In the first meeting of its kind, a number of senior NATO officials met with the Afghan ambassador to Brussels and the ambassadors of the five Central Asian NATO member countries last Monday. All previous meetings that have taken place have been limited to committees.
The meeting was held based on the common interest to make Afghanistan succeed and to arrange for flexible crossings along shared borders so that NATO would be able to facilitate logistical support to and from Afghanistan.
NATO stressed that it is depending on the services of these countries to prevent weapons and money reaching the Taliban and Afghanistan. He emphasized that the major problem lies in Pakistan as the countries surrounding Afghanistan have a deeper understanding of the region because of the language, customs, cultures and relations. A NATO official presented his regional economic project to open roads on the borders to facilitate trade between states and to benefit from the power plant that Germany is building in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
There has been a change in political discourse towards Afghanistan; US Secretary of State Robert Gates announced that he is not completely against negotiating with the Taliban to bring the war to an end. The reason for this is that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has failed to win the support of local leaders and he understands fully that he needs them in order to be re-elected. He realized that he must call for reconciliation. However, many government figures know that the Taliban do not want to engage in dialogue with the government and are only concerned with destroying Afghanistan.
At present, Hamid Karzai, tactically, is not paying attention to this divide as he does not want to estrange the Pashtuns and wants to make it look like he is turning towards reconciliation. But in time he will eliminate Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists from the game.
We do not know whether this tactic will undergo a radical change since the Taliban today feels that it has achieved a breakthrough and a victory, meaning that they will not negotiate. Therefore senior NATO officials feel that there is a need to intensify the military confrontation against the Taliban and to make the most of the upcoming winter (during which it is more difficult to carry out military operations) to strengthen cooperation with local leaders in all regions of Afghanistan so that by spring, the basis for cooperation would be solid and the elections would take place safely and naturally. However this idea is still in its first stages of implementation.
A diplomatic memo was leaked recently in which the British Ambassador to Kabul [Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles] said that NATO was destined to lose the war against the Taliban. It was followed by a statement released by British military commander General Mark Carleton-Smith expressing his belief of a similar outcome. US military figures have commented on this perspective itself. Is there a rift between Washington and London as it seems that the latter is looking for an exit strategy from Afghanistan?
An American source in NATO’s headquarters in Brussels told me, “Prolonged talks are being held between London and Washington on Afghanistan. The British are concerned that Karzai does not have much political support, does not take decisive decisions, refuses to be part of the authority and does not listen to his advisers. They do not trust Karzai.”
“We do not share this harsh opinion towards Karzai because, based on the political situation in Afghanistan, he is capable of bringing the rival factions together. He might not be a skilled administrator but we would like to help him improve his performance,” he added.
Concerning an exit strategy, the source said that the British General’s comment is similar to what the Americans are saying, “…but he said it in an indirect manner as we know there is no political solution in Afghanistan and it is not possible to crush every aggressive party to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan. Rather, what we need is an extensive plan to transform the strategy of strong international military action into Afghan leadership with civil dimensions. However, this will take time.”
“We will not reach a point when we can say: We have won,” he added.
“But the British have given themselves ten years before withdrawing from Afghanistan,” I said to my source. He replied, “It will take more years [than that].” I said, “But the British have gone further than the military aspects and have blamed Karzai for spreading corruption and state that his government has lost the trust of the Afghan people.” My source agreed with these two points but asked about the alternative. For that reason, the Americans are choosing to help Karzai change the way he governs and Washington is avoiding concentrating on the Karzai issue so that it does not lose focus on the “bigger problem of Pakistan, since the northern region that is close to it [Afghanistan] is away from any government control or influence in Islamabad; it is the area in which the Taliban and Al Qaeda function with complete freedom.”
He added that the Pakistani government is not happy about this; however, it is unable to do anything about it on its own. “Therefore, the US forces are carrying out unilateral operations on the Pakistani-Afghan borders. Washington is trying to help the Pakistanis.”
At the NATO headquarters in Brussels, the American official admitted that they do not have a satisfactory answer on how to stabilize the situation in Pakistan since they are undertaking a lot of activities [in this regard] but are unsure if this is enough. “We are supporting the civilian authority in Pakistan and we know that Al Qaeda and the Taliban is its biggest threat. We are supporting the military institution in Pakistan, which is trying to build its capabilities to confront this threat, especially that the Pakistani army only has experience in fighting India. We are trying to make them [Pakistanis] see that India is not the main problem; they must focus on the militants. We are trying to set up building projects in troubled areas on both sides of the borders, but specifically in Pakistan. We have convinced the leaders in Kabul and Islamabad to talk to each other and it looks like we have been successful in this regard. Moreover, we have successfully persuaded local leaders on both sides of the border to engage in dialogue with one another.”
Meanwhile, Washington is attempting to strengthen Afghanistan’s capabilities on the border with Pakistan so that it may monitor and protect the crossings. It is also trying to increase the number of international coalition forces in south-east Afghanistan. “The strategy that we depend upon is to purge and take control of the region and then start the building process. But we have found that we have failed to take control of the region; therefore we need more forces to be deployed in the regions to allow us to make way for the building process.”
I said, “News agencies reported that the US Secretary of State Robert Gates had failed in his European mission last week to persuade NATO states and non-member states to support the US campaign in Afghanistan.” My source denied this claim and explained that the US secretary of state pledged an increase in the number of American forces and wanted the Europeans to match this number. Gates made this proposal before the departure of the Bush administration but the Europeans will await the new American administration to decide on numbers and this will not happen before August of next year.
Rules have been amended to allow the NATO forces in Afghanistan to pursue drug smugglers and launch raids on labs where opium is processed since the Taliban and Al Qaeda profit between 80 and 100 million dollars annually from drugs trafficking. The drugs are then sold on the streets of Europe, Iran and Russia because the cultivation of drugs is based mainly in the south and controlled by the Taliban.
I asked my source if Iran is a problem for Afghanistan. “It has its own goals since it has prohibited drug smuggling and does not want the Taliban to infiltrate into its territories. On the other hand however, it is active in the western part of Afghanistan where the Persian language [is spoken] and where Iran has taken charge of paying local officials and managing local affairs. Iran does not like the Taliban but it has means of communication with it and the Afghan government is finding it difficult to find anyone who will listen to it in Tehran. But the Italians who have been deployed in the western parts of Afghanistan are trying to maintain good ties with Iran and are coordinating with the central government in Kabul to keep the area stable and to distance it from violent operations.”
The source added that the Taliban rebellion, according to him, would head in one of four directions:
1 – It may become stronger and pose a threat to Afghanistan
2 – It may be restricted in Afghanistan and therefore head to Pakistan
3 – It may weaken increasingly as a result of joint international, Pakistani and Afghan efforts
4 – It may become more powerful and threaten both Pakistan and Afghanistan
“Perhaps Pakistan is strong enough not to be shaken by Taliban and Al Qaeda operations, but if chaos spreads, it will be a major problem, and if we are more successful in Afghanistan this might have a negative effect in Pakistan,” he said finally.