time president Najibullah began the policy of national conciliation and held talks with some commanders of Mojahed insurgents directly without contacting their leaders in the headquarters in Peshevar. Now when the US forces are facing a deadlock situation they begin to remember the experience of 1980-s more and more often. Kharzai has his own program of holding talks with Taliban. He even wants to invite top leaders of Taliban for talks including mullah Omar and to offer them posts in the government.

The formation of a coalition government with Taliban is unlikely: they will likely to insist on changing political regime and on the establishment of the Islamic emirate. Anyway the authorities will have to negotiate with Taliban leaders who are defining the fate of the movement and the military situation in the country.

Kabul has experience of cooperation with some former high ranking Taliban people from the associates of Mullah Omar (former Foreign Minister Mullah Vakil Mutavakil, former Taliban ambassador in Pakistan Abdussalam Zaif). There are also some former Taliban members in the Afghan parliament too.

It is likely that Kabul will have to make concessions to Taliban and to give them power on the regional level but at the same time Kabul will be able to strengthen the power of Kharzai’s government. It is the Afghan government which should negotiate with Taliban while other parties concerned including the US should only create conditions for that. London is especially active. It was the UK‘s authorities organized talks between Kabul and Taliban in October 2008 in Saudi Arabia. The talks with Taliban should be held from the position of force. Hopefully, Mushtarak operation in Helmand and the coming operation in Kandahar will contribute to the dominating position of Kabul.

The settlement of the Afghan issue depends on many states including Afghanistan neighbors and here we see different interests. Moscow supports the North of Afghanistan, Tashkent supports Afghan Uzbeks headed by General Dustom, Iran supports Shiites (Khazar tribes) and Pakistan is close to Pushtu people. Teheran is concerned with the US pressure and Islamabad does not mind having a friendly regime in Kabul and being able to restrain India. Beijing is not showing its interests regarding the situation in Afghanistan. Moscow does not pay particular attention to the Afghan problem either. Saudi Arabia is now competing with Iran for the leadership in the region. Central Asian countries which are the most vulnerable to the threat of Islamic extremism and drug traffic are not influential enough to play a significant role in the Afghan case.

The role of Pakistan in particularly important, This caountr was the cradle of the Taliban movement. Certain political forces with the support of the US contributed to the development of the movement. These are part of high ranking Pakistani military officials, people from the Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) radical religious parties and first of all the Jamaat-e-Islami. They still have strong influence over the leaders of the Afghan extremists. Now Islamabad is offering its services as a mediator in talks between Kabul and Taliban trying to seize the initiative from Saudi Arabia и.

And of course the talks depend on the leaders of Taliban. So far they have refused to start dialogue with Kabul demanding the withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from the country. At the same time there are signs that a number of Talban members are ready for contacts with Kabul. In particular, leader of the Islamist party of Afghanistan G. Hekmatyar made it clear that he is considering an option to negotiate with Kabul without waiting for the withdrawal of the coalition forces.

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Source: http://en.fondsk.ru/article.php?id=2875; Photo: David Furst, AFP/Getty Images

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