As the United States draws down its forces in Afghanistan toward 2014, it’s easy to look at the country and see a future civil war. That, indeed, is one of the arguments made in Washington, among hawks and critics of the Obama administration, who want to retain significant military force in-country long past December, 2014. Pull out too quickly, they argue, and the Taliban will take over, chaos will ensue, and Afghanistan will return to the early 1990s, when warlords ruled the day.
Dexter Filkins, a veteran New York Times reporter, wrote a lengthy take on Afghanistan in the July 9-16 New Yorker, “After America: Will civil war hit Afghanistan when the U.S. leaves?” His answer, in essence, is yes; everyone’s rearming, and the old Northern Alliance forces won’t take kindly to a Taliban resurgence. Even peace talks with the Taliban will touch off the powder keg, he suggests. “The dilemma is stark: while the U.S. wants a deal with the Taliban, such a deal could possibly create the conditions for civil war,” writes Filkins.
Not so fast.
Far more likely, Afghanistan will muddle through – what some U.S. commanders call “Afghan good enough” – and both Afghanistan’s rambunctious factions and its trouble-making neighbors will look over the cliff and then decide that it’s time to compromise.
Omar Samad thinks that’s probably what’s going to happen. Samad, former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada, says that as long as a number of pieces fall into place between now and 2014, the various actors in the Afghan drama are likely to strike a deal, and he points to a series of Track II diplomatic encounters, most recently in Paris and Kyoto, to back this up.
“Those who are concerned about a Taliban takeover and about an unjust power grab by the Taliban would be satisfied [with] a requirement that the Taliban accept to be a political force, and not an armed force,” says Samad, in an interview with The Diplomat. And, he says, if the Pakistani strategists who handle “the Taliban file” in Islamabad can be persuaded to cooperate, then an arrangement might be worked out. “The Taliban’s choice will be made easier if Pakistan plays a more constructive and helpful role,” he says.
In a recent essay in Foreign Policy, Samad wrote encouragingly about the talks in Paris and Kyoto. The talks in Japan, held June 27 at Doshisha University’s Graduate School of Global Studies were especially important, he says, because they involved a Taliban official, Qari Din Muhammad, a member of the Taliban’s political office handling foreign affairs with close ties to the Taliban leadership, who met face-to-face with Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, head of the secretariat of the Afghan High Peace Council. What’s striking about the Kyoto talks, convened to explore the idea of political reconciliation in Afghanistan, is that Din Muhammad’s travel, first to Qatar and then to Japan, appear to have been approved by the government of Pakistan, which carefully controls Taliban official travel in and out of the country. “My gut instinct is that the green light for his trip came from Pakistan,” Samad told The Diplomat.
While in Japan, Din Muhammad gave an interview to the Asahi Shimbun which, says Samad, was a significant event in itself. In it, the Taliban official declared the organization’s willingness to conduct direct talks with the government of President Hamid Karzai. “We can have dialogue with him as Afghans if foreign troops leave,” said Din Muhammad – and at least some experts on Afghanistan believe that President Obama’s commitment to draw down forces can be construed by the Taliban as fulfilling that condition. Masanori Naito, a professor of Islamic studies at the university that convened the talks, told Asahi Shimbun: “The Taliban apparently wants to increase its presence ahead of the International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan scheduled for July 8 in Tokyo. It may be also intending to move forward in talks with the United States toward a ceasefire.”
Indeed, says Samad, the Taliban is sending signals that it wants to get back on “the Qatar track” of talks with the United States, too. Those talks, on and off for two years, were suspended in the wake of a massacre committed by a rogue American sergeant near Kandahar.
The Paris talks, while less significant than the Kyoto parley because current Taliban officials did not attend, was also important as a dialogue among a broad spectrum of Afghanistan political factions who want to avoid civil war, says Samad.
In his Foreign Policy piece, Samad wrote:
“The Paris gathering on June 20-21 attended by representatives of the country’s main political factions, High Peace Council (HPC), parliamentarians and members of civil society, was organized by the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) and provided strict instructions to all delegates to keep a low profile. The first of such off-the-record meetings organized by FRS was held last November in Paris and was attended by a smaller number of Afghan political actors. … While no active Taliban member took part in the Paris meeting, several ex-Taliban officials, including Mullah Salam Zaeef—who was also invited to Japan—Abdul Hakim Mujahed and Habibulah Fowzi, as well as Hezb-i Islami Hekmatyar group members Ghairat Baheer and Amin Karim, did attend. … Over a two-day period, delegates mulled over election laws, decentralization and devolution, governance, constitutional reform, regional interference, the NATO pullout and reconciliation.”
The HPC is led by Salahuddin Rabbani, elevated to the head of the peace council after the assassination of his father, a former leader of the council.
Besides the July 8 Tokyo summit, at which donors pledged up to $16 billion to Afghanistan in civilian aid over four years, there has been a steady series of international meetings dedicated to political and diplomatic solutions to the Afghan crisis. While none has been conclusive, taken together they provide strong evidence that Afghanistan’s neighbors and other world powers do not want the country to tumble into civil war.
One of the recent gatherings was the so-called “Heart of Asia” group, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. At that meeting, held in Kabul, Karzai told attendees that he is committed to working with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the two historical patrons of the Taliban, to reach a peace accord.
A second recent gathering was held under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose members include China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, with participation from Afghanistan, India, Iran, and Pakistan. Speaking at SCO summit in Beijing, S.M. Krishna, the foreign minister of India, said that the SCO “provides a promising alternative regional platform to discuss the rapidly changing Afghan situation.” For decades, many experts have viewed the crisis in Afghanistan as a kind of proxy war between India and Pakistan, so Krishna’s remarks were considered particularly important as a kind of olive branch extended to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban, it seems, noticed. After India appeared to give a hesitant response to U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s call for India to become more deeply engaged in Afghanistan – an action certain to alarm Pakistan and its Taliban allies – the Taliban praised India for its restraint. Said a Taliban spokesman: “It shows that India understands the facts. They are aware of the Afghan aspirations, creeds and love for freedom. It is totally illogical they should plunge their nation into a calamity just for the Americans’ pleasure.”
None of this means that Afghanistan can’t fall into the abyss of civil war. But, says Samad, “Afghanistan is not a country whose population is eager to wage civil war.” Indeed, most Afghans are exhausted after three decades of war and violence. “I am of the view that civil war or collapse is only one possibility, and not the only one,” he tells The Diplomat. “It can be mitigated if we play our cards right.”
A senior Taliban official, interviewed in The New Statesman this month by Michael Semple, in an issue guest-edited by former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, boosted hopes of those who argue the Taliban may no longer believe it has a military path to victory. “The Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect,” said the unnamed Taliban official. “Any Taliban leader expecting to be able to capture Kabul is making a grave mistake. Nevertheless, the leadership also knows that it cannot afford to acknowledge this weakness. To do so would undermine the morale of Taliban personnel. The leadership knows the truth – that they cannot prevail over the power they confront.”
He added: “Any side involved in a conflict like this has decided to fight for power. If they fall short of achieving national power, they have to settle for functioning as an organized party within the country.”
Of course, that’s precisely what worries some current and former Afghan officials, who’ve pledged to halt even a political Taliban by force. Some hardliners, such as former Afghan chief of intelligence Amrullah Saleh – who opted out of the Paris and Kyoto talks – may want to drag Afghanistan into civil war. But many others, including some Taliban officials, seem prepared to proceed down the diplomatic path.