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- Tuesday, May 08, 2012 - From Print Edition

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

The timing of President Obama’s recent trip to Afghanistan – coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing – may have been driven by election politics, but its purpose went beyond that.

His televised speech from Bagram base was designed to send several important messages to different audiences. For his war-fatigued nation he held out the assurance that an end to the war was in sight. To Afghans he signalled that America would not rush for the exits or abandon them but remain committed to the country after most Nato combat forces leave Afghanistan in 2014. Pakistan’s cooperation was sought as an “equal partner” to build regional peace and stability.

Most significantly, President Obama offered an open door for dialogue to the Taliban. Many members of the Taliban, he said, “have indicated an interest in reconciliation”. “A path of peace is now set before them.”

The speech elicited no comment from Islamabad. Obama’s call for a “negotiated peace” in Afghanistan is what Pakistan has long urged, even if Washington has taken a decade to reach this conclusion. The acknowledgement that his administration is in “direct discussions” with the Taliban marked the first time that the president took public ownership of last year’s secret contacts with Taliban representatives aimed at establishing a peace process.

This aligns the US approach more closely with what Pakistan has for years been advocating. But this potential convergence is overshadowed by the persisting impasse between Pakistan and the US over the terms of re-engagement, and what should be its starting point. This explains Islamabad’s silence over elements of Obama’s speech that it would otherwise concur with.

The most significant message that President Obama’s visit to Afghanistan aimed to convey ahead of the Nato summit in Chicago, was that he had a credible and ‘responsible’ plan to wind down America’s longest and increasingly unpopular war. And that he was on course to accomplish this. The goal he had set – “to defeat Al-Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild – was now within reach.”

Before the prime-time speech, Obama signed the ‘strategic partnership agreement’ with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. This endorsed the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government in 2014, while committing the US to military and economic support for a decade after 2014.

Forged after twenty months of on-off negotiations, the agreement seeks to define the post 2014 relationship between the two countries. But it contains few specifics other than the offer to provide military training and equipment and development assistance till 2024. It refrains from spelling out the level of funding or troop numbers – leaving this and a status-of-forces agreement to negotiate over the next year as part of a more detailed accord.

A residual force comprising military advisers, special operations and counter terrorism personnel will stay on in the country after 2014 but the agreement provided no details. President Obama’s claim in the Bagram speech that the US did not seek permanent bases sidestepped the fact that Washington will have access to several Afghan bases as ‘joint facilities’. The agreement was silent on this as well as the number of forces that will stay on as part of a long-term US military presence.

Predictably the agreement evoked opposition from Taliban leaders. Taliban statements denounced the agreement for giving “legitimacy to the occupation of Afghanistan” and warned this would lead to “further insecurity and political instability”. A Taliban spokesman also cast an armed attack on Kabul that occurred hours after the president left the capital as a “clear message to Obama not to think about permanent bases in Afghanistan”.

The vagueness of the strategic partnership agreement means that difficult issues have been postponed for later resolution. The imprecision may be deliberate so as not to over commit resources or ignite controversy and produce problems in a shifting strategic landscape in Afghanistan and changing national mood in America. Whatever the reasons, the ambiguity might turn out to be useful, as it leaves open diplomatic space for negotiations in the Afghan ‘reconciliation’ process. Leaving much content to be determined later holds an opportunity to modify some of the terms when and if this figures in serious peace talks.

For now the agreement gives President Obama something to showcase at Chicago as a ‘tangible’ indicator of progress. But it hardly addresses the confusion in US strategy for the next, decisive phase of the Afghan endgame, which is expected to be more complex and challenging. It certainly does not add up to a credible game plan to wind down the war. Instead the pillars on which a viable plan should rest remain clouded in uncertainty.

Any plausible strategy to ‘responsibly’ end the war hinge on four factors: 1) progress towards what President Obama now calls a “negotiated peace”; 2) regional support for such a settlement; 3) Afghan governance capacity and 4) the ability of Afghan forces to hold their own and carry out security duties independently of their Nato patrons.

The unknowns on all four counts are far more than the knowns at this point. For all the recent Pentagon claims about Afghan forces operating effectively and being able to thwart the coordinated Taliban assaults on Kabul and other provinces on April 15, the integrity and coherence of the ANSF remains in deep doubt. So do questions about their professional and representative character.

Uncertainties also abound about the Afghan political transition that will coincide with the 2014 withdrawal deadline. The constitutionally prescribed two-term limit means Karzai cannot run in the presidential elections due in 2014. There is speculation that elections might be brought forward to 2013 and that Karzai is positioning himself as the ‘king-maker’ to install a pliant nominee. None of this offers any assurance of a smooth transfer of political power, and even less of avoiding controversies like those over ballot fraud that marred the last presidential election. Hopes of enhanced governance capacity remain just that – hopes.

Meanwhile Washington’s troubled relations with Teheran and unresolved obstacles in normalising ties with Islamabad have complicated the building of a firm regional consensus for a tidy Afghan endgame as well as a stable post-2014 order.

But lack of headway towards what many American officials acknowledge as the “most important pillar” – Afghan reconciliation – poses the biggest challenge to American plans for a smooth transition and peaceful end to the war.

Washington should have focused all its diplomatic energy to move this process forward. The opening bid depended on the administration showing clarity, resolve and accommodation to put a full-fledged peace process in place. Instead its inability to settle in-house rifts, override the Pentagon’s objections and reluctance to use its political capital to release five detainees from Guantanamo – earlier accepted as the first step of a confidence building package – triggered developments that resulted in the suspension of talks by the Taliban.

If recent indications are correct that the White House is encouraged by the American public’s approval of President Obama’s Bagram narrative to end the war and pursue a “negotiated peace”, this should spur a renewed bid to revive the talks rather then prevarication and waiting until the presidential election is over. By then valuable time would be lost and an opportunity squandered. The lack of domestic traction for Republican criticism of ‘talking to the Taliban’ should persuade the administration to see progress on reconciliation as a winning political proposition.

Without expeditious movement to resume the talks and make meaningful progress, the dynamics of the coming fighting season will take over, blighting prospects for a “negotiated peace”. More fighting will imperil the reconciliation goal and dwindle chances of a political end to the war. If progress in peace talks is not accomplished well before 2014, the various actors will have diminished ability to control events in Afghanistan. This could confront the country with the spectre of chaos.