Americans have lost the war in Afghanistan but Washington warriors are still looking for ways to maintain troops there after the 2014 deadline.
Reconciliation, not war has become the buzzword in Afghanistan. Even the Washington warriors have signed onto this policy and it was all too evident during Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington from January 8–11. Barack Obama, basking in the glory of reelection as president of the United States, explained what he would do following his meeting with Karzai on January 11. The US would end combat operations by the spring of 2013. This means “most unilateral US combat operations should end, with US forces pulling back their patrols from Afghan villages.” This according to Obama was the result of the US “achieving” its objectives in Afghanistan. What those objectives were was not spelled out.
Even while ending combat operations, the US does not intend to leave Afghanistan. Prior to Karzai’s arrival, the US had dropped broad hints that if immunity was not granted to US soldiers remaining in the country after 2014, all US troops would be pulled out. This was a veiled threat to Karzai to acquiesce to US demands or be thrown to the wolves. He may still be abandoned. Americans are notorious for ditching their “staunch allies” once they outlive their usefulness.
On the question of immunity for American soldiers, Karzai said he would put this issue before a Loya Jirga but before setting out for Washington, he claimed he did not see any problem in securing such an agreement. The question is, if Americans are ending combat operations, why do they need immunity from prosecution under local laws? Americans have always operated above the law; they can murder other people but they are answerable to no one. Karzai could hardly refuse this American demand; he would be dropped like a hot potato if he had persisted. He was given a face-saving formula by announcing that Afghan detainees would be placed under Afghan sovereignty but dangerous fighters would remain off the battlefield. The US would continue “to provide assistance to the Afghan detention system.” In other words, the US is not handing over complete control.
The most important and revealing aspect of the Obama-Karzai meeting was the emphasis on Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts. Regional countries were urged to lend support to the effort. As part of the process, the US and Afghanistan would support a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar to facilitate negotiations with the Afghan High Peace Council. Last March the Taliban abandoned opening an office in Doha after the brutal killing of Afghan civilians by American sergeant Robert Bales in Panjwii district. It seems the idea has now been revived. This comes three weeks after the Taliban attended a conference in Paris at which representatives of a number of other Afghan factions were also present.
As part of the reconciliation process, Pakistan was urged to lend “constructive support.” On its part, Islamabad — or more accurately, the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi — has been playing ball. In addition to Kabul releasing hundreds of Taliban prisoners, Pakistan has also announced it would release all Taliban it is holding as detainees. Last month, 26 Taliban fighters were released. The Kabul regime has presented another list of 40 names that it wants Islamabad to release. Given Pakistan’s announcement, it seems certain such a release would occur soon. Many of the people released by Kabul are in fact ordinary villagers rounded up in the broad sweeps. They have played little or no role in the Taliban resistance. Whether such releases will be enough to convince the Taliban to come to the negotiating table is uncertain.
What is clear is the Taliban’s repeated assertion that they would not stop fighting so long as there is even one foreign soldier left on Afghan soil. This is something they will adhere to. The big question, therefore, is whether the agreement Karzai has signed with the US will have any relevance for the future of Afghanistan.
In the harsh environment of the Hindukush Mountains, matters are decided through the barrel of a gun. The Taliban have shown they can wield their guns very effectively even defeating the most heavily-armed military machine in the world. Now that the Americans have indicated their desire to leave (or withdraw from direct combat), and when they do, Karzai and his dwindling band of supporters will find it difficult to stem the Taliban tide. One is forced to ask: what did the Americans achieve by invading and occupying Afghanistan for 12 years, apart from killing a lot of innocent Afghans? Unfortunately, there will be no trial of American soldiers or their political leaders who are responsible for so many innocent deaths.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought