Dynamics of Renewed Push for a Negotiated Settlement with Taliban in Afghanistan

Renewed Push for Afghans to Make Peace With Taliban
By Alissa J. Rubin and Declan Walsh, New York Times, February 16, 2013

Frozen for months last year as another fighting season raged in Afghanistan, and as election-year politics consumed American attention, diplomats and political leaders from eight countries are now mounting the most concerted campaign to date to bring the Afghan government and its Taliban foes together to negotiate a peace deal.

The latest push came early this month at Chequers, the country residence of the British prime minister, David Cameron, who joined President Hamid Karzaiof Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan in calling for fast-track peace talks. Weeks earlier in Washington, Mr. Karzai met with President Obama and committed publicly to have his representatives meet a Taliban delegation in Doha, Qatar, to start the process.

Yet so far the energized reach for peace has achieved little, officials say, except to cement a growing consensus that regional stability demands some sort of political settlement with the Taliban, after a war that cost tens of thousands of Afghan and Western lives and nearly a trillion dollars failed to put down the insurgency.

Interviews with more than two dozen officials involved in the effort suggest a fast-spinning process that has yet to gain real traction and seems to have little chance of achieving even its most limited goal: bringing the Afghan government and Taliban leadership together at the table before the bulk of the American fighting force leaves Afghanistan in 2014.

“The year 2014 has begun to be seen as a magical date, both inside and outside Afghanistan,” said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan national security adviser. “It’s difficult to find what is realistic and what is illusion.”

That is not least because the major players — Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban — have fundamentally different visions of how to achieve a post-2014 peace, according to accounts of setbacks in the process.

For the Afghans, the simple act of considering what a peace deal might look like has inflamed factional differences that are still raw two decades after the country’s civil war.

The Afghan High Peace Council, which Mr. Karzai has empowered to negotiate for his government, has put forward a document called “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015.” While many Afghan leaders say they have not seen the proposal, first reported by McClatchy in December, those who have view it as outlining a striking number of potential concessions to the Taliban and to Pakistan. They include provisions for the Taliban’s becoming a political party and anticipation that some of the most important government positions could be open to them, including provincial governorships, police chief jobs and cabinet positions.

Some Western commentators as well as Afghans view this as returning to the past or opening the door to a division of the country. Senior members of the powerful Tajik and Hazara factions, both of which suffered greatly under Taliban rule, charged that they had been left out of the deliberations. When they are asked about striking a peace deal, they make veiled references to a renewal of ethnic strife.
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Also see: Afghanistan's future: 5 burning questions
By Kyle Almond, CNN, February 16, 2013

(CNN) -- In his State of the Union address, President Obama reaffirmed that the country's war in Afghanistan would be over by the end of 2014.

He also laid out more specifics.

Of the approximately 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now, more than half -- 34,000 -- will come home in the next year, Obama said.

At the same time, Afghan troops will assume most of the responsibility for combat missions."This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead," Obama said.

It was previously expected that Afghan forces would take the lead in combat missions by the middle of this year. But a U.S. official told CNN that the military transition has accelerated and that Afghans will lead all security operations by March.

What does this news mean for Afghanistan and America's longest war? Here are some key questions that will be asked in the coming months:

1. Are the Afghan troops up to the task?

There are certainly doubts.

A Pentagon review in December claimed that only one of 23 Afghan army brigades was capable of functioning on its own.

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