Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, must be a lonely angry man, let down by the very men who had professed friendship the whole of the past decade and more, as the landlocked country continued to be haunted by the Taliban terror machine. By opting to talk directly with Taliban representatives in Doha, the Americans, who lead the NATO forces in the anti-insurgency operations and are set to leave the place next year, have knocked the very bottom off the Karzai dispensation, which has been in charge of Afghanistan. Karzai himself is due to retire as president next year and has pledged not to seek another term.
If Karzai feels let down by his friends, the Americans, he has every reason to do so. First, the Americans agreed to the Taliban setting up a liaison office in Doha, Qatar. And when the office did open two weeks ago, it had all the frills associated with an embassy or a legation, if you will. For one thing, there was the huge banner hanging along the wall announcing “The Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, exactly the name the Taliban had given to Afghanistan the short time they controlled Kabul soon after the Russians withdrew after carrying out a futile invasion for years.
Karzai, who had himself desired that Kabul and Taliban representatives meet to work out a modus vivendi after the Americans are gone, set up the official Afghan High Peace Council for the proposed negotiations and it is still there. Besides, Karzai has maintained that talks on the future of his country be conducted on Afghan soil and not in distant lands. He also agreed to the Americans talking directly to the Taliban in Doha but was hurt when the two chose the Taliban office in Doha as the venue for tripartite. This was an insult to the duly elected Afghan government in Kabul; he insisted that any talks with the Taliban must be held within the ambit of the country&’s Constitution and on its soil.
“The way the Taliban office was opened in Qatar and the messages were sent from there was in absolute contrast with the guarantees that the US had pledged,” an angry Karzai said. Without ruling out future talks, Karzai issued another statement putting off indefinitely any government negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar. Unless the peace process is conducted in Afghanistan, neither he (Karzai) nor the High Peace Council members would participate in the negotiations.
Karzai has accused foreign governments of having facilitated the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar, an accusing finger pointed at Pakistan and some West Asian countries. The Afghan-Pakistan angle came to the forefront in the UN Security Council, when Kabul&’s Ambassador to the UN charged: “The fact remains so long as the terrorist sanctuaries continue to exist on Pakistani soil and some elements (ISI) continue to use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy, peace will not prevail, neither in Afghanistan nor in the region”. He spoke of the continuing border shelling by Pakistan into Afghanistan, a serious threat to the sovereignty of his country. Curiously, the Pakistan Ambassador countered that there were no terrorist bases in his country, leaving one to wonder who kills the scores of Pakistanis day after day in what is called “internal insurgency”.
If that be so, why all this hullabaloo about the Pakistani Taliban and the sectarian militant outfits running riot in Pakistan: one might also ask where exactly was Mullah Umar, the Afghan Taliban supremo, trained to be a terrorist. It was Karachi, where his alma mater is still very much in business. And, pray, who are the Haqqanis, like the Afghan Taliban? Obviously, a creation of the ISI; the Pakistani spy agency also continues to control them.
The Americans will, of course, have their way. They will and indeed have talked to the Taliban in Doha. US Secretary of State John Kerry will no doubt pronounce that they are on the right track, ignoring the stark reality that on the very day the Afghan Taliban opened their office in Doha, four American soldiers were killed very near their base in Afghanistan. The Americans, the honest people they must be, will undoubtedly leave Afghanistan towards the end of 2014, but then what was the war in Afghanistan about? Why were thousands of lives, including American lives, sacrificed in the decade-old war? Could it be that President Obama lost interest in the war against Taliban after his men had got Osama bin Laden? Is that also why the Americans are asking their Afghan Taliban interlocutors that they must end their links with Al Qaeda as part of the deal they are selling to them.
Could the American obsession with self-preservation be the reason why they are not showing much interest in India&’s stake in Afghanistan. Forget the historical and cultural links that exist between the two, how about the men and money this country has committed to reconstruction of the war-ravaged Afghanistan in the recent past?
The US is obviously reconciled to the fact that the Taliban, whenever they take over Afghanistan, will be controlled and guided by ISI and the Pakistani military. Both Pakistani agencies have remained tightlipped as Americans, Afghans and the Taliban enter into negotiations, hopefully, after Washington has addressed Kabul&’s concerns.
They are secure in the knowledge that their Taliban protégés in Afghanistan will turn to their Pakistani mentors as soon as the US leaves. Pakistan meanwhile keeps mum, as if developments in Afghanistan don’t concern it. India has been trying hard to preserve whatever remains of its interest in Afghanistan. Russia and the Central Asian Republics, most bordering Afghanistan, have also been in touch. The problem, though, remains the Taliban are not the most reliable entity to cosy up with. The pity will be that the wee bit of liberalisation the Afghan people have enjoyed these past few years may suddenly evaporate and it may be back to beheadings, public stoning etc. for those who don’t conform to their diktat.
I did in passing mention India&’s deep-rooted interest in Afghanistan, but the problem in New Delhi is that we are just now saddled with a government that barely exists. President Karzai has repeatedly, most recently on his last visit here a few weeks ago, underlined the need for strengthening Indo-Afghan relations. He has mentioned a not wholly unrealistic wish list of possible areas of cooperation but all that must now remain subject to the whims and wishes of (a) the kind of accommodation the US and the Taliban are able to allow each other (b) whether a future Taliban dispensation will be permitted by the ISI and the Pak military to enlarge cooperation with India. The existing Indian commitments to Afghan development are quite substantial and there is scope for much more. A lot will depend on how events unfold in that country in the next couple of years.
The writer is a veteran journalist
and former Resident Editor
of The Statesman, Delhi