The Afghan chessboard

The co-ordinated Taliban blitz on the heavily guarded diplomatic quarter of Kabul and across far-flung towns in Afghanistan this week was clearly an attempt to test the security forces’ preparedness as the US and the International Security Assistance Force pare down to a token presence.
That the Afghan security forces proved equal to the task is small comfort as it underscores the Taliban’s uncompromising intent to strike at whim. Ten years or more after they were forced out of power, these assaults, including poisoning the water supply at a girls’ school, must be seen as part of the group’s strategy to intimidate Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government into submission. Or, at the very least, rewrite the rules of engagement to bring the Taliban back into play as a major force that Mr Karzai has little choice but to accommodate.
That they have succeeded beyond their expectations is amply demonstrated by Mr Karzai’s own outreach to the Taliban which comes at a time of deep political uncertainty as Nato and Western forces debate the contours of a handover in Brussels this week, inconclusively.
It therefore raises the key question — Is it wise on the outgoing President’s part to pursue talks with an ageing Afghan Taliban leadership seeking a negotiated return to power while a younger Pakistan proxy in Sirajuddin Haqqani wages a continuing war of attrition and attempts to take Kabul by force? Conversely, does Mr Karzai have a choice? If he did, what would that be?
To Delhi, which has watched the ferment with growing concern, while throwing considerable resources into rebuilding Afghan infrastructure, the need to reorder its cautious approach becomes, therefore, all the more urgent. Safeguarding its own nationals is no doubt a priority. But so is securing India’s national interests, which require the presence of a friendly government in Kabul, offsetting a pro-Islamabad dispensation and opening up the vast mineral wealth in Central Asia for trade and goods to ply on the Grand Trunk Road.
So far, being seen as a raucous secular democracy that serves as Washington’s lynchpin against an unstable Afghanistan-Pakistan, and being unduly apologetic over its support for the Panjsheris who helped the US oust the Taliban, has served little purpose.
Mr Karzai has invested not in India but in the High Peace Council, smoothly inducting the next generation Rabbani into the Taliban peace process after Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani’s shocking assassination in September last year.
As the Afghan leader brings in former diplomat Salahuddin Rabbani and keeps the other Afghan elder and his own mentor Sibghatullah Mojaddedi out, Mr Karzai’s belief that the Taliban — old guard or new — can be trusted does not resonate fully even within his own circle, made up of former mujahideen, Western educated liberals and other sundry power brokers.
Few can forget that it was the Taliban that trussed up and hung a battered President Najibullah from a lamp post, only a stone’s throw from the heavily guarded palace complex that Mr Karzai calls home as Soviet forces withdrew in 1996. The parallels when “occupation forces” withdraw in 2014 are not too difficult to draw.
Sources in Mr Karzai’s inner circle insist that the President’s confidence in holding peace talks with his Talib “brothers” stems from his bid to capitalise on the schism within the Taliban. Two prominent members of the former Taliban government, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef and Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, have been in secret talks with the peace council, backed by Taliban chief Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura — under the benign eye of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence — and the arrival on the scene of another sworn enemy, former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The CIA-ISI-sponsored mujahideen leader whose Hizb-e-Islami battled legendary mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud for control of a battered Kabul through the Eighties into the Nineties, has dispatched his son-in-law Ghairat Baheer to the capital for a fresh round of talks with the Afghan leadership.
As Mr Karzai’s aides grapple with the many skeins in the cat’s cradle that make up the peace overture to the Taliban, their key negotiating tactic is to emphasise the lack of justification for a Taliban-led jihad against their Islamic government in the full knowledge that the weakened Talib old guard have no stomach for a protracted fight.
Few believe they can alter the course of history. Not when ISI-supported Sirajuddin Haqqani, inheritor of his father’s Jalaluddin Haqqani’s mantle, one-time protégé of ISI former chief Hamid Gul, and the man behind the mindless violence against security forces has just one agenda — the removal of “Western puppet” Hamid Karzai.
Now, as Mr Karzai, back to the wall, claims he wants to hand the presidential mantle over to a successor, Afghanistan stands at a crossroads. Its fate, dependent once again on the goodwill of its neighbour, which uses southern Afghanistan as the launch pad for the continuing destabilisation of his country.
Will Pakistan play ball? What is its strategy? How does it affect India, which is suddenly warming to Pakistan but knows it must keep its Panjsheri pawns in play to stay relevant in a country that holds the keys to long-term peace in the region? Is Mr Karzai still India’s friend in Kabul? Who is India betting on?
So far, Mr Karzai has fallen back time and again on Indian counsel, bristling at US criticism of being a weak leader and Pakistan working to replace him with a friendly “Pashtun” face.
India would, no doubt, like to see the return to centre-stage of leaders like Tajik strongman Marshall Fahim and Atta Mohammed, highly effective governor of Balkh, and even former foreign minister Dr Abdullah who has retreated from the public space. Along with a slew of lawmakers, these voices of Afghanistan’s tomorrow have waited patiently by the sidelines for the nine-year-long presidency to end.
But hope cannot be central to a hard-nosed foreign policy. Pakistan’s violent interjection of the Taliban into the Afghan discourse has left India unable to capitalise on the enormous goodwill that exists among Afghans or counter Islamabad as Washington gives Pakistan’s interests precedence. India, epitome of soft power, the country that many Afghans look up to as a role model must move its own pawns on the Afghan chessboard. Or else, the endgame, frenzied, bloody and complicated will see India sitting it out on the sidelines.

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