Could Taliban talks lead to partition of Afghanistan?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 10 Jul 2013 8 Comments
The much-expected talks between the Taliban and the United States in Doha have not yet begun, and there is no clear indication when the two parties, busy settling their list of pre-negotiation do’s and don’ts, will finally sit down to discuss the features of post-2014 Afghanistan and determine role of various parties in the future. Meanwhile, some within Afghanistan have expressed concern that if indeed talks progress between the Taliban and the Americans, it may lead to the partition of Afghanistan.


As of now it seems that one important party, the Government of Afghanistan led by President Hamid Karzai, has suspicions that the Americans are working toward allowing the Taliban to carve out some territory of its own as part of the so-called solution to the Afghan imbroglio, and has remained unwilling to participate in these talks.


President Karzai demands Afghan-to-Afghan talks unfettered by the presence of foreigners - particularly those who invaded, fought the Taliban unsuccessfully for more than a decade, and are now looking for a conditional getaway. President Karzai’s hard stance may change. After all, he also knows that he will have to depend on these foreigners’ money to keep Kabul secure after the 100,000-plus foreign troops leave Afghanistan by mid-2014.


What happens next?


However, these are short-term logistical problems. What is certain at this point is that the vast majority of foreign troops will leave Afghanistan according to the timetable set by US President Barack Obama. The big question for the Afghans is: what happens in the long term? What will Kabul require to maintain the Afghan form of security and peace after the US/NATO troops leave, or will Afghanistan willy-nilly pitch itself right into yet another bloodletting civil war - like what followed the Soviet troop withdrawal in 1989?


At that time, the Afghan strongman Najibullah, a friend of the Soviets and a gritty Pushtun, had held on to power for almost five years fighting various Mujahideen groups. Most of those groups were propped up by the West, the Saudis and Pakistan in the 1980s using “Islamic Jihad” as the battle cry to fight the Soviet military. After the Soviets left, some of these groups continued to receive active Pakistani help to topple Najibullah, then the Afghan symbol of the godless Soviets. The question is: Will the withdrawal in 2014 usher in the same players that we saw in 1989, killing at random to get control of Kabul? Who knows?


The current tiff between Kabul and Washington that is receiving attention in the mainstream media is part of a power play in progress between President Karzai and the United States. This, too, will pass. But what is not certain is what the talks will in fact bring in. Will they bear the fruit that the Obama administration is hoping for?


Max Fisher of the New York Times noted that the so-called peace talks are already on shaky ground for three reasons. First, on the same day Washington announced the opening of “peace talks,” the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four Americans. Second, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced he was no longer planning to participate in either the talks or a separate troop-level negotiation with the United States. And, third, the Taliban’s new office in Doha flew a banner labeled “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and a flag from its days of ruling the country. “All three are individually bad signs that represent much larger challenges for peace in Afghanistan,” said Fisher. “In some ways, though, it’s the flag that’s most serious” (“The ultimate symbol of why Afghan peace talks will be so difficult,” Max Fisher, New York Times, June 19, 2013). Maybe Fischer is overstating here. This little summer thunderstorm may pass in no time.


But, the problem is that even if the talks turn out to be “successful,” will that be any good for the Afghans? There is no reason to believe that President Obama is losing sleep over that. As far as he is concerned, a peaceful withdrawal from Afghanistan - unlike the kind of withdrawal from Vietnam that resembled so starkly the fearful retreat of a defeated military - is all that he cares about, even if that means supping with the devil. All the rest of the verbiage that comes out of Washington is rhetoric.


Appeasing the Taliban?


That, however, also means that Washington needs to keep the Taliban in good humor, and that means allowing the group to have some sort of authority in Kabul when the foreigners are gone - or, most of them. There is a distinct possibility that the upcoming talks will include this as an important item.


Some in Washington have long claimed that the Taliban is not really that bad. In a December 2011 interview with Newsweek/Daily Beast, US Vice President Joseph Biden said as much. “We are in a position where if Afghanistan ceased and desisted from being a haven for people who do damage and have as a target the United States of America and their allies, that’s good enough. That’s good enough. We’re not there yet,” said Biden. “Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical,” he insisted. “There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens US interests...”


What Biden says is clear. The United States has zero problem with the Taliban. But it has loads of problems with the al-Qaeda. In Afghanistan, however, those problems have been mostly resolved. In fact, Washington claims that it has virtually decimated al-Qaeda - the real bad guys - and the upcoming deal with the Taliban will include the condition that the Taliban cannot allow al-Qaeda to set up shop in Afghanistan once again. If all these negotiating points work out, the Taliban could have a legitimate presence in Kabul.


Some in Afghanistan claim that long before that becomes a reality, talks with the Taliban - who have a put up a plaque in Doha claiming themselves to be the representatives of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” as opposed to the citizens of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the actual name of the Afghan Government - will pave the way for partition of Afghanistan.


Afghanistan’s Weesa Daily, in its June 19 editorial referring to these developments, said attention should be paid to several major points: First, the opening of the office is an understanding between the Taliban and the United States, and the Taliban now think that US forces in Afghanistan have been defeated and are escaping while the US considers how to leave the ongoing war to Afghans so that it can merely watch. If there is no crisis following President Karzai’s term and if peace talks advance as planned, the Taliban, according to their recent statement, will hold talks with all involved sides. But, notes Weesa Daily, “these talks of the Taliban with all involved sides would resume based on the plans suggested by US Senator Dana Rohrabacher and US Vice-President Joe Biden, who have suggested Afghanistan’s division - which may result in civil war.”


Partition of Afghanistan?


Well, US Vice President Biden has talked about the “soft partition” of Iraq, but never about the partition of Afghanistan; while Congressman (not Senator) Rohrabacher has participated in deliberations where partition/decentralization of Afghanistan was addressed as an issue. But before Rohrabacher got into the act, former US Ambassador to India and US National Security Council Deputy for Iraq (2003–2004) Robert Blackwill, a neo-con, had identified the partition of Afghanistan as Plan B.


In a July 2010 article in Politico, Blackwill was highly critical of the Karzai administration (“Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s deeply corrupt government - as unpopular as the Taliban - shows no sign of improvement”) and implied that the “corrupt governance” of Kabul was the prime reason behind US/NATO’s failure to “win” the war in Afghanistan. He called for a ‘de facto partition’ of Afghanistan and urged the Obama administration to “accept that the Taliban will inevitably control most of its historic stronghold in the Pashtun south.” But, Blackwill added, “Washington could ensure that north and west Afghanistan do not succumb to jihadi extremism, using US air power and special forces along with the Afghan army and like-minded nations.”


Blackwill also stated: “Given the number of US combat forces now fighting, the Taliban cannot be sufficiently weakened in Pashtun Afghanistan to drive it to the negotiating table on any reasonable timeline. True, the Afghan Pashtun are not a unified group. But they do agree on opposing foreign occupation and wanting Pashtun supremacy.”


In January 2012, Chairman of the Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittee of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) went to Berlin at the head of a bipartisan congressional group represented by Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Steve King (R-Iowa) and Loretta Sanchez (D-California). In Berlin, the delegation met with well-known National Front leaders such as Ahmed Zia Massoud, chairman of the National Front [Jebha-e-Melli]; General Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan [Jumbesh-e-Milli]; Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, leader of the People’s Unity Party of Afghanistan [Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom]; and Amrullah Saleh, former director of the Afghan National Security Directorate.


Together, they had signed a document advocating major changes in the Afghan constitution, designed to create a federal system which would devolve power from the centre to the provinces. Of the existing governmental arrangements in Afghanistan they had the following to say: “The current system has fatally concentrated decision-making to whoever is president of the country. The Afghan president appoints the governors of each province and district, the mayor of every town, every provincial chief of police, one third of the entire Senate, and even every judge in Afghanistan.”


“This centralized power has led to massive corruption, disenfranchisement of a large segment of the Afghan people, obstacles to economic development, massive abuses of power, increasing political instability, poor governance, and a vast undermining of law and order.”


Almost instantly Kabul reacted sharply to the statement. In April 2012, Rep. Rohrabacher was stopped in Dubai as he was leading a delegation to Kabul. Officials say that while the other members of the delegation had visas for Afghanistan, Rohrabacher was denied a visa.


Afghan officials had told the BBC that in addition to his criticisms of the president, Rohrabacher was being shunned because of meetings he had held in Berlin with Afghan politicians about the creation of a decentralized form of government. According to the BBC, Afghan officials viewed that as tantamount to interference in the country’s internal affairs. “Anyone who speaks against the good of Afghanistan and tries to interfere in our internal affairs is ineligible for an Afghan visa,” one official told the BBC.


Though strong, President Karzai’s reaction was not impulsive. At the time of the Berlin meetings - in fact, two meetings took place over three days (Jan. 9-11) - he had made known his discontent. Given the lack of clarity in the US strategy on Afghanistan, Karzai had every reason to suspect that the Berlin outcome could become the official strategy one day, particularly since Blackwill had already called for a ‘de-facto partition’ of Afghanistan a few months before.


According to available reports, there was also another reason why President Karzai reacted so sharply. Accompanying Rohrabacher and the three other representatives was an American confidant of Gen. Dostum, Charles Santos. Santos, who had been advocating the concept of federalism and the powerful role of democratically elected local and regional governments in Afghanistan through various articles, was not listed among the participants in Berlin. President Karzai might have wondered: what was that all about?


Reports indicate that an angry President Karzai personally called the German Foreign Office, though the meeting was already over, and leaned on then US Ambassador Ryan Crocker to de-legitimize the Berlin proceedings. On Jan 10, Ambassador Crocker issued a short statement, titled “The United States Supports Afghan Unity.” The statement said: “In response to recent press [sic] reports, the US Embassy reaffirms the long-standing support of the United States for a unified Afghanistan based on the Afghan Constitution. Any assertions to the contrary are entirely without foundation. Reconciliation and the political process in Afghanistan are led by the elected government and the Afghan people. Any statement to the contrary is inaccurate.”


Subsequently, at a Jan. 21 press conference in Kabul, then-US Af-Pak envoy Marc Grossman made efforts to cool down the Afghan president by reiterating that a peace deal could only be negotiated by Afghans and would not be hijacked by US officials, despite current appearances to the contrary.


It is evident from many reactions within Afghanistan that the Afghans do not want partition of their country, and some news editorials express fear that the Taliban-US talks could lead to just that. Afghan analysts point out that the country suffered the pains of partition when the British Raj drew a border (known as the Durand Line) between Afghanistan and then British-India in 1893. The aim of that partition was to divide and weaken the Afghan tribes. More than a century later, the Durand Line remains one of the most disputed borders in the world.


Further, Afghans rightly note that during the past three decades, Afghanistan has had no functioning government, yet nonetheless remained united against foreign invasions. Except for two or three of the country’s 33 provinces, each province has a distinct ethnic mix; and, perhaps because of this phenomenon, separatism has never raised its ugly head in Afghanistan.


During Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s, when a fierce internal competition for control of Kabul was raging, no ethnic group and no warlord ever called for partition. The anti-Soviet resistance in the north remained always as strong as in the south. “And let’s not forget that there are millions of Pushtun in the north as well,” as one analyst pointed out.


In other words, should Washington try to partition Afghanistan to provide the Taliban a permanent home and hope that will prevent an all-out civil war, it might ensure US troops a peaceful retreat; but it could also lead to huge opposition within Afghanistan, triggering a civil war.

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