Are we any closer to a peace deal in Afghanistan? Probably not, though it’s no surprise to find the beleagured Allies wishing and hoping that a deal was possible after a month in which Nato troops suffered their worst ever losses (102 brave men killed in June). The problem is that the ingredients for a negotiation are simply not present.
The new commander of the Nato forces in Afghanistan, General Petreus, has an unenviable task. He is expected to wage a war that makes us look like we are winning, when we are not. He is also expected to create the conditions for peace, so that there can be a phased withdrawal by Coalition troops – which President Obama has signalled is to begin from the middle of 2011 onwards.
Yet this withdrawal can only happen if either (A) a peaceful solution is negotiated or – Plan (B) – the Afghan army is trained to the point where it has the capacity to lead the fight in the absence of Coalition troops. The Coalition has been enthusiastically talking up this possibility, but it seems somewhat remote. So, at the same time they have been equally enthusiastically clutching at any indication that peace talks are on the cards. Much has been made, for example, of the recent 3 day peace assembly or “Jirga” which took place in Kabul at which 1,600 delegates voiced their approval of President Karzai’s 156 page peace proposal. Optimism has also arisen as a result of unprecedented talks between Karzai and Pakistan’s General Ahmed Shuja Pasha (the head of their Intelligence Agency) about how Pakistan might mediate with Taliban insurgents based in its territory.
However, any optimism concerning peace talks is surely wishful thinking. Any negotiation requires both parties to want to strike a deal. There have to be not only conflicting interests but enough interests in common for negotiations to start. That is not the case here. One can easily see why the Allies want to negotiate a peaceful solution, since it may spare them an ignominious withdrawal. However, there is no real sign that the Taliban want peace talks in a hurry. They hear that the Allies want to start withdrawing next year, and they must be feeling that they are going to end up with what they want without the concessions which would be involved in peace talks. Significantly, they tried to attack the Jirga on June 2nd. Equally, when Britain’s new Military Chief, Sir David Richards recently indicated that coalition forces should open talks with the Taliban “pretty soon”, the Taliban response was “We do not want to talk to anyone..until the foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan”
Negotiations also need both parties to be explicit about their wants and needs. The Taliban are very clear what they want. Is there any sign that the Allies are prepared to do be as explicit? Are we even sure why we are in Afghanistan? Do we need to be there to prevent an extremist and hostile Taliban-regime running a repressive and fundamentalist state? Or to prevent the Taliban training terrorists targeting the West? Is the agenda really to do with propping up a weak Pakistan regime, which, if it had a Taliban-backed Afghanistan as its neighbour, might succumb? This would leave the West confronting the prospect of the Taliban potentially having access to or influence over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Or is the agenda about something else entirely – recent reports from the Pentagon suggest that Afghanistan could be sitting on mineral deposits worth US$1 trillion and that it could become “the Saudi Arabia of Lithium” – a key component in manufacturing batteries for mobile phones and laptops. Whatever the reason, if the Allies can’t be explicit about their aims to themselves and their own populations, then they are hardly likely to be able to articulate these needs clearly in any talks with the Taliban.
Finally, any “Peace” needs a “Process” to go with it. Most treaty negotiations take months over simply setting up a process for dialogue. Issues such as climate-setting, timescales, the agenda, the identity of the participants and their negotiating authority all take time to negotiate in their own right. This all takes more time than the Coalition is likely to have before its scheduled withdrawal starts next summer.
So, if the ingredients for a negotiation aren’t there, it’s hard to see how meaningful peace talks can begin any time soon. In which case the Coalition had better hope that its Plan (B) is a good one.