PREDICTABLY, an article in the New York Times stating that President Barack Obama was now seriously considering the option of retaining no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 has provoked reaction in both Kabul and Washington.
At the Washington end, the White House spokesman confirmed that the ‘zero option’ was still on the table but added that there was no decision yet on troop levels, and that no such decision was imminent.
Ambassador James Dobbins reinforced this in his Senate testimony of July 11 when he said, “Without an agreement on our presence in Afghanistan we would not remain. But we do not believe that that’s the likely outcome of these negotiations.”
Few analysts who form part of the security establishment in the US have supported the zero option but all are clear that maintaining a “residual presence” will depend on President Hamid Karzai’s agreement to grant immunity from Afghan law to American troops and being prepared to let the political transition move towards electing a new president in April 2014.
In the words of Mr Dobbins, “our main priority for the coming year is neither the military transition, nor the reconciliation process, but rather the political transition that will occur when the Afghan people choose a new president and a new president takes office next year”.
Only marginally less important is the failure of the Afghan administration to live up to the promises it made in Tokyo to control corruption and undertake structural reforms.
At a meeting of senior officials from the donor countries held in Kabul, it was said that Afghanistan had met only three of the 17 benchmarks agreed upon in Tokyo as the condition for the fulfilment of the pledge of $4 billion in annual economic assistance — the so-called Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework.
Norway, one of the 10 top donors, threatened to stop assistance because “Afghanistan was not living up to its commitments to prepare for credible elections, to improve women’s rights and to fight corruption”. This one can assume was not done without coordination with other Western donors.
Karzai’s spokesman dismissed the NYT’s story as an attempt to pressure Afghanistan and said the zero option had never been raised in US-Afghan negotiations. Other Afghans, however, were critical of Karzai for having brought relations with the US to this sorry pass.
On July 14, the Afghan parliament finally passed the law regulating the structure and responsibilities of the electoral management bodies. The other law, which would define the legal framework of the electoral process, has yet to be passed.
Equally important, both laws would need presidential approval that may be problematic since Karzai would much prefer that the elections were held under the same sort of presidential decrees in place when the controversial 2009 elections were held.
There is a strong belief in Kabul’s political circles that Karzai will create a situation where he can invoke the emergency clause in the Afghan constitution to postpone the election and thus extend his term, or failing that, manipulate the poll to have his chosen successor elected. These apprehensions were reinforced by the convening of tribal meetings in Helmand and Kandahar, allegedly prompted by the president, at which it was proposed that elections be postponed until the security situation improved.
People also suspect that the consultative loya jirga Karzai proposes to call to discuss the US-Afghan security agreement would also be used to push through a constitutional amendment to allow Karzai a third term.
On the other hand, in Karz, the president’s hometown, a gathering of elders led by Hashmat Karzai, Karzai’s cousin, castigated him for his many failures and made it clear that they want him ousted.
Partly, of course, this discord within the family is owed to quarrels about the control of the various profitable enterprises that the deceased brother Ahmad Wali Karzai had set up while ruling Kandahar with an iron hand. I suspect such discord is, in part, being promoted by the intelligence services of the Nato governments.
In the meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban have turned down suggestions for a Ramazan ceasefire made by Karzai and the UN and have insisted they will fight harder during the month since they will then receive greater rewards.
They have temporarily closed the office in Doha and by some accounts have said they will not reopen it until they are permitted to use their flag and the plaque designating the office as that of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — an unjustified demand that will not be met even by a sympathetic Qatar.
In short, Karzai remains at odds with his Nato partners and is apparently doing little to assuage their concerns or to fulfil the commitments made in Tokyo.
Rightly or wrongly, his political opponents fear that he has no intention of permitting free and fair presidential elections in April next year. Reconciliation seems to have no priority in his present plans and the Taliban posture makes it possible for him to maintain this stance.
What does this mean for a beleaguered Pakistan? Our home-grown Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has apparently decided to send volunteers to Syria as part of their commitment to Al Qaeda. This will serve to confirm the prevailing belief in the West that the TTP and affiliated parties have an international Islamist agenda and must be targeted by whatever means are available if Pakistan itself cannot or will not do so.
The TTP has thrown out its spokesman because he cast doubts on the group’s loyalty to Afghan leader Mullah Omar. None of our leaders past or present have publicly stated what the presence of insurgents on our soil owing loyalty to a foreigner could mean for the territorial integrity of Pakistan.
As and when the postponed all-parties conference is convened to develop a consensus on tackling internal security problems, it will probably reach the conclusion that we can successfully tackle our Taliban only after the Afghan Taliban have left, and that this will happen only after there is reconciliation in Afghanistan.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.