The Kabul conference, attended by a gathering of top foreign ministers, demonstrated the level of international concern about the future of Afghanistan. Participants agreed 2014 as the target date for the Afghans to take over responsibility for their own security; but a lot must happen before then to make this possible. Afghanistan is a mess that everyone wants cleared up – but the problem is how to do it.
It is clear that the military option has not succeeded. June saw the greatest monthly loss of life among Nato troops since the beginning of the campaign, topping 100 for the first time, and so far 2010 has been twice as lethal for Nato forces as 2009. The Taliban, meanwhile, show no sign of flagging – and, sensing victory, their morale is high.
The injection of billions of dollars of foreign aid has also failed to produce any tangible benefit. Projects are ill-conceived, the economic benefits flow to contractors rather than to the people; corruption flourishes, destroying governance, building cynicism and undermining any belief in the country’s future.
A third approach – reconciliation – was not discussed in public during the conference, but it is now high on everyone’s agenda. Essentially this means talking to key elements of the insurgency and cutting political deals to enable the withdrawal of foreign forces. Consideration of this option has developed to the point that each side has set out its preconditions. For Nato these are that the Taliban break their ties with al-Qaeda, stop fighting and respect the Afghan constitution, while the Taliban insist that foreign forces withdraw, their prisoners are freed and Taliban names are removed from the UN security council sanctions list.
There are many obstacles in the way of talks with the Taliban beyond these preconditions. First there is opposition within Afghanistan. The Taliban are a Pashtun-based movement, and Pashtuns make up just over half the population. Even if all Pashtuns favoured the Taliban’s return to power, the minority groups of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hezara and others would be fiercely opposed. The political pie is only so big, and any reapportionment would leave powerful figures with less than they had before and a real danger of civil war.
Beyond Afghanistan the regional powers are also considering the future. Pakistan and India still regard Afghanistan in terms of their toxic bilateral relationship, with one seeing advantage in a Taliban return to power and the other opposed; Iran will wish to minimise Taliban influence, support the Hazara and stem the drug trade, with which the Taliban have become intimately involved; Russia will be concerned that any resurgence of state-sponsored fundamentalism in Afghanistan does not spill over into other areas of Central Asia, and this may also be a concern for China. Western countries will be concerned that al-Qaeda finds no opportunity to return to Afghanistan – by invitation or by taking advantage of weak government.
These concerns are not, however, reasons to carry on with failed policies. The balance between military and political action has to shift dramatically. After 30 years of conflict the majority of Afghans have no experience of peace, and unless the situation changes, Afghanistan will become a failed state: a swamp of violence and a threat to world security.
Foreign involvement has never been successful in Afghanistan. It would seem sensible, therefore, to encourage the Afghan people to find their own solutions, while offering every support from the sidelines. Once a mechanism for talks is established, Nato forces can act as guarantors and protectors of minority interests while a deal is reached. Pakistan must be involved because it has a better chance than any other player to persuade the elements of the insurgency to talk about peace.
Britain and the US will want two things. First, the opportunity to argue that the lives lost and money spent since 2001 have not been wasted, and second, some assurance that al-Qaeda will not return. In the UK a new government has scope to change policy, but in the US there will be great sensitivity to any suggestion that the administration has failed to atone for 9/11. Talking to the Taliban is acceptable to US voters, but only if done from a position of strength.
However, it is perfectly reasonable for Nato to declare victory. The aim of the Afghan campaign has always been to defeat al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda is now barely present. The Taliban insist they have no intention of interfering with the security of any other nation. There seems every reason to put them to the test.