The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
Despite the carefully orchestrated pageantry, the Chicago summit failed to answer the most fundamental questions about Nato’s plan to ‘transition’ out of Afghanistan and the country’s post-2014 stability. Declarations to end the war were not matched by any strategy to achieve peace.
The summit was unable to credibly explain how a peaceful withdrawal and handover of security to Afghan authorities would be achieved without a political settlement among combatants. Also glossed over was the fact that a regional consensus to support the post-2014 Afghan order was still challenged by unresolved problems. As the fraught Pakistan-US relationship was further aggravated during the summit, another unanswered question was how Nato’s exit plan would be implemented without Pakistan’s security cooperation.
A western correspondent pithily described the summit’s contradictions. Nato was declaring a winding down of its mission when “the insurgents remain undefeated, corruption runs rife and the peace process is stuck in the sand”.
The summit did not strike a triumphal tone, for good reason. But it claimed sufficient progress – after lowering the bar – to justify pulling out most of the 130,000 foreign troops by the end of 2014. The conference endorsed the decision to transfer control of Afghanistan to its own security forces by the middle of 2013. The transition was described as “irreversible” with President Barack Obama declaring that the 2014 deadline signified that “the war as we understand it is over”.
These pronouncements were meant to demonstrate to a war weary American electorate that Obama was on course to end a costly and unpopular conflict – a theme reverberating in Obama’s re-election campaign. For the international audience especially Afghans, the summit offered the assurance that the country would not be abandoned after 2014.
But assurances were matched by few commitments. Nor was attention given to governance and development. The transition was envisioned mostly in military terms – building the capacity of Afghan security forces.
If a principal objective of the summit was to secure commitments to finance Afghan forces after 2014, this was not accomplished. Of the $4.1 billion needed annually, the US offered to fund half (subject to annual Congressional approval) while Afghanistan agreed to pay $500 million. Other than contributions from some western nations it was unclear where the rest of the money would come from.
The communiqué blithely declared that the “success of the transition has been enabled by the substantial improvement of the ANSF in terms of capability and professionalism”. This self-serving rationale overlooked the serious problems that continue to afflict Afghan forces, as indeed rising tensions with foreign mentors reflected in incidents of Afghan soldiers attacking Nato personnel. This casts doubt on the plausibility of Nato’s post-2014 ‘advisory’ role and more importantly the ability of the Afghan army to survive the departure of foreign troops as a unified and coherent force.
The most telling gap between summit plans and reality lay in the lack of a political strategy. The communiqué and conference speeches made no mention of seeking a “negotiated peace” – the expression Obama used in his address from Bagram earlier this month. Instead the commander of US forces in Afghanistan warned of more fighting until 2014. There was only a passing reference in the communiqué to “a political process involving successful reconciliation and reintegration” as the “key to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan”.
What should have been the centre piece of a summit announcing the winding down of war – a strategy for a negotiated settlement – was conspicuous by its absence. Talks between American and Taliban interlocutors that took place intermittently in 2011 have remained suspended since last March when the Taliban accused Washington of going back on its promises. Whether mention of plans to revive these talks was ruled out by Obama’s election constraints or because of their bleak near term prospects, the result was a glaring omission at Chicago.
Plans were also abandoned to hold a core group meeting between American, Pakistani and Afghan leaders to signal public commitment to the Afghan ‘reconciliation’ process. The reasons for this remained unclear but the message sent to the Pakistani authorities was that this would only happen if Islamabad re-opened the ground lines of communications (GLOCs) for Nato supplies that have been shut for the past six months.
An earlier American plan to announce the launch of a formal Afghan peace process at the Nato conference failed to materialise. Again, whether this was because of election year politics or the persisting lack of consensus within the Obama administration, it denuded the 2014 withdrawal plan of its most essential ingredient. This called into question the viability of the Chicago plan.
Also clouding future plans was the downward spiral or near-breakdown in US-Pakistan relations, symbolised by the closure of the Nato ground supply route. For all the rhetoric from President Obama and others at Chicago of Pakistan being “part of the solution” to Afghanistan, this did not signal a departure from Washington’s heavy-handed treatment of Pakistan. To the contrary, the invitation for President Asif Ali Zardari to attend the Nato summit was viewed as ‘transactional’ by Washington, in return for which he was expected to promptly announce the reopening of GLOCs.
Rather than moderate its stance towards Pakistan, an environment of pressure and coercion was built by the Obama administration in the days leading up to the summit. The Pentagon chief for example accused Islamabad of price ‘gouging’ in demanding increased fees for the supply route, ruling out a deal on these terms. The White House refused a meeting between Obama and Zardari. President Obama later made it a point to say he only met Pakistan’s president for a few minutes on his way to the conference hall. In background briefings US officials made it plain that the diplomatic slight was intended to send Pakistan a “public message”.
This snub and the pressure mounted to force Pakistan’s hand on GLOCs proved to be counterproductive and injected more strains in relations. Why Pakistan’s authorities brought this humiliation upon themselves is another matter. It merits sober assessment of why such egregious American conduct was not anticipated so as to avert what became a diplomatic embarrassment for Islamabad.
It is likely that the government’s desperation to get an invitation to Chicago encouraged the Americans to think that Pakistan was willing to settle the GLOCs issue on Washington’s timing and terms. This turned out to be a miscalculation. Another tactical blunder Islamabad made was to mix moral principle and financial transaction by engaging in negotiations on transit fees before resolution of more fundamental issues. This might have sent an inadvertent signal of Pakistan’s readiness to do business so long as the price was right.
The Obama administration’s unseemly conduct at Chicago was compounded by the summit’s lack of acknowledgement of Pakistan sacrifices during the decade of the US intervention in Afghanistan and the campaign against terrorism. In his speech Obama gratuitously excluded Pakistan from a list of countries he thanked for assisting the international mission. By using the summit to cold shoulder Pakistan rather than positively engage it, Washington squandered an opportunity to put relations back on track.
If a viable Afghan transition plan depends in large part on Islamabad’s cooperation – as Washington acknowledges – the dismissive approach the US has adopted is now paralysing the relationship. If this paralysis continues it will complicate prospects for a peaceful Nato withdrawal and stable Afghan outcome in 2014.
The summit’s failure to map out a path for a ‘negotiated peace’ together with the lack of serious effort to mend ties with Pakistan strengthens the impression that the US is more interested in an exit plan than a strategy to secure a peace settlement. Even so the withdrawal of Nato troops and military equipment over the next two years will be a massive logistical operation that will require Islamabad’s cooperation. It is also in Pakistan’s interest to help in the withdrawal of all foreign forces from its neighbourhood. This should urge both countries to resolve their differences on a mutually acceptable basis which respects Pakistan’s sovereign red lines.