In Afghanistan it is time to promote peace by encouraging all stakeholders to come to the negotiating table, including Taliban

The McChrystal saga is over. A change of command has taken place amid a disastrous Afghan war that tore that country apart, destabilized the region, brought America to the brink, exposed the civil-military divide and intensified the anti-war sentiment. As the storm dies down, it is time for the White House and Pentagon to take a deep breath before moving forward.

More importantly, it is time for General Petraeus to reflect upon his role in the new theatre of war for which he earlier wrote the script called the “new counterinsurgency strategy”. He should know, as his superiors do, that this is a bogus war that has claimed thousands of innocent lives for no reason. It is now up to him to realize and convince his superiors in Pentagon, the White House and Republican hawks in the Congress that this war is not worth fighting, it is time to begin winding it down and let peace return to Afghanistan.

Alternatively, the general will be fighting a losing war with only a marginal support from President Obama after July 2011 as he enters the crucial re-election phase in which this war would be a big liability for him. By promptly firing McChrystal, overruling recommendations by Secretary Gates, NATO and Karzai to retain him for the sake of continuity, Obama sent a clear message to his military top brass about his undisputed authority over the military and the conduct of war.

If this is any indication, he will most likely order troop withdrawal by next July, citing the failure of Petraeus’s strategy after having given the conflict his best shot and the need to scale down American presence, while exploring alternative solutions. Should that happen, General Petraeus would find himself limping back home at the head of an army that failed to accomplish its mission and he would then find his ‘success’ stories of Iraq relegated to the tales of failure in Afghanistan.

Although General Petraeus has been overseeing the war in Afghanistan from his perch in Iraq and execution of his Iraq-fame counterinsurgency doctrine that he gave to General McChrystal for a cut-and-paste application in Afghanistan, he will perhaps soon realize that “one doctrine suits all” approach does not work. Even the so-called success in Iraq was not attributable entirely to his counterinsurgency strategy or the troop surge.

The conditions existing in Afghanistan are very different. His own strategy applied in Afghanistan by his protégé failed because, among other reasons, the federal and provincial governments, the army, and the police are completely non-functional; and their functionality is a prerequisite for his strategy to succeed. He will be pitched against a tribal people, deeply religious, uncompromising and averse to foreign presence, who know their formidable terrain better than his men do, who are adept at fighting an irregular warfare and who are gaining strength despite the arrival of new troops. He will be working with a diplomatic team that operates on a different plane. His support at home is waning. And he has to follow a timetable set by his commander-in-chief, who is keen to wind up the war.

The Congress is also seeking assurances from him about his ability to adhere to the July 2011 withdrawal timeline. Senate and House of Representatives panels grilled him if enough progress can be made in reconciling the Afghan government and Taliban-led insurgents and whether an Afghan security force will be ready to replace American troops in time.

Since the US and NATO withdrawal is now on the cards, there is need for Petraeus to go about Afghanistan differently. Rather than continue the slaughter of the Afghans and the US/ISAF troops and pursuing the long term exercise of winning people’s hearts and minds, one that could take a decade or longer with no guarantees of success, he needs to lead an effort at developing a workable political strategy to help stabilize the country. Absence of such a strategy causes “strategic confusion,” said Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan (2005-07).

Speaking in Toronto recently, Obama also acknowledged that “ultimately as was true in Iraq, so will be true in Afghanistan, we will have to have a political solution.”

A political solution needs a political strategy. Such a strategy should chart “a pathway to the future shape of a peaceful Afghanistan and its relationships with its neighbors and the wider world,” wrote British diplomat Shercliff. “At the end of that pathway is a steady-state situation: an Afghanistan . . . robust enough to sustain its own economic and political stability”.

The political strategy should focus on reconciliation and restoration of peace that also allows the region, particularly its neighbor, Pakistan, to come out of the spiral of conflicts and violence that has plagued it since the Soviet invasion of 1978.

There are now signs that peace has a chance of breaking out in Afghanistan. The news of troop withdrawal has encouraged most parties to the conflict to seek peace. Karzai has already made his moves by firing hardliners from his administrations who opposed reconciliation with insurgents. He has begun a dialogue with Taliban groups, apparently outside the frame of action defined by the Americans, but clearly with their consent. The Taliban groups led by Mullah Omar are not averse to the idea of dialogue either and are ready to “do a deal” over Al Qaeda. In fact, Pakistan may be able to facilitate such a deal. Obama appears to favor this when he said in Toronto recently: “conversations between the Afghan government and the Pakistani government, building trust between those two governments, are a useful step.”

The Haqqani network is reportedly already talking to Karzai, and so is Gulbadeen Hekmatyar. Indications are that the Obama administration might not rule out the incorporation of the Haqqani network in an Afghan settlement. “Haqqani has a large fighting force, and by co-opting him into a power-sharing arrangement a lot of bloodshed can be avoided”, said an official on the condition of anonymity. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke said on a visit to Islamabad recently that it was “hard to imagine” the Haqqani network in an Afghan arrangement, but added, “Who knows?”

Pakistan is playing the crucial role of bringing the adversaries and stakeholders in the Afghan conflict to the negotiating table. The Pakistan Army and the ISI, both relentlessly presented and condemned as bad boys by the West and Kabul, which were egged-on by the Indian-Israeli outfits in the past, are now being looked upon as facilitators for peace talks by Karzai and the West. Obama sees Pakistan’s effort to broker talks “with openness”.

As this delicate process moves forward, a few words of caution: The process of reconciliation and re-integration of Taliban does not serve some outside interests such as those of India. Keen at playing a role itself, where none can realistically be claimed, India is averse to the idea of Pakistan’s involvement in the process. Anguished by this turn of events, which it fears might threaten its long term geostrategic interests, India can be expected to attempt derailment of the effort. It has at stake over a billion US dollars invested in Afghanistan for gaining an economic and political clout and operating an intelligence network targeting Pakistan and would not like to lose out.

With Washington making its intentions clear as to the course it intends to follow and all parties to the conflict inching towards the negotiating table, there is not much left to fight for. Instead, it is time to cheer them up. In the interim, use of additional troops by the ISAF commanders to escalate the conflict just to prove their prowess and justify the surge would prove counterproductive. This will easily destroy the peace initiatives and kill any chances of reconciliation. So, if a truce cannot immediately be worked out, let there at least be a show of intent and in this spirit the Kandahar offensive needs to be reviewed.

To a very large extent it will now be the General’s call to draw the war to a close or escalate it. In the interest of the countries involved and the peace at large, the advice for the general is: hold your dogs of war and give peace a chance.