Unknowns in the Afghan saga

Unknowns in the Afghan saga

The timing of United States President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Afghanistan – coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing – may have been driven by election politics, but its purpose went beyond that. 

His televised speech from the Bagram base was designed to send several messages to different audiences. For his war-fatigued nation he held out the assurance that an end to the war was in sight. To Afghans he signaled that America would not rush for the exits, but would remain committed to the country after most NATO combat forces leave Afghanistan in 2014. Pakistan’s cooperation was sought as an “equal partner” in building regional peace and stability. Most significantly, President Obama offered an open door for dialogue to the Taliban.

The speech elicited no comment from Islamabad. Obama’s call for a “negotiated peace” in Afghanistan is what Pakistan has long urged, even if Washington has taken a decade to reach this conclusion. The acknowledgement that his administration is in “direct discussions” with the Taliban marked the first time the president has taken public ownership of last year’s secret contacts with Taliban representatives, aimed at establishing a peace process.

This aligns the U.S. approach more closely with Pakistan’s views. But this potential convergence is overshadowed by the persisting impasse between Pakistan and the U.S. over the terms of re-engagement, and what its starting point should be. The most significant message President Obama’s visit conveyed was that he had a credible and “responsible” plan to wind down America’s longest and increasingly unpopular war. 

Before the prime-time speech, Obama signed a “strategic partnership agreement” with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. This endorsed the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government in 2014, while committing the U.S. to military and economic support for a decade after 2014. President Obama’s statement that the U.S. does not seek permanent bases sidestepped the fact that Washington will have access to several Afghan bases as “joint facilities.” The agreement was silent on this, as well as on the number of forces that will stay on beyond 2014. 

Any plausible strategy to “responsibly” end the war hinges on four factors: 1) progress towards what President Obama now calls a “negotiated peace”; 2) regional support for such a settlement; 3) Afghan governance capacity and 4) the ability of Afghan forces to hold their own and carry out security duties independently of their NATO patrons. The unknowns on all four counts greatly outnumber the knowns at this point. 

Uncertainties also abound about the Afghan presidential election that will coincide with the 2014 withdrawal deadline. Also, Washington’s troubled relations with Tehran and unresolved obstacles in normalizing ties with Islamabad complicate the building of a real regional consensus.

But lack of headway towards what many American officials acknowledge as the “most important pillar” – Afghan reconciliation – poses the biggest challenge. Washington should have focused all its diplomatic energy to move this process forward. The opening bid depended on the administration showing its resolve to put a peace process in place. Instead, its inability to settle in-house rifts and reluctance to use its political capital to release five detainees from Guantanamo – earlier accepted as the first step of a confidence-building package – resulted in the suspension of talks by the Taliban.

Without expeditious resumption of the talks and meaningful progress, the dynamics of the spring fighting season will take over, blighting prospects for a “negotiated peace.” More fighting will only imperil the goal of reconciliation and reduce chances for a political end to the war.

*Dr. Maleeha Lodhi has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. and high commissioner to the U.K. This abridged article originally appeared on Khaleej Times Online.