By Dr Maleeha Lodhi
President Hamid Karzai’s mercurial behaviour and exit antics have thrown Afghanistan’s looming transitions into confusion even as the presidential election campaign has got underway in his country.
The Afghan leader has refused to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) that the US has long sought to allow a residual Nato presence after December 2014. Karzai has said this decision will now be left to his successor. He has directed a barrage of accusations at Western forces, blaming them, most recently, for “terrorist attacks” on civilians.
Karzai and his advisers have also been hurling thinly veiled verbal attacks on Pakistan — this, despite Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to reach out to Kabul. This is hardly the ingredient for building a supporting environment for the challenging transitions that lie ahead.
One of the conditions that Karzai has imposed for signing the BSA is that the US should help him start peace talks with the Taleban. This is disingenuous coming from a man who thwarted the most promising opportunity to initiate a peace process, which was marked by the opening of a Taleban office in Doha last June.
Karzai’s vehement objection to the symbols used by the Taleban for the office led to its closure and to the Americans abandoning a nascent dialogue aimed at finding a negotiated end to the war. Although the diplomatic fracas was widely ascribed to misunderstandings, Karzai used this to halt the process.
At the time, the Afghan president also suspended negotiations on the BSA, effectively making the peace process a hostage to Washington’s need for the security accord. Later, following protracted talks on the BSA, Karzai convened a Loya Jirga, a traditional council, in November 2013, which approved the accord. But Karzai then refused to sign it.
During the prolonged wrangling on the BSA, the peace process was put in cold storage, even though Taleban representatives in Qatar signalled their interest in resuming talks with US interlocutors. But to mollify Karzai and secure his agreement on the BSA, the US cast Doha aside. By early 2014 this strategy had failed to pay off.
Pakistan repeatedly proposed ‘pre-talks’ to Washington to resolve the misunderstandings (over the flag and symbols) that led to the diplomatic debacle in a bid to revive the stalled process. Washington also showed little inclination to end the deadlock by pressing ahead with its own proposal of a five-for-one prisoner deal — exchanging five Taleban detainees from Guantanamo for Bowe Bergdahl, the sole American prisoner of war in Taleban captivity.
Frustrated by Karzai’s stance on the BSA, some American officials privately concede that they should not have backed off so quickly at Doha, or for that matter, earlier at the time of the Bonn conference in December 2011. These are now acknowledged to be missed opportunities. Bonn II was to lead to the announcement about the opening of a Taleban political office in Qatar, with the conference endorsing reconciliation talks with the Taleban.
President Karzai scuttled this initiative having agreed to it prior to the Bonn conference. A process that could have taken off in December 2011 took almost two years of subsequent diplomatic effort to be put back on track — in June 2013.
Contrary to Karzai’s depiction of the Doha process as a ‘conspiracy’ by the US and Pakistan to cut a deal behind his back, he was kept fully briefed that the process would involve two stages. In stage one, the US and Taleban representatives would discuss issues such as the prisoner exchange. This would then pave the way for talks among Afghans themselves and a full-fledged reconciliation process.
Had this process kicked off, progress in the negotiations would have provided the crucial political foundation for all the transitions Afghanistan has to negotiate this year: Political, security and economic.
But now the Americans have ended up with neither a BSA, as of now, nor a peace process. The current assumption of American officials is that signing the BSA will fall to Karzai’s successor. But when the deal is sealed will be subject to the vagaries of Afghan election politics.
The lack of peace negotiations and uncertainty over the BSA is intensifying doubts about an orderly path to December 2014 and beyond. More important is the stalled peace process, without which no end to the fighting will be in sight. Whether this bleak outlook for Afghanistan’s many transitions is altered by the election of a new president — provided that is fair and credible — is yet to be determined.
Dr Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the
US and UK