Taliban negotiations ‘must go on’
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About the Italian proposal of an International Conference on Afghanistan
Mercoledi' 4 Aprile 2007
As anyone knows, organizing a gala dinner is the most difficult task for a host to carry out. It implies deciding who to invite and who not, where and when to make the guests sit. You must be careful in order to avoid offending someone. You have to decide the order of the courses and take into account the different tastes of the guests, ranging from food taboos such as the vegetarians have to the people who hate even the mere sight of bottles of wine on the table (it happened in France with Khatami). Great diplomats made a blunder with coffee, offering a Turkish coffee on the wrong side of Balkans, where coffee is known with four or five different names. To sum it up, if the International Conference on Afghanistan (which someone already named â€œpeace conferenceâ€) is still a vague idea, this was quite to be expected. Also because, although the conference has been proposed by Italy , it will obviously not succeed without the strong approval of some major guests, starting from Kabul . In this article we simply present a list of countries that should be involved, due to their geographical proximity to Afghanistan (neighboring countries) or to their direct involvement (NATO countries and U.S.A. ) or to other historical or economic reasons. It must be said that this article has not been â€œinspiredâ€ by anything else than common sense, and it must therefore be intended as a starting point to stir up discussion.
As for Pakistan , many people consider Islamabad as the breeding ground for Taliban fundamentalism, the â€œdouble policyâ€ country which at the same time winks at Western nations and hosts al-Qaeda and jihad militants; many believe that Pakistan is the major destabilizing factor for Afghanistan . This simplifications do not take into account Musharrafâ€™ s attempt at solving a complex problem: although Pakistan had a very relevant role in it, other countries often guided Islamabad, exploiting Pakistan for their own interests through pressuring its government or financing the various mujahedin groups. Along with highlighting its faults, Pakistan must also be rewarded for its military efforts in the tribal areas: 80.000 troops, 700 casualties, many desertions and some high ranking officials given up to the court martial, as well as an explosive domestic situation due to the effects of the war in Afghanistan . The idea according to which Pakistan is not interested in stabilizing Afghanistan is quite open to debate.
India: the country does not have a strong presence in Afghanistan yet, but it is building it up by investing about 1 billion dollars in reconstruction, opening consular offices and firmly supporting Karzaiâ€™ s government. Indians consider Afghanistan as a means through which they can counterbalance Pakistan, blocking Pakistanâ€™ s strategy of using Afghanistan as a backline (the so called â€œstrategic depthâ€) in case of a possible war with India. There is also the open issue of Kashmir , where an heterogeneous group of jihadists is fighting its war for Azad Kashmir. Stabilizing Afghanistan would mean stabilizing the relationship between India and Pakistan , too.
As for Iran , the neighboring country to the East, it used to see Afghanistan as a possible backline for a Soviet invasion (now, for a missile attack against Tehran ). Iran might prove a great stabilizing force as well as a destabilizer, if it were left alone. It supports Afghan shiite minority as well as controversial men such as Hekmatyar. It fears the Talibans as well as the effects of the war on its south-eastern provinces, inhabited by ethnic groups akin to the Afghans.
The great North: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan: the former Soviet countries, now independent, inhabited by Turkish and Persian speaking population, which are present even beyond the Amu Darya. These countries are fear the possible islamist infection, and see Afghanistan as the means through which they can bring the energy they produce to the warm seas. They do not want Moscow to decide their policy towards Afghanistan, and are very much flattered by the United States.
As for China, it is nearer than what might be expected, not only due to the border at the end of the Wakhan Corridor, in the North. Chinese have strong interests with their ally Pakistan (the Gwadar port in Beluchistan, another hot point) while they fear the Muslim infection of the people living in the West of China, which already served as resources for al-Qaeda and probably for the neo-Talibans.
The Gulf states: Saudi Arabia was the first country to acknowledge Mullah Omarâ€™ s Emirate and has been the main financial backer of the resistance against the Soviets, as well as the major sponsor of the introduction of Wahabism in Asia. As for the Arab Emirates, they too acknowledged Taliban Afghanistan and nowadays they provide a safe financial harbor for the capitals funding Mullah Omarâ€™ s new jihad. They might anyway feel the pressure coming from the Indo-Pakistan world, with which they are closely linked.
Russia: despite its marginal role, Afghanistan is a very important issue for Russia, as proven by its will to cancel the external debt piled up by Kabul, especially with its former invader. Times have changed and nowadays Russia can slowly regain a role in Afghanistan, as it has happened for the U.S.A. in Vietnam.
Europe: although it is seen by many Afghans only in relation with NATO, Europe has a well-established history of relationships with Afghanistan, starting from Italy, which sheltered more than one Afghan king. Germany too has a long history of relationships with Afghanistan, as well as France, as proven by the fact that French was the language used by Afghan diplomats until the Seventies. It is important for Europe to highlight its civilian role rather than the military one, which tends to make Europe become overshadowed by the United States; the military intervention has become the most visible aspect of western presence in Afghanistan. This is an issue that must be solved within the E.U. even before the starting of the conference.
As for the U.S.A., they are the big issue. Although Mrs. Rice warmly approved Dâ€™Alemaâ€™ s proposal of setting up a conference, it is quite known that at the moment the U.S.A. do not like this idea; anyway, the situation is in progress, and many people in the U.S.A. now think that politics should have priority over weapons. It is also possible that the setback in Iraq caused the U.S.A. to be more willing to listen. It is clear that the conference would not make sense without them, and putting them at the last place of this list is but an elegant way to say that they are at the first place. Geographically speaking they are the most far-off country, but they are also the closest to Afghan dynamics.
Afghans would be the major guest of a conference focused on Afghanistan. But which Afghans? It is clear that inviting Mullah Omar is not possible at the moment, but it is also untrue that Pakistan is the only nation with which the Talibans are in contact. Negotiating with them is surely much more an Afghan issue than an international one. But the conference might help a national reconciliation process, which in turn might help the conference too: the two factors are interlinked. Negotiations with the Talibans, if it ever is going to take place, will materialize by itself, as long as there are the conditions and the political will â€“ from both parts - to let it happen. Civil society: in international forums, it is often used as a â€œfig leafâ€; but in Afghanistan it is such a small and underrated reality that it needs to be supported and nursed. It is often represented by small underground groups that do not even own enough money to print their own leaflets and are hostage of the various warlords. They often represent the most laic part of society, and the most mindful of human rights. They have a political need to be acknowledged as they play a small but fundamental role in the new Afghanistan; for this reason, Afghan civil society should be actively supported by the civil society of the various countries involved in the conflict, too.
Thanks to the translation of Alice Cehovin (CISDA Milano),
Also in Il riformista published 2007, march 29th