SUNDAY was the day on which President Karzai and his team had hoped the focus of media attention would be on the progress Afghanistan had made in developing its security forces.
Ashraf Ghani, the head of the transition process, announced, as expected, the third phase of the takeover of security responsibilities by the Afghan National Security Forces. This entails the transfer of 230 districts and the centres of all provincial capitals to Afghan control with the Isaf forces in these areas being withdrawn or moved to their camps, leaving the Afghans responsible for security in 75 per cent of the country. Messages of felicitations from President Obama and the Nato secretary general should have dominated the headlines.
Instead, the focus was on the assassination in Kabul on that fateful morning of Mullah Arsala Rehmani, a former Taliban cabinet minister who had been appointed a senator by President Karzai and a senior member of the High Peace Council.
Mullah Rahmani whom I had met at Track II events in Kabul was an impressive politician. He revealed in the short exchanges I had with him a sharp mind and a pragmatic bent seeking, it seemed to me, like all good politicians, solutions that all parties could subscribe to with minimum loss of face and that involved acceptable compromises on ideological positions.
He believed, or so it appeared from his remarks that, absent external pressures, the Taliban leadership would be flexible. He had, if I recall correctly, made specific mention of the Mullah Omar Eid message in which he had acknowledged in veiled words the need to share power with other ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
It is significant that the acknowledged spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid has denied that the Taliban were responsible for the assassination. It could suggest that the Taliban did regard Rehmani as someone who could have been helpful.
What is ominous is a claim made in a telephonic message to a Pakistani newspaper from a group calling itself the Mullah Dadullah Mahaz claiming responsibility for the killing.
While this is the first time that such a group has been mentioned publicly, there has been, for some time, strong evidence that there are splinter groups within the Taliban movement who have been opposed to the embryonic and now stalled peace talks in Qatar. It would be appropriate for any such group to name itself after Mullah Dadullah, one of the most feared and ruthless of Taliban commanders and whose killing by Isaf forces was probably facilitated by the Taliban leadership, which believed he was getting too big for his boots and becoming a liability.
Two interviews by Agha Jan Motasim to Newsweek and more recently after the Rehmani assassination to AP from his sanctuary in Turkey, lend credence to the belief that the hardliners who may be in a minority and who may not have the ear of the supreme leader, Mullah Omar, are prepared to take ruthless steps to sabotage the prospects for peace talks.
Motasim, a former member of the Quetta Shura and a son-in-law of Mullah Omar, was apparently a member of the Taliban team that went to Qatar early in 2011 to conduct negotiations with the Americans. Motasim says that the majority of the Taliban and the Taliban leadership want a broad-based government for all Afghan people and an Islamic system like other Islamic countries.
Motasim was almost killed in August last year when he was attacked in Karachi and while he says this may have been the result of the violence that prevailed in the city at that time it is probable that this was the handiwork of the same hardliners that have now eliminated Rehmani.
Where does this leave the prospect for peace talks and reconciliation? Even if the Taliban are convinced, as US ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker believes they should be, that the Americans are in Afghanistan for the long haul can the peacemakers among the Taliban take the inherent risks when no palpable advance can be perceived and when the hardliners, albeit a minority, remain a powerful disruptive force?
Other news that also cast a shadow on the announcement of the transfer of security responsibilities was the new ‘green on blue’ incidents. The killing of two British soldiers by members of the Afghan local police brought the total of fatalities in such incidents during 2012 alone to 18. Investigative media reporting suggested that this was an understatement since Nato did not issue any reports on incidents in which there were no fatalities, and even in fatal incidents the number of wounded was usually not mentioned.
While Nato maintains that most of these incidents relate to “personal differences” and were not insurgency-driven an Isaf study entitled A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility had concluded that “Such fratricide-murder incidents are no longer isolated; they reflect a growing systemic threat”. Will the Americans stay for a training mission when most of these incidents are occurring at training sites?
Importantly, while care is taken to avoid mentioning the ethnicity of the perpetrators of such incidents it is evident that in every case a Pakhtun has been involved. The ANSF has been built to almost its full strength, and according to authentic reports, less than three per cent of the members come from the Taliban and Pakhtun-dominated south and east. As a vetting process gets under way to prevent further ‘green on blue’ incidents, it is almost certain that more Pakhtuns will be pushed out skewing further the current ethnic imbalance in the forces and providing further recruits for the Taliban.
On the economic front, there is no news from Afghanistan that can generate optimism. On the contrary, it seems that factories opened to provide supplies to the Afghan forces under American contracts are closing since the Afghans now in charge are buying supplies from China which are cheaper but which reduce employment in Afghanistan.
What this portends for Pakistan and for the currently fraught US-Pakistan relationship will be discussed later.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.