KABUL, Afghanistan — Two rather startling developments have come out of Afghanistan over the past week, one almost overlooked by the international media, the other causing a small sensation. But together they represent at least a small glimmer of light in what has been a depressingly dark landscape.
First in prominence was the surprise announcement by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, that high-level Taliban leaders were seeking reconciliation with the Afghan government.
The other shocker was the signing of a four-country framework agreement for a much-delayed natural gas pipeline from Turkemenistan’s Daulatabad gas fields, through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. According to the agreement, construction will begin later this year and be completed by 2014.
Both of these phenomena represent hopes of a better future for Afghanistan, and a speedier exit for the increasingly weary international troops. But for either to have even a remote chance of success, the cooperation of Afghanistan’s much larger neighbor, Pakistan, is badly needed.
While causing a minor furor, Petraeus’ vague, seemingly off the cuff remarks to journalists touring a U.S.-run prison north of Kabul by themselves represent nothing new.
According to media reports, Petraeus said, “there are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and, indeed, have done that.”
But he cautioned that the Afghan president’s conditions “are very clear, very established,” and supported by the United States, i.e., the necessity for the Taliban to lay down their arms and accept the constitution in order for negotiations to begin.
This, say the Taliban, would be tantamount to surrender, something they do not give any signs of doing. They, in turn, demand the complete withdrawal of foreign troops as their sine qua non for talks.
So there does not seem to be any hope for an imminent sit-down between Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
But the media-savvy Petraeus seldom speaks without thinking, and according to Afghan political commentator Janan Mosazai, his remarks could represent a major policy swing.
“One of the major sticking points has been the stance of the U.S. administration and the generals toward negotiations with the Taliban,” he said. “If this is shifting, it could signal a lot of changes in terms of dealing with the Taliban.”
Many people believe that the Taliban are in trouble, added Mosazai, and would be open to talks if they were offered a “fair and credible deal.” But this has always foundered on the mutual intransigence of the major parties, the Taliban on the one hand, and the Afghan government, backed by the U.S. government, on the other.
“The U.S. administration and the Afghan government have to be willing to be real partners to peace talks,” Mosazai said. “(The preconditions) represent the extremes and will have to be put aside.”
Petraeus’ announcement comes just as Karzai made public the composition of his “High Peace Council,” which will be empowered to begin formal outreach to the insurgents. The list includes many commanders from the war years, such as Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq, Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf and Berhanuddin Rabbani, whose anti-Taliban credentials may make negotiations difficult.
The Peace Council was one of the key recommendations of Karzai’s much-vaunted Peace Jirga, held in early June. But even before the newly announced members sit down to begin work, key figures are already dooming them to failure.
Many Afghans are reluctant to contemplate a return to power of the Taliban, and fear that negotiations will lead to compromises that could erode the gains, however shaky, that have been made over the past nine years.
“The Afghan people have raised many questions about peace talks,” said opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, speaking at a press conference in early September. “What kind of peace is this and with whom are we trying to reconcile? What does the government want?”
Petraeus’ remarks contained the answer to none of these questions.
But perhaps the cautious optimism surrounding the gas pipeline could provide a clue.
The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline has been in the works for close to 20 years, but has been constantly torpedoed by the war and chaos afflicting Afghanistan. The proposed route of the pipeline, through Helmand, Kandahar and Balochistan, would take it across some of the region’s most unstable areas.
The United States has long had a major role in promoting the pipeline; a U.S. company, UNOCAL, was in the running for the tender to build and service it in the 1990s. Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, was an adviser to UNOCAL at the time, and reportedly pushed for the United States to make a deal with the Taliban in order to get it going.
According to numerous reports, the U.S. government kept trying to get an agreement all through the Taliban period, despite mounting pressure from women’s groups and other organizations outraged by the Taliban’s human rights record.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, talk of the pipeline died down, but never disappeared completely. Now, nine years on, the project is once again on the table.
“This time they are serious,” said Gen. Hillaluddin Hillal, who was deputy interior minster in the immediate post-Taliban period. “It all depends on Pakistan. If Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) uses the tools it has, then Pakistan can make this happen.”
The main question is, of course, the security of the pipeline, since it passes through some largely Taliban-controlled areas. But Afghans see the key in its eastern neighbor: it has been accepted wisdom in Afghanistan for years that Pakistan’s ISI is supporting the Taliban, in the hopes of securing a government in Kabul that would be inimical to Pakistan’s main enemy, India. If the ISI so decrees, they say, the pipeline will be safe.
“Pakistan can secure the pipeline,” Hillal insisted.
A highly placed source within the Afghan government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed. “The ISI can put pressure on the Taliban to leave the pipeline alone,” said the source. “This represents the best chance we have for regional stability.”
Afghan leaders also give ISI the power to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Sebghatullah Mojadeddi, speaker of the upper house of Parliament and named as head of the Peace Council, told reporters in early September that Pakistan’s sign-on was essential.
“ISI has close relations with the leaders of the Taliban, so the (Peace) Council will only succeed if the ISI cooperates,” he said.
There are still formidable obstacles to both the pipeline and peace in Afghanistan.
Pakistan remains focused on its fractious relationship with India, which could still scupper the agreement. India may also be reluctant to put its energy security in the hands of its long-time enemy; the pipeline could only reach India through Pakistan.
But for the United States, the pipeline represents an attractive option: it leaves Iran, which also wants to build a natural gas pipeline to Pakistan, out in the cold, and it bypasses Russia.
If insiders and observers are correct, the pipeline could help to push Pakistan into taking a constructive role in building peace in Afghanistan.
“Regional economic projects help improve security and can help bring political stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Mahmoud Saikal, a former deputy foreign minister. “The passage of this regional gas pipeline … through Afghanistan would make Pakistan depend on long-term Afghan cooperation. Hopefully, Pakistani intelligence would think twice about making trouble for us.”