The below leader, published on 18 April in the Guardian newspaper, was written by journalist and regular ORG Liddite conversation participant, David Hearst. The piece quotes the ORG op-ed, 'A Possible Framework For Afghanistan Negotiations', by Giandomenico Picco, consultant to ORG and former UN negotiator involved in ending the Iran-Iraq war and the Geneva agreements on the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan: No endgame in Sight
The key to ending the conflict in Afghanistan may be for us to stop thinking of it as a unified state
Nearly two years ago David Miliband, then foreign secretary, addressed a meeting of Nato confident that the right strategy was being pursued in Afghanistan. They would not force the Taliban to surrender, nor would they convert them. But he went on: "By challenging the insurgency … by building legitimate governance … the Afghan government, with our support, can prevail." Today Mr Miliband, backbench MP, is less certain – on any of those three counts. Last week he said the Taliban's numbers were growing, quoting an Isaf estimate of 35,000 full-time fighters; he challenged the idea that law and order could be delivered by the forces of a central state; and as for legitimate governance, there were two views of Hamid Karzai – a man uniquely qualified to unite his people, or its weakest link, with electoral fraud, corruption, cronyism and caprice sapping the strength of the Afghan government. Mr Miliband did not commit himself, but said it was incontestable that the Taliban are outcompeting the government in too many areas, dispensing their own rough but incorrupt justice. So while the west has set a date for the end of the war in 2014, Mr Miliband concluded that no political strategy yet exists to end the conflict.
Nor is he the only voice to doubt the relentless focus on military operations. A taskforce headed by Lakhdar Brahimi, former UN special representative for Afghanistan, and Thomas Pickering, former US undersecretary of state, said the current policy of reintegration may peel away small units of the Taliban, but would never provide the political resolution that peace would require. That could only be done by a settlement which would allow representation of the Taliban in central and provincial governments; the determination of the proper role of Islamic law in regulating dress, behaviour and the administration of justice; the protection of women's rights; the incorporation of Taliban fighters into the security forces; the severance of their ties with al-Qaida; and a guaranteed withdrawal of foreign forces.
All this comes late in the day. The western intervention is now longer than the Soviet one. But three years from the date set for withdrawal, no political component to that deadline exists. Nor is there a unified view in Washington about how to achieve it. With the Taliban pushed as a major presence out of Helmand and Kandahar, self-congratulation and self-doubt fill the air in roughly equal portions. The surge of US troop numbers is at its peak, but everyone is bracing themselves for another year of ferocious bloodshed, as the Taliban merely switch tactics from roadside bombs to suicide bombings and softer targets. Instead of fighting its way to the negotiating table, the US troop surge may simply be sawing the legs off it.
There is no dearth of creative ideas for an end to this conflict. But Washington may not be as powerful as it thinks in the endgame. A former UN negotiator involved in the Geneva agreements on the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Giandomenico Picco, said in a paper that we may have to abandon the idea of Afghanistan as a centrally governed nation state – a fallacy shared by the Soviets, the Taliban and the west. Its porous borders could only be guaranteed by a regional summit of the countries that effect them – Pakistan, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Everyone seems to have forgotten Riyadh's influence on Islamabad. And including Iran as a regional power in a forum, unconnected to the nuclear issue, could also be a way of breaking that deadlock.
US generals believe salvation lies in an Afghan National Security Force, 305,000 strong. They cling to the hope that an Afghan state will endure their departure. After decades of war, both remain untested assumptions. Nato could still avoid an ignominious exit, but as things stand the one staged by the Soviets, on whom history has poured such scorn, may end up being veritably ordered in comparison.