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The view from Afghanistan

November 18, 2012

AFGHANS love their tales and folklores and parables. So here’s one from a High Peace Council member in Kabul on his return from Pakistan:

Once upon a time, a disease swept through a village, killing the local cattle. Worried, the villagers asked the mullah to organise prayers to save their cattle.

It’s nothing to worry about, the mullah responded, this will pass.

Soon after, the mullah’s own cattle was struck by the disease and died.

That’s when the mullah gathered the villagers and said, let’s pray.

The link to the Pakistani security establishment’s Afghan policy?

For decades, Pakistan meddled in Afghanistan, complacent in the knowledge that the fallout of instability in Afghanistan would not spill over into Pakistan.

But with Pakistan’s tribal areas and border with Afghanistan now on fire, the Pakistani security establishment may cautiously be rethinking its failed Afghan policy.

Perhaps, though, the most notable aspect of the High Peace Council’s visit to Pakistan and the frenzied media coverage across the border is the collective shrug the news has been received with in Afghanistan.

On a 1,000km journey by road from Islamabad to Mazar-i-Sharif and then back again over the past week, if there’s anything that has stood out about the HPC’s efforts is how few Afghans consider them relevant or significant.

The problem is the Taliban, or the people’s perception of the Taliban.

Why should the Taliban negotiate with a weak peace council blessed by a government the Taliban refuses to accept as legitimate?

So widespread is the scepticism of the HPC’s chances of success that even council members privately express doubts about their relevance.

It’s not like anything else has worked, they argue. The only alternative is war, they say.

But at least in the minds of Afghans, there is an alternative: direct negotiations between the Americans and the Taliban.

Only those who start the war can end it, the argument goes.

And for genuine movement on the reconciliation front, Afghans are looking for two gestures in particular from the American side: the release of Afghan Taliban held in Guantanamo Bay and the removal of Afghan Taliban from the UN terrorism watchlist.

Anything short of that and Afghans seem unlikely to get very excited about reconciliation.

Even then, there is a basic unresolved tension in American strategy: talk-talk and fight-fight means you’re inviting the Taliban to the negotiating table even as you’re killing them on the battlefield.

It may sound clever in theory but nobody in Afghanistan really seems to believe you can talk and shoot at the same time and yet hope something good comes of it.

But back to the HPC’s efforts.

The Afghan side mooted three options for the release of the detainees:

One, hand the detained Afghan Taliban over to the HPC for return to Afghanistan where they would be kept as ‘guests’ of the Afghan government.

Two, extradite the detainees to a third country.

Three, release the detainees on Pakistani soil and allow them to decide if they wanted to go to Afghanistan or a third country.

Apparently, the third option was settled on because it posed the least legal complications for Pakistan as compared to forcible repatriation to Afghanistan or extradition to a third country.

Quite where the released detainees have opted to go no one is willing to say right now.

But the HPC’s two-point agenda on this trip hints at the destination: in addition to focusing on prisoner releases, the HPC wanted Pakistani assurances on facilitating talks in a third country, most likely one of the Gulf states.

The emphasis on a third country tells a tale of its own.

The belief is that somehow bad things happen on Afghan soil to Afghan Taliban who express an interest in talking to the Afghan government.

They either end up dead or injured or their families are threatened.

Quite why that is so is one of the many confounding mysteries of Afghanistan.

Some think it’s the Pakistanis trying to prevent being kept out of the reconciliation loop.

Others think it’s the Americans, because delayed reconciliation will strengthen the argument for a long-term residual military presence in Afghanistan.

And yet others think it’s the Afghan Taliban themselves, because the warriors out in the field don’t want reconciliation — they want what they believe is their right: to rule Afghanistan.

How does any of that gel with the consensus that the HPCs efforts aren’t likely to go anywhere in any case because it’s the Americans who hold the key to reconciliation, not the Afghan government?

Go figure. Few theories in Afghanistan are consistent or internally coherent.

Perhaps the greatest immediate relevance of the detainee release is what it says about the state of Pak-US relations.

The Americans pressed hard for this gesture by Pakistan and had in private been assured by the army that it would happen at the time of the HPCs visit to Pakistan.

That it did in fact happen suggests some movement, however small, on resolving the long-standing impasse between Pakistan and the US.

The Pakistan Army has long argued that it needs to know the US plan for Afghanistan before it can settle on its own strategy.

Implicit is the fear that the Americans either have a long-term plan harmful to Pakistani interests or the lack of a plan could force last-minute decisions that could be inimical to Pakistan’s interest as articulated by the army.

So has there been some movement in convincing the army that the Americans don’t have malign intentions, deliberate or inadvertent?

Possibly. There certainly has been a concerted diplomatic push, including by countries other than the US, to convince the army of that.

Then again, it could just be that a clock winding down has a logic of its own.

Plans, real or imagined, matter little when events threaten to overtake them.

2014 is around the corner: better to be somewhat flexible and in the loop than utterly intransigent and shut out altogether.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm