Moving Towards a ‘Grand Bargain’ in Afghanistan

Increasingly frustrated by the "downward spiral" that the U.S. intelligence community sees in Afghanistan, the Pentagon appears to be moving in support of engaging leaders of the resurgent Taliban who are prepared to disassociate themselves from al Qaeda.

While the seeds for that strategy are being planted now, the next U.S. president – be it the current front-runner, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, or his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain – will likely be advised by Pentagon chief Robert Gates and the new chief of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), Gen. David Petraeus, to support such an effort as the most effective way to stabilize Afghanistan where the "global war on terror" first began seven years ago.

They will also likely ask the new president to support a much broader regional diplomatic initiative designed to reassure Pakistan about its security concerns, especially vis-à-vis its longtime Indian nemesis whose influence in Afghanistan has grown substantially since a U.S.-orchestrated military campaign ousted the Taliban in late 2001.

As the predominantly Pashtun insurgency has penetrated deeply into southern and eastern Pakistan and even into Kabul itself over the past two years, regional experts here and overseas have largely concluded that the Taliban and its allies cannot be defeated, so long as Islamabad provides them with safe haven and other assistance in the tribal areas across the border.

What precise quos will have to be exchanged for the necessary quids was spelled out in considerable detail in an article entitled "From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan" published this week in the influential Foreign Affairs journal by Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid and New York University Prof. Barnett Rubin, both frequent visitors to Washington whose views about the region are highly regarded here.

Rashid was named earlier this week by the Washington Post as one of a number of key experts recently consulted by Petraeus and members of his new "Joint Strategic Assessment Team" that is being tasked to develop a new campaign plan for Afghanistan that is supposed to be completed in about 100 days, or shortly after the new president moves into the White House.

According to the Post, Petraeus has ordered the Team to focused on two major themes – "government-led reconciliation of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the leveraging of diplomatic and economic initiatives with nearby countries that are influential in the war." Those are precisely the strategies Rashid and Rubin highlighted in their article as critical to achieving their "Grand Bargain."

According to a New York Times article earlier this month, the draft of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) – a consensus document of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies – found that the security situation in Afghanistan was in a "downward spiral." It cited rampant corruption in the government of President Hamid Karzai; the exploding drug trade that now accounts for half of the country’s economy; and increasingly sophisticated attacks by the Taliban that has so far taken the lives of more U.S. and NATO troops in 2008 than in any previous year as the main causes.

At the same time, the British commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, told the Sunday Times that he did not believe that the war in Afghanistan could be won. His comments followed the disclosure in leaked diplomatic cable that Britain’s ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Cowles had told his French counterpart that the next U.S. president "must be dissuaded from getting further bogged down in Afghanistan."

Both Obama and McCain have called for increases in U.S. and NATO troop strength, and President George W. Bush currently intends to send 8,000 more U.S. troops to join the 34,000 who are already there before he leaves office. The NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, who commands a total of nearly 70,000 troops, said last week he will need yet another 15,000 more next year.

But while those forces may help keep the lid on, they cannot defeat the Taliban, particularly so long as their Pakistani allies provide a safe haven, according to Rashid and Rubin, whose article criticizes the Bush administration’s "war-on-terror" rhetoric that "thwarts sound strategic thinking by assimilating opponents into a homogenous ‘terrorist’ enemy."

"(The) United States must redefine its counterterrorist goals," they argue. "It should seek to separate those Islamist movements with local or national objectives from those that, like al Qaeda, seek to attack the United States or its allies directly – instead of lumping them all together." Those willing to sever ties with al Qaeda should be engaged, according to the authors.

"…An agreement in principle to prohibit the use of Afghan (or Pakistani) territory for international terrorism, plus an agreement from the United States and NATO that such a guarantee could be sufficient to end their hostile military action, could constitute a framework for negotiation. Any agreement in which the Taliban or other insurgents disavowed al Qaeda would constitute a strategic defeat for al Qaeda," according to the two authors.

At the same time, Washington and its allies should pursue a "high-level diplomatic initiative designed to build genuine consensus on the goal of achieving Afghan stability by addressing the legitimate sources of Pakistan’s insecurity…" they argue.

They call for the UN Security Council to establish of a contact group consisting of its five permanent members, and possibly NATO and Saudi Arabia, to promote dialogue between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan and Kashmir, and between Pakistan and Afghanistan on delineating their border with the central aim of "assur(ing) Pakistan that the international community is committed to its territorial integrity." The group should also provide security assurances to Russia and Iran about U.S. NATO intentions and to promote regional economic integration and development.

Some of the seeds for a new strategy – particularly efforts at co-opting some elements of the insurgency have already been sown. Late last month, Saudi King Abdullah reportedly hosted a secret four-day exploratory meeting between representatives of the Karzai government and former Taliban officials and others with ties to various factions in the insurgency.

While Washington reportedly played no role in the talks, and may event have been taken somewhat by surprise by their having taken place, Gates last week told reporters in Budapest that he would support engagement with any insurgent faction that disavows ties to al Qaeda. "There has to be ultimately, and I’ll underscore ultimately, reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this. That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us."

Petraeus, whose courtship of former Sunni insurgents in Iraq who broke with al Qaeda there has been hailed as a major contribution to reducing the violence there – if not yet achieving a political settlement – has echoed that view.

"I do think you have to talk to enemies," he told the right-wing Heritage Foundation here last week. "Clearly you want to try to reconcile with as many as possible."

He also told the Post editorial board last week that the problem also had a strong regional dimension that required the involvement of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including India.

As commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Petraeus reportedly promoted a similar approach, although the White House reportedly denied him permission to visit Damascus and channeled all official contacts with Iran through the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.