A recently disclosed arrangement for ending the war in Afghanistan, reportedly concluded in secret between Afghan and Pakistani officials, would be a sad end to a process that has been driving Afghanistan—at great cost—back to pre-9/11 conditions. Pakistan, after cultivating extremist groups with precisely this objective in view, would regain indirect hegemony over its neighbor. It would also gain a say in the details of the international troop withdrawal.
While the arrangement may seem to provide the sort of “decent interval” many U.S. officials are wishing for as they plan the exit from Afghanistan, and while a number of commentators have hailed the apparent movement on negotiation that has come in its wake, it does not promise a path to stability.
There is every reason to take the “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” seriously. It tracks with views transmitted to U.S. officials by Pakistani Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and with a pattern of decisionmaking by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose staff includes many members of the extremist Hezb-i-Islami faction, and who sent his older brother Qayum to Pakistan to meet with Taliban leaders as early as 2007. More significantly, most of the concrete actions called for under step one in the document, such as cessation of cross-border shelling, release of Taliban prisoners in Pakistan, and a “follow-up meeting” in Turkey scheduled for December 2012, are either underway or completed.
The document’s most remarkable feature is its language. Purportedly recording an agreement between Karzai and Kayani (who calls the shots in Pakistan on these issues), it reflects neither of their writing styles. The English is flawless, and the construction British, with numbered steps formulated in the infinitive: “The negotiating parties to agree on modalities for the inclusion of Taliban and other armed opposition leaders in the power-structure of the state, to include non-elected positions at different levels.”
The first paragraph, “Afghanistan’s Vision by 2015,” reveals close familiarity with similarly titled classified U.S. interagency documents, whose rosy projections it echoes.
“By 2015,” it reads, “Taliban, Hizb-e Islami and other armed groups will have given up armed opposition, transformed from military entities into political groups, and are actively participating in the country’s political and constitutional processes . . . Afghanistan’s political system remains inclusive, democratic, and equitable, where all political actors co-exist and promote their political goals and aspirations peacefully . . . NATO/ISAF forces will have departed from Afghanistan, leaving the ANSF as the only legitimate armed forces.”
Afghan and Pakistani officials may have agreed to these terms, but they clearly had help developing them.
U.S. officials say that Washington was not involved in elaborating the initiative. Given the reduced role it envisages for the United States on critical national security priorities, such as the specifics of troop withdrawal, official American input may well have been limited—which is not to rule out freelance participation by American “advisers.” British officials and back-channel go-betweens have long worked toward this type of solution.
With no autonomous role in the process sketched out, the United States is essentially reduced to helping delist armed extremists and “supporting” (read financing) Afghanistan in the future.
Pakistan, by contrast, gains a preponderant stake. The very first step calls for a “focus on securing the collaboration of Pakistan.” In particular, Pakistan will “facilitate direct contact between the . . . Government of Afghanistan and identified leaders of . . . armed opposition groups.” Formal talks are to be launched with “authorized” Taliban representatives. Authorized by whom? The plan lets Pakistan determine outcomes by choosing the negotiators—and doubtless influencing their negotiating positions.
The negotiations, moreover, are not just aimed at converting armed insurgents into politicians and allowing them to run for office. The document also stipulates their appointment to key non-elective positions—cabinet posts, governorships, or police commands, for example. Afghan observers predict that this provision will result in their country’s Balkanization, with the Taliban effectively exercising autonomous control over much of the south and east.
Such an outcome—which would allow Pakistan to dominate aspects of Afghan public life and critical regions of the country—is what Pakistani military leaders have been working toward since they first began reconstituting the Taliban in late 2002. The effort was clearly visible at the time, as former Taliban congregated in the tightly controlled Pakistani border towns of Quetta and Chaman, opened recruiting offices and training facilities, distributed weapons and motorcycles at madrassas, and, in one case I became aware of in 2003, drove cars bearing military license plates.
The government of Pakistan claims it desires a peaceful Afghanistan. And yet, as U.S. officials have conceded for months, the Pakistani military has not just been turning a blind eye to the development of insurgent groups on its territory, but has taken an active, sometimes fraught, role in helping develop them. The question is, to what end? Why would a rational country foment explosive instability right on its border? Why would officials take the risk that the extremism they help foster might shift its focus—as it has—to them?
The answer has to do with the Pakistani military’s perception of its rivalry with India. The threat—so constantly evoked as to verge on paranoia—is that of Indian encirclement, a too-cozy relationship between Kabul and Delhi that could leave Pakistan trapped in the middle.
It was to forestall such an eventuality that the Pakistani military leadership aimed to regain a degree of the proxy control over Afghanistan it enjoyed in the 1990s via the Taliban regime. Pakistani officials, like their American counterparts, have opined that insurgencies end around negotiating tables. Through the establishment of safe havens for Pakistani-trained terrorists, the active protection of diverse and frequently reconfiguring groups, and intimate links with the insurgent leaders they have assisted and cajoled and intimidated into the fight, Pakistani officers aimed to stoke a conflict that would require a negotiated settlement, and then determine who would do the negotiating and what they would settle for.
The provisions in the “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” indicate that, ten years on, this approach has succeeded. Should the process it describes go forward, resulting in the re-Talibanization of Afghanistan’s central government and border regions and the return of Afghanistan to roughly its pre-9/11 state, a number of dangerous repercussions will likely ensue.
First, Pakistan will be rewarded for its decision to export extremist violence in pursuit of its national security aims. The perception in Pakistan (and in other countries such as Iran) could be reinforced that the best way to punch above its weight internationally is to use asymmetric violence, be it terrorism or nuclear proliferation.
Second, as history attests, partition is rarely clean or peaceful. Given the exclusion of the Afghan population from the development of this plan, and from the process it establishes, chances are that disenfranchised constituencies opposed to Pakistani domination will eventually take up arms.
Third, Taliban control of southern and eastern Afghanistan, with no international troops on hand, will allow the Pakistani military to push its radicalized proxies, many of which are penetrated by a metastasized al-Qaeda, across the border into Afghanistan. While still able to influence these groups, Pakistan will no longer be held responsible for their actions. Interestingly, the Haqqani network, blamed for some of the most spectacular attacks in Afghanistan, is not mentioned in the document.
Finally, the instability of such a scenario is likely to result in an exodus of refugees into fragile Central Asian states to the north.
Such a conclusion to the war in Afghanistan, while ironic—a dozen years, thousands of lives, and billions of dollars, just to get back to the starting point—was perhaps to be expected. After all, President Karzai was a senior official in the first Taliban regime and the United States has persisted in financing the very insurgents it was fighting, by way of its support to the Pakistani military. If, to cap off these contradictions, U.S. officials choose to go down the path outlined in this so-called roadmap, they would do well to design strategies to mitigate its very clear dangers.