By Doug Saunders
The Globe and Mail
|The military campaign carried out by the Taliban in Afghanistan is directed by the shura sheltering across the Pakistan border. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images.)|
With surprising unanimity, the countries fighting in Afghanistan agreed, for the first time in the war's nine-year history, to a set of goals for its conclusion and a rough timetable for withdrawal.
The plan, reached at a day-long conference of more than 60 foreign ministers in London on Thursday, is far removed from the optimistic vision of a prosperous and united country foreseen in 2001, when the United States and its allies, including Canada, launched their campaign to oust the Taliban government.
The war's endgame replaces a military victory with a political compromise that involves making peace with the Taliban and incorporating its more moderate and "reconcilable" factions into Afghanistan's government — a scenario that many participants, including Canada's military command and political leadership, have opposed in the past.
It appears that peace talks with the Taliban have already begun.
It was reported that senior figures from the Islamist movement's leadership council held talks in Dubai on Jan. 8 with UN special representative Kai Eide to pave the way for the scenario laid out in London.
The new plan will see the country given over to Afghan forces on a district-by-district, province-by-province basis. Some provinces will be handed over to full Afghan National Army control by the end of this year.
This will be followed by a large-scale withdrawal of forces and transfer of power beginning in late 2011, shortly after the departure of Canadian combat troops, although some, mainly U.S., forces will stay for at least five more years.
'The new plan is, in essence, a redefinition of the concept of victory.'
|Taliban's leadership council|
runs Afghan war from Pakistan
Quetta shura, sheltering over the border and led by Mullah Omar, is strategic arm of Taliban
By Declan Walsh
ISLAMABAD — The Quetta shura has long been the aching achilles heel of western efforts to defeat the Taliban.
While the war is fought in Afghanistan, the thinking part of the Taliban — the one-eyed leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and a council of about 14 other men — is sheltering on the far side of the border, in the western Pakistani province of Balochistan.
The shura, or leadership council, has multiple functions. It directs the military campaign against western troops and it co-ordinates the political and propaganda campaign that has so successfully undermined the rule of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.
The Afghan war is organised and run out of Balochistan, according to Seth Jones, a senior civilian adviser to the US special forces commander in Afghanistan.
"Virtually all significant meetings of the Taliban take place in that province, and many of the group's senior leaders and military commanders are based there," he wrote in a newspaper article last month.
Quetta shura is a label of convenience for meetings that take place in the Baloch capital — a dusty, suspicious city that hums with intrigue — and also in surrounding villages and Afghan refugee camps.
The shura has no fixed location. A senior western official says that when the heat is turned up during intermittent Pakistani security raids, or threats of American drone strikes, the shura members scatter as far as Karachi, 380 miles to the south.
Mullah Omar's deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is said to be the chief shura organiser, while battlefield operations are in the hands of his military commander, Abdullah Zakir. Other nodes of militant leadership are hidden along the porous 1,600-mile border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Analysts speak of another shura in Peshawar, as well as groups controlled by the Taliban-allied warlords Sirajuddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But the Quetta shura is by far the most important. As Barack Obama announced his Afghan surge plan recently, US officials put pressure on Pakistan to attack the Quetta shura by suggesting they could extend drone strikes to the area.
Pakistanis bristled at the demand, partly because the army is already stretched with other operations, but mostly for strategic reasons. Pakistan's army sees the Afghan Taliban as a future check against Indian influence in Afghanistan once western troops leave.
Balochistan also borders with Helmand, where almost 10,000 British troops are fighting. British officials say they have been quietly applying pressure on Pakistan to tackle the Quetta shura for several years, but with no results.
Most controversially, it establishes a fund, which, hours after its launch, had attracted $141-million (U.S.) in pledged contributions for its first year of operations, that will place Taliban fighters on the government payroll, and calls for peace talks beginning this spring that may lead to a power-sharing government involving some Taliban factions.
The new plan is, in essence, a redefinition of the concept of victory.
At a minimum, it means that even if the withdrawal of coalition forces coincides with the Taliban holding power in several provinces and branches of the Afghan government, the mission can still be declared something other than a failure as long as al-Qaeda does not return to Afghanistan.
Under its most optimistic scenario, the plan will see a unified Afghan National Army and police force, with more than 140,000 members each and incorporating formerly alienated fighters who had joined moderate Taliban factions, holding control of a drug-free country on behalf of a diverse national government that may include some former Taliban leaders but which supports the Afghan constitution.
However it plays out, the London plan marks the first time countries fighting in Afghanistan have agreed on a strategy to end the war — one largely conceived and written by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the head of NATO forces.
"I believe this conference has perhaps for the first time set out a clear agenda with clear priorities for the Afghan government," Mr. Eide said as he released the conference's communiqué.
Canada was more guarded than other countries. Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said the Taliban reconciliation plan will need discussion before Canada commits any funds. Ottawa made only a $25-million (Canadian) pledge to a drug-eradication plan, an announcement of a previously budgeted contribution.
This was partly because Canada has had experience with paying Taliban fighters to switch sides, participating in a scheme that paid off more than 4,000 fighters before petering out around 2007.
The new plan also means a dramatic change of strategy for Canada's forces, which have been engaged in a form of village-based counterinsurgency that involves clearing out the Taliban, establishing the trust of the village and building infrastructure such as schools, a process that can take years.
The new plan will mainly involve training Afghan National Army soldiers and former Taliban fighters, and places the U.S. very much in charge.
Mr. Cannon said that any financial contributions will require discussion, but that Canada will support the overall plan. "I am extremely confident, because I have seen a degree today of co-operation and understanding among all parties involved," he said, adding that the plan will mean a "transition into a more secure Afghanistan. … We all need to be confident in what General McChrystal is proposing."
The London meeting was decidedly a political, rather than a military, conference, and it provided the foreign ministers some relief in being able to take home a political narrative that can be used to explain why numerous lives have been lost in a conflict without an apparent victory.
"Afghanistan has been the victim of other countries' policies for too long," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told his fellow ministers, "and now I believe there is a chance for Afghanistan to have the independence and autonomy it has so long craved."
But despite its unanimity, the London plan is little more than a broad outline, lacking in dates, numbers or locations.
Some of these will be filled in at a Kabul "Grand Jirga" peace conference to be held in the spring, likely with the participation of the leaders of at least one of the four groups that make up the Taliban.
Participants also backed away from earlier optimism. The initial draft of the communiqué referred to five provinces being shifted to Afghan control this year; it was changed Thursday simply to "some provinces."
The idea of incorporating Taliban elements into national and provincial governments has alarmed many human-rights advocates who worry that the extreme repression of women experienced during the 1990s could return.
The ministers stressed repeatedly that the Afghan constitution, with its guarantees of human rights, would remain supreme. "Reintegration and reconciliation is not about selling out Afghanistan's constitution," Mr. Miliband told a women's group. "It's about defending Afghanistan's constitution."
29 January 2010 — Return to cover.