The peace and reconciliation efforts pursued by the government of Afghanistan headed by President Karzai seem to have been abandoned after the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the ex-president and the chairman of the High Peace Council. Within the 70-member Peace Council, the Late Rabbani was a towering figure; his high profile and tall stature as an influential grassroots national leader with a mass following only lent much credibility to the Peace Council that he chaired.
With him now gone, the High Peace Council has lost its leader as well as its rudder, and has been rendered impotent to rise to the enormous challenge of networking with the murky hierarchy of Taliban. It is extremely difficult for Karzai to find a similar person of high stature and mass national following like the Late Rabbani, who can have the required charisma and authority to push forward the difficult process of opening paths of talks and negotiations.
In the wake of the assassination, President Karzai, in a major turnaround, announced that he would no longer seek to talk with the Taliban but with Pakistan who, according to what he says, holds the key to opening the doors of talks and possible negotiations with Afghan Taliban. This fact is welcomed that President Karzai, at least and finally, acknowledged the need to some sort of a regional approach to the problem's resolution; but he never went on to elaborate and explain in greater detail how he and his government intend to carry on the process of talks with Pakistan.
Is the president's professed strategy of talks with Pakistan going to be a radically different game-changer? - which is actually what it should be given the present circumstances. Will it be a total paradigm change or the talks will be pursued in the framework of the same peace commissions that meet once in a while without any concrete, definitive results? It seems that, for now, the President and government of Afghanistan are clueless and have no concrete plan of action as to how to bring about this desperately needed paradigm change in the peace process in general and in talks with our neighbor Pakistan in particular.
President Karzai's recent announcement saying that Afghanistan will be with Pakistan in the event of an American military attack against Pakistan, apart from being a gesture of goodwill, practically serves no purpose other than showing a president that is perplexed and overwhelmed in the face of monumental challenges that he faces.
The onus is now on the government of Afghanistan and President Karzai in particular to launch a renewed engagement of Afghanistan's neighbors including Pakistan and encourage them to work towards bringing about a genuine, regional consensus on the need to stability and peace in Afghanistan. As far as our neighbor Pakistan is concerned, Afghanistan's diplomacy should be revitalized and reinvigorated.
These days and nights, right before the Istanbul and Bonn conferences, we are witnessing enhanced American activism in the region with the visit of Hillary Clinton to the region that is aimed at roping in Pakistan and building a regional consensus on the need to stabilize Afghanistan in a way that will also suit American long-term plans in the region.
This renewed American activism in the region provides Afghanistan and its diplomatic machinery with a good opportunity and space to give a major impetus to its own initiatives and polices aimed at building a greater regional consensus especially with regards to Pakistan. Afghanistan and its diplomatic machinery, however, do not seem to be sharp and flexible enough to seize upon these passing opportunities in any optimal way.
Our regional diplomacy needs a firm shake-up and thorough refurbishment. At least in the run-up to two critical conferences, Istanbul and Bonn, the need for a reinvigorated Afghan diplomacy is felt much more acutely.
Renewed American engagement in the region
Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Pakistan and her subsequent stopovers in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are very important events taking place in the region. With regards to Pakistan, Clinton's visit marks a new American engagement of Pakistan and an attempt on the part of the U.S. to reset its relations with Pakistan after the recent spat between the two over the Haqqani network.
That brawl is, by now, over and as I wrote before, the winner has turned out to be Pakistan who masterly pulled off the plugs on Americans, knowing well the American vulnerabilities and their misunderstanding to some extent of the region and its politics. The U.S., for a while, seemed to be in a belief that it can single-handedly rope in the Taliban by keeping the Pakistanis out of the secret talks with such Taliban figures as Tayyeb Agha.
It was funny to see how Pakistan pulled away the Tayyeb Agha from the table of negotiations with Americans. The U.S. certainly learned some valuable lessons the hard way in the process, including the fact that Pakistan's help is indispensable as long as opening channels of talks with Taliban and Haqqanis are concerned.
The Clinton's visit was aimed at reaching out to Pakistan and working out the details of a strategic understanding with Pakistan in which the U.S. would count on Pakistani help in roping in the Haqqanis and the Taliban. To be sure, the issue of permanent American military bases has also figured in talks between Clinton and her Pakistani interlocutors.
The U.S., in addition to the goal of stabilizing Afghanistan, is hell bent on ensuring a regional understanding and outcome in which it will be allowed to maintain its bases inside Afghanistan indefinitely into the future. The U.S., in the run-up to the signing of this pact with Afghanistan, hopes to garner Pakistan's support in favor of its long-term/permanent military presence.
It also counts on Pakistan to help in persuading the Afghan Taliban to drop their resistance and accept American military presence in exchange for other concessions. The Clinton's visit and the deliberations taken place have sought to reach an understanding with Pakistan over these issues.
The results of these deliberations and talks would not be known as of yet. Pakistan is extremely apprehensive of the prospects of American presence inside Afghanistan. Moreover, the extent of Pakistan's leverage over the Afghan Taliban clearly remains exaggerated.
Afghan Taliban are primarily of Afghan character and naturally have many disagreements with Pakistan the same way that they have with the Afghanistan government. The American reliance on Pakistan to persuade the Afghan Taliban to drop resistance to long-term American military presence is a wishful thinking. Americans will also learn this along the way as they have learnt many other lessons the hard way in the region over the past years. Let us wait and see how the American-Pakistani strategizing will work out over the next coming months