Harry C. Blaney III


The recent reports that President Karzai has been double-dealing with the Taliban has created yet another, almost appearing insuperable, barrier to a path of keeping some U.S. “non-combat” troops in Afghanistan after 2014, adding to the likelihood that Afghanistan will once again become a land of brutality, backwardness, and chaos. 


On Tuesday, February 4th at the White House press briefing, the spokesperson said that the U.S. was not against the talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government but refused to indicate if Karzai had given advance notification of the talks. From the Afghan side Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman  said “I can confirm that … Taliban are willing more than ever to join the peace process.” “Contacts have been made and we are also in touch with them. …… Talks took place in Dubai three weeks ago between government officials and Taliban who flew from Doha, but we are still waiting to see the result,” he told Reuters. But these talks were denied by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed, who said by phone, “The group has not been involved in peace talks with [Karzai], …… If he doesn’t sign the [security agreement], we praise Karzai. …… It will create positive relations with him.” But he added: “I suspect Karzai’s resistance against the U.S. may not last for a long time and he will sign the pact.” Everyone is playing games, and the truth is hard to discern.


It does not add to the hope that some kind of larger peace will ensue as there is strong distaste of the Taliban among a majority of the Afghan people, and in some quarters, such a deal could result in armed insurgency, largely among non-Pashtuns. The history of the Taliban, sadly, is one of duplicity, violence, and suppression of everyday acts of modern society, including education and health care for women, forced dress codes and behavior, and beheading. The recent New York Times article has reported that these secret backdoor negotiations have “helped undermine the remaining confidence between the United States and Mr. Karzai, making the already messy end-game of the Afghan conflict event more volatile.”


As background, America  previously tried to undertake negotiations with the “moderate” Taliban. Karzai saw this as an effort to undermine his authority, and the talks led nowhere. There are also conflicting reports as to whether Karzai’s recent efforts ever achieved any results, with American sources saying they broke down. The problem is that any agreement with the Taliban fundamentally leads towards giving them power over areas of the country and/or significant political power, which they will use religiously to create a new insurgency to further their reason d’etre for their existence—the establishment of an extreme Islamic state governed by them alone.     


The fundamental weakness of the entire U.S. strategy has been that the Bush administration put a corrupt and devious leader in charge of this sad country, whose aim seems not to be the well-being of his people, but rather accumulating great wealth for his family and loyal backers and maintaining power via a crooked political machine. Thus, our troops were fighting to achieve a secure country in a battle where their hands were tied by an “ally” that was undermining the hope of broad economic and social progress of the people.  This alienated a large proportion of the citizens and disrupted the creation of a stable and unified nation.


Today, there will be a meeting in the White House of the key U.S. commanders to discuss the situation, hopefully to devise a strategy to address the problem. At this meeting, there will likely be a discussion of the issues related to keeping American and allied troops in Afghanistan and whether the negotiated agreement can be finalized before Karzai leaves office in April, what kind of cooperation is possible with Karzai in the remaining months of his term, and if not, what strategy and actions would be possible to achieve the best possible outcome. Further, that discussion will likely also look at what options the military has in regards to a military base in that country that can deal with terrorism in the region, including Pakistan. In the case that there are no military bases remaining, the use of drones in the region will be impacted.


On the other hand, Karzai may be overplaying his hand, as most of his own backers want the Americans to stay along with the billions of dollars in aid that an American commitment implies. His efforts to undermine U.S. interests, including the release of dangerous Taliban prisoners, in what some reporters think was a concession to get an agreement with the terrorists, was probably the final straw in a long series of wrongheaded actions against American presence and activities in the country. All of this to gain what some believe is leverage against America and make himself look nationalistic and against foreign dominance. Others believe it may be to buy off the Taliban to support his regime and his personal power even past the elections. 


In some ways Karzai actions have forced the U.S. government to address some “inconvenient truths” about our war in Afghanistan that our leaders have ignored for far too long, not so much because of ignorance, but rather for lack of any better knowable and doable path forward.


One on-the-ground reality is whether we can devise any new strategy with a better outcome than now. The constraints to what can be done are serious and real. Yet, as one wag once said, it seems stupid to bang your head against the wall repeatedly and end up with the same headache. Some believe the best remaining option is to simply get out, but they have yet to propose realistic alternatives to maintain the U.S.’s full range of security interests.  Yet, this option remains on the table, and new alternative tools may yet emerge. 


What is clear is that President Obama wants to pull out our troops and stop active military engagement in Afghanistan, but clearly he has agreed to retain something like 10,000 military for training and certain possible actions against terrorists. In the coming days we will learn if this is possible, and if not, what the alternative options are to preserve our interests in the region. It could also lead to a reassessment of these interests. But for now, most analysts see few good choices ahead.


The key problems may be Karzai himself, the perverted system he created, and whether any better leader is in the wings ready to act in the interest of the country.  U.S. aid has done much good in terms of education, health, and other services.  Both educational levels and health outcomes are much better than before we came, despite the obstacles. However, much of the infrastructure that we helped build is now crumbling due to corruption and neglect.


Finally, Afghanistan is a key strategic arena which impacts the critical state of Pakistan and is closely related to other key countries like Iran, China, and India. Again, we need a “grand strategy” for the region which brings all the powers of interest into some kind of “grand bargain” that enhances security for all of these countries, promotes mutual trade and development, and dampens down the historic hostilities that have been the instigator of conflict throughout the region. Please Secretary Kerry, in addition to all your other burdens, do try to sort out this conundrum. Seriously, we and the international community have a long-term, gigantic task to create better conditions and regional landscape for a more peaceful and secure region and to do it with diplomacy, not with a gun.


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