In 1989, soon after I was appointed U.S. special envoy and ambassador on Afghanistan, the late mujahedin commander Abdul Haq conveyed a warning to me. Attempts by foreigners to organize the unruly, unpredictable and divided Afghan people would always fail, he said. He compared such efforts to a bazaar merchant trying to balance the weight of frogs on opposite trays of a produce scale. The merchant can load frogs on one tray. But as he begins to load the second tray, some of the frogs on the first one will inevitably jump off. And as he reloads them, frogs on the second tray will leap to the ground. Eventually, even the most determined merchant will give up.
I have thought of that analogy often during the last year, as the United States and Germany have reached out to Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Taliban in Pakistan. The diplomacy has been cloaked in secrecy, though occasional news of it has leaked out. And now, it has apparently produced a tentative agreement, yet to be implemented, to open a Taliban office in Qatar to begin more serious negotiations.
But these efforts seem unlikely to lead to a successful negotiated settlement of the differences between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
So far, it has been American and German diplomats — with behind-the-scenes participation by Pakistan — powering the process. The Afghan government was not even aware of key aspects of the negotiations until December. That’s problematic.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reluctantly agreed to support the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar, and the U.S. side says his representatives will participate in the process. But the Taliban has rejected meetings with the Afghan government, which it doesn’t recognize as legitimate.
Adding confusion to this already complicated scenario, on Jan. 30 the Afghan government announced that Karzai will meet with Taliban representatives outside the Qatar framework in Saudi Arabia, a claim that the Taliban publicly denies. Also, former and current administration officials say that Omar sent a letter to the White House in July on the peace talks. But on Feb. 4, the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” office in Pakistan said it “rejects this baseless rumor with the strongest of words.”
Are you beginning to understand the frogs-on-scales analogy?
For all their differences, Karzai and the Afghan Taliban have one thing in common: a distrust of outside initiatives aimed at knitting Afghans together. Foreign forays into the forbidding Afghan political caldron have invariably spawned greater disunity. They upset traditional tribal and ethnic consensus processes that Afghans informally use to resolve their differences.
If the United States has any hope of a successful outcome in Afghanistan, these shaky steps to launch peace negotiations must be reinforced by two policy thrusts. First, though the U.S. should be encouraging and supportive, it should withdraw from direct involvement in the intra-Afghan negotiations. And second, Washington should adopt a tougher strategic posture toward Pakistani-supported terrorist groups — including the Al Qaeda-linked Quetta Shura and Haqqani network — which are fomenting terrorism in the region and globally from sanctuaries within Pakistan.
Unfortunately, there are already clear signs that direct, unilateral U.S. involvement in the Afghan reconciliation process will continue, and that it will undermine rather than assist intra-Afghan negotiations.
One problem with direct American involvement is that it could exacerbate political fragmentation inside Afghanistan. Bargaining by Americans outside Karzai’s purview while he is reaching out to the Taliban separately threatens to make his negotiations irrelevant. The Northern Alliance and other opposition groups have no great desire to cooperate with the Karzai government, and if there’s an American channel to the Taliban open too, they’re likely to focus on that instead of on Taliban negotiations with the official Afghan government.
But this doesn’t mean there is no role for United States to play. The Obama administration needs to focus on the cold reality that U.S. and Pakistani policies on Afghanistan and global terrorism are contradictory and threatening to the long-term national security interests of both the U.S. and Afghanistan. To continue to pretend otherwise will only fuel international terrorism from protected Taliban and Haqqani sanctuaries in Pakistan. In recent testimony before Congress, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told skeptical senators of both parties that the administration is looking for ways to “minimize the impact of these safe havens.” But that is woefully inadequate. Terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan must be dismantled.
Pakistan’s interests differ from those of Afghanistan, and the Afghans will be rightfully suspicious of Pakistani influence on any negotiations. Each time Pakistan’s army andInter-Services Intelligence agency have inserted themselves in the intra-Afghan dialogue over the last two decades, it has been to subvert it. The U.S. needs to focus its influence on preventing that from happening this time.
The confusing American “fight and talk” tactic toward the ISI-backed Quetta Shura and Haqqani network reflects the larger seesaw pattern of U.S. policy toward Pakistan. Last fall, tough talk from both Adm. Michael G. Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested that the U.S. had lost patience with Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network and would put increasing pressure on Islamabad to close militant sanctuaries in Pakistan. But since then, the U.S. seems to have flinched, reverting to the failed policy of indulgence rather than pressing Pakistan’s military to dismantle the well-documented terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan.
The Obama administration is understandably eager to show progress on the intra-Afghan negotiating front as it takes the wise and necessary step of drawing down U.S. troops and transferring lead responsibility to Afghans to defend their own country. But progress will come only through disengaging from direct involvement in the intra-Afghan dialogue, even while encouraging the Afghan sides to reach agreement. And the U.S. must demand that Pakistan do the same.
A Jan. 24 statement bythe U.S. Embassyin Kabul after a visit to the region by Marc Grossman, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, had it right: “Only Afghans can decide the future of Afghanistan.” This guideline should dominate U.S. policy on intra-Afghan reconciliation.
Peter Tomsen is the author of the just-published “The Wars of Afghanistan.” He was U.S. special envoy and ambassador on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992.