Peace with the Taliban is now on US President Barack Obama’s agenda. He is evidently keen to end the war and extricate the US from a ten-year conflict, which has proved hugely costly in human and financial terms. Even with a scaled down US force of 100,000 men, operations in Afghanistan are costing the American tax-payer $130 billion (Dh477 billion) a year — quite apart from the substantial funds needed to keep President Hamid Karzai’s administration afloat.

A start towards the goal of peace has now at last been made. American and Taliban representatives met recently in Qatar, where the Taliban have opened a political office. At this early stage, the negotiators have been concerned to test each other’s good faith. Confidence-building measures are said to have been discussed such as freeing Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo in exchange for a US soldier captured by the Taliban.

Marc Grossman, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, came to Qatar last week after a visit to Kabul. He was quoted by the New York Times as saying that real peace talks could only begin when the Taliban renounced international terrorism (by which he presumably meant their links with Al Qaida) and agreed to engage in a peace process. He did not say what the US was prepared to offer to bring the Taliban to the table.

The Taliban have repeatedly declared that they will demand a full withdrawal of all foreign troops. They are also likely to expect a place in any future government and a role in drafting a new Constitution providing for greater decentralisation, so as to give the Pashtuns — Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group — control over their own affairs.

The US it is learnt wants to retain five bases in Afghanistan after 2014, but that could be a deal breaker. The Taliban would oppose it, and so would Pakistan and Iran. The last thing these two neighbouring countries want is an American military presence in their vicinity. Iran under punishing American sanctions is unlikely to help the US extricate itself from the Afghan quagmire. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, US drone attacks have already aroused fierce anti-American sentiment.

Nato forces are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, when President Hamid Karzai is set to step down at the end of his second term. A difficult problem for the US and its allies will be managing — and financing — the transition to a post-Karzai Afghanistan. The coalition would like to ensure the survival of a pro-western regime, if only to justify the great sacrifices of the war.

At a conference at Bonn last December, the coalition agreed to continue economic aid to Afghanistan from 2015 to 2024. Just how many billions will be required will be discussed at a summit meeting on Afghanistan in Chicago next May. Much will depend on the nature of the Kabul government at any one time and whether the country is at peace. If it is wracked by civil war — say between Pashtuns and Tajiks, which is a distinct possibility — the flow of western aid might well be interrupted. In any event, Washington will want its allies to share the financial burden. There is talk of getting the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank involved, as well as the Arab Gulf States. The US had originally planned to create an Afghan army of some 350,000 men to take over security duties once Nato forces withdrew. But the cost of such a vast army would be prohibitive — far beyond Afghanistan’s means. It would have to be financed almost entirely by foreign powers. The target for the new Afghan army has therefore been reduced to 225,000 men — still a very considerable number.

French dilemma

Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan has become a burning issue in France’s presidential campaign. On January 20, a man wearing Afghan army uniform opened fire on a group of unarmed French soldiers who were jogging at France’s Gwan army base. Four soldiers were killed and eight others seriously wounded. President Sarkozy immediately suspended military training and assistance for Afghan security forces, and hinted at an early withdrawal of French forces. With elections less than three months away, he is desperate to avoid further military casualties. Francois Hollande, his Socialist rival, declared that if he were to win next April, French troops would be withdrawn before the end of 2012. In fact, it would probably take the French 12 to 18 months to repatriate their 3,600 soldiers, together with their munitions and equipment, including 500 heavy tanks and 700 other vehicles. There can be no peace in Afghanistan which ignores Pakistan’s interests. It is in a position to torpedo any Afghan settlement not to its liking. Pakistan is bitterly angry at the US over a frontier incident last 26 November when the US killed 24 Pakistan soldiers. In retaliation, Pakistan closed the 2,300-km supply route from the port of Karachi to Kabul via the Khyber Pass along which 400 trucks a day used to carry a quarter of all supplies for American forces in Afghanistan. Furious negotiations have been taking place to reopen the route. If the talks succeed, transit fees are likely to be much steeper than in the past. In the meantime, the trucks stand idle. For peace to take root in Afghanistan, the aspirations of Pashtun nationalism will have to be recognised. At present, ethnic Pashtuns have a sense of being fragmented, because the 2,640-kilometre Durand Line, drawn in 1893 between British India and the Emir of Afghanistan, cuts through their tribal areas. There are some 12 to 15 million ethnic Pashtuns on the Afghan side of the Line, and twice as many in Pakistan.

Pakistan has always been frightened that ethnic Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan might seek to unite to form a Greater Pashtunistan — which would take a great bite out of Pakistan territory. That is why Pakistan has always sought to bring a friendly regime in Kabul under its protection so as to stifle any nationalist drive for a greater Pashtun homeland. The fact that Afghanistan does not recognise the Durand line as an international frontier has kept Pakistani fears alive.

Clearly, the Durand Line — which was amended by treaty three times in 1905, 1919 and 1921 — needs to be rethought once again, with the full participation of Pashtun tribal chiefs in both countries. Without threatening the territorial integrity of either Afghanistan or Pakistan, Pashtuns should be able to move freely back and forth between the two countries.

Pashtuns have supported and protected the Taliban because they have a nationalist grievance. If they no longer needed the networks, they would probably turn against them. According to Georges Lefeuvre, a French expert (writing in Le Monde Diplomatique in October 2010) the frontier question between Afghanistan and Pakistan must be settled before national reconciliation can take place in Afghanistan between Pashtuns in the south and east, and ethnic groups, such as Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmens, in the north.

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.

– Gulf News