January 6, 2012

Another year of uncertainty

Photo: Abhishek Srivastava

The new year will be a year of follow- up conferences for Afghanistan to achieve what the US and its NATO allies failed to achieve in 2011. This year’s summer will be a test of the capacity and capabilities of Afghan security forces as insurgents will intensify the attacks in areas controlled by the Afghan Army. The year will also be decisive for talks with the Taliban amid increasing domestic political demand and the need for radical changes in the government system in Afghanistan.

With the United States presidential election campaign on full swing, President Barack Obama will seek to keep his promise of troops’ withdrawal that is being resisted by Pentagon. He will also try push for an endgame through some sort of a political settlement with the Taliban, although it is unlikely that any breakthrough can be made this year.

Conferences have been planned to workout the endgame narrative, starting with the 5th Regional Economic Construction Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA) to be hosted by Tajikistan in Dushanbe on March 26-27. Tajikistan will be followed up by Kabul International Conference in June to seek regional cooperation on the prospects of seeking a regional consensus on objectives which could not be achieved in the Istanbul Summit last year.

Come July, the international community is expected to pledge continuation of aid at the Transition to Transformation Decade of 2015-2025 in the Tokyo International Conference on Afghanistan. The Karzai Administration has been trying to attain some sort of a guarantee on international economic assistance.

The NATO Summit in Chicago on May 20- 21 will discuss the continued assistance to sustain the Afghan National Security Forces, which will require about $10 billion annually throughout the Transition Decade. The NATO Summit will discuss the joint Afghan- ISAF assessment following the condition- based transition plan endorsed in the Lisbon Summit. They might come up with a more palpable arrangement and clearer withdrawal deadline, depending on the terms of US- Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement on presence of American troops beyond 2014. The agreement is expected to be finalised before the NATO Summit, depending if Kabul and Washington agree on the deadlock about Karzai’s demands that night raids be ended, control of prisoners and an end to impunity of Americans in Afghanistan.

The Americans are not going to accept the end to impunity and night raids, but cede prisoners’ control. The uncertainty of US plans about Afghanistan beyond 2014 has left its NATO allies in confusion. There are clear differences among top US officials–between the State Department and Pentagon. There still remains the doubt if this confusion could be cleared before the NATO Summit in Chicago and a common road map drawn.

This year will also be a test of the security transition plan. The second phase of transition has brought almost half of the Afghan population under security responsibility of ANSF. The NATO Summit in Lisbon, which endorsed the transition plan made it clear that transition means Afghan forces taking lead and not an exit plan for international troops. The Chicago Summit, though the agenda is not clear yet, might discuss a concrete road map on ISAF withdrawal. The capability tests of ANSF this year and other factors such as the willingness of America’s NATO allies to share greater financial burden in Afghanistan at the time of international fiscal crisis will determine the road map.

Talks about talks with the Taliban could not make any headway in 2011. With the reports of a ‘political office’ for Taliban in Qatar,the uncertain US exit strategy narrative will give us a ‘political address’ for insurgents in 2012. But it is hard to see prospects of any breakthrough in reconciliation process. Neither the US, nor the Afghan Government has a clear vision for this. Even if some elements of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura with approval of Mullah Omar show willingness for an eventual political settlement, it is unclear how it will look like. The intentions of splinter groups such as Haqqani Network, Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami and others, who are operating from Waziristan and are quite outside the influence of mainstream Taliban leadership is still unclear. This will remain a critical issue for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Talks about talks with the Taliban could not produce any starting point in 2011

However, the sense of uncertainty among Afghans towards the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan has resulted in a more coherent political evaluation of the country and its future. All the political leadership in opposition are more expressive of the fault-line

in Afghanistan–the over-centralised presidential system imposed by the international community in 2001.

President Karzai has already started preparations to remain in power beyond the constitutional limit of two-terms in office, through constitutional manoeuvring. Recently a leaked BND German intelligence report said President Karzai’s preparations for the Bonn Conference included discussions on removing the constitutional limit of two terms in office, which could be easily done through the manipulation of the Loya Jirga and a deal with any faction in the opposition. Recently a tribal meeting of elders from Kandahar—Karzai’s hometown—was held in Kabul hosted by Qayom Karzai, President’s brother. Reportedly, the gathering was to discuss “the start of an election campaign”.

There is a possibility that Karzai will not hesitate to go down the confrontation path to cement his third term. Lack of alternative leadership should not be an excuse for the international community or the United Nations to shy away from safeguarding the democratic process. Regardless of the fact that reconciliation with the Taliban might not reach a breakthrough before the Presidential elections in 2014, the democratic process has to continue and improve, with full support and backing of the international community.

There are three major opposition blocks, which offer an alternative to the Karzai administration. The reformist Hizb Haqwa Edalat (Rights and Justice Party), National Front, a coalition of ethnocentric heavyweights, and the National Coalition led by Dr Abdullah Abdullah. National Front and National Coalition are want a radical change in the structure of the government. They are advocating for a federal parliamentary administrative system. Both also oppose the current approach of reconciliation with insurgents and greater transparency of the process. The National Front has publicly called for an UN-led process of reconciliation.

These new political alliances made in the last few months of 2011 will rally mass mobilisation on these issues this year,and the international community will increasingly realise that an overly centralised system is a recipe of political instability. They and the Karzai administration will have to listen to these popular demands. India as the biggest democracy of the world and one of the best federal parliamentary model for Afghanistan should use its influence with the international community to urge for radical administrative reforms.

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