With the jirga over and Bonn II at the doorstep, the US appears to be taking firm steps to stay on in Afghanistan in some fashion after 2014. Doing so may not be all bad if the fighting stops and the US bank rolls reconstruction. This presupposes a ceasefire and talks with the Taliban. The ensuing peace, peacemaking and peace building entails interposition of ‘blue helmets’ between the two sides. Is peacekeeping the answer?
What obtains now can pass as a classic case of ‘hurting stalemate’. This may not be a ‘mutually hurting’ one at the moment, since both the hyper-power and its asymmetric opponent have reserves yet. Nevertheless, the ‘surge’ having expended itself and the Taliban not having exhausted yet another empire, the situation exhibits a certain ‘ripeness’ for resolution.
Irrespective of whether either of the two would view it this way, the people of Afghanistan deserve a try at peace and Pakistani people must be preserved from further effects of instability.
The assassination of the government’s interlocutor suggests that talks have a potential. They need a catalyst. Peace studies theory suggests that if belligerents are unwilling to talk directly, as seems to be the case here, mediation can be tried. The UN has a special political mission, the UNAMA, in Afghanistan. Its good offices could be used to bring the two sides to the table.
Talking while fighting has been tried elsewhere, but doing so could derail talks. As first step, a ceasefire needs working out in the pre-negotiation stage. The trust levels between the two sides, understandably low after 10 years of mutual demonisation and war, implies that a neutral force needs interpose and monitor. This could be by ‘blue berets’, but that would be to expose military observers to undue risk. Instead, ‘blue helmets’ in ‘robust’ peacekeeping are the answer.
Coincidentally, the region boasts of the finest record in peacekeeping. Four countries of the region are represented in the top five UN troop contributing countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nepal. At the recently concluded SAARC summit in Maldives, brave words were spoken in favour of peace. Can the states rise for action? Can the region contribute a joint peacekeeping force for saving a fellow SAARC state from further violence?
Such a force could deploy under a UN flag. As a rough plan, the Pakistani contingents could perhaps locate in Pushtun areas, the Indian deployment could be in the more peaceful north, the Bangladeshis can deploy in between and Nepalis in areas of Hazara domination. Muslim peacekeepers from Turkey, Indonesia etc can deploy alongside as the Taliban had once bid for.
As talks make headway with time, the South Asian profile of the mission can deepen. With India and Pakistan working together, as they have done on UN missions elsewhere brilliantly, the UN mission can graduate into a ‘hybrid’ UN-SAARC one having knock-on benefits for South Asian identity and integration.
A preliminary agreement could be arrived at, confining US troops to their bases. Taliban coming over ground peaceably would require cantonments. With fighting over, negotiations could then proceed towards a comprehensive agreement. This would require the Taliban moderating itself, accommodativeness by the other ethnicities, promise of neutrality and assistance by regional states, US draw down and demilitarisation.
This is an optimist’s future. However, the Taliban may prove obdurate; their al Qaeda allies would sabotage any deal; Islamists may prefer grinding the US down; the US may want an excuse to stay on for other reasons, such as Iran, China, Central Asian access; India could do without Pakistan at ease; Russia and China are not unhappy with the US predicament etc. For the SAARC idea to take off, its two protagonist states need to make up first. At best, the idea is premature. In short, a post 2014 civil war is inevitable.
Between the hopeful and naysayer extremes is the alternative of continuing instability. This is perhaps ‘good enough’, the young in Afghanistan having known no other reality. An ANSF, ratcheted up with ISAF mentoring and Indian training, can take on a degraded Taliban. Yet, the expectation that instability can be managed can prove illusive. The future may conceal an India-Pakistan crisis; spread of instability in Pakistan; economic down turn affects; election-related self-centered US decisions; ‘black swan’ events etc. Outsourcing of the region’s future course to an external power amounts to abdication.
India and Pakistan are happy with the current trajectory of their reengagement. Neither is entirely unhappy with respective strategic circumstance. Pakistan is with fingers crossed, waiting for the US call to broker negotiations with the Taliban. India is preparing for it to fail. Both seem to think, and perhaps rightly, that they can manage the aftermath. Destructive and obstructionist cold war gambits are so much easier to play. Networking instead could reveal policy incapacities, power limitations, intellectual vacuity and a moral deficit.
In other words, peacekeeping is not going to happen. Not until people force their minders – governments and non-state actors – to swallow their ego and work constructively with the ‘other’ side. The idea is here, and so is the time.
Ali Ahmed is a research fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.