Category Archives: Afghanistan

Afghanistan won’t let me sleep

The more I think about it, the more I worry about how the endgame is going to work out in Afghanistan. The problem, of course, is that the US strategy of pulling out by 2011, relying on a strategy that combines using heavy force to negotiate from a position of strength, and building Afghan institutions (particularly the police and the ANA), has about as much chance of succeeding as, to borrow a phrase from one of the greatest writers to grace us with his wit, a whelk has in a supernova.

Shafqat Mahmood seems to think so, too. In fact, once you’ve read this, you’ll begin to worry about Mr Mahmood’s mental state. Keep him away from sharp objects, make sure he isn’t left alone with pills, that sort of thing.


The problem is that in order for the US strategy to work, the ANA needs to be in a position to secure Afghanistan on its own, with minimal foreign assistance, by next year. Moreover, it needs to have a significant number of Pashtun soldiers, in order for it to be accepted as a national army, and not an ethnic one. At the moment, US forces say none of the Afghan battalions are in a position to act independently of foreign troops. Meanwhile, policemen continue to be beheaded for ‘colluding with foreign invaders’ – hardly confidence inspiring stuff.

The other problem, of course, is that the Taliban were hardly beaten in Marja, which was supposed to be the first step in the US’s big push to force them to the negotiating table. Kandahar will be bloodier, and no less conclusive, when the coalition eventually takes it on.

Cannons to left of them, cannons to right of them.

So if the Taliban can afford to wait out the coalition (with even the UK now announcing a date for the withdrawal of troops (even if said date is 2015)), why would they take any negotiations seriously? The US is trying to force ‘reconcilables’ to the table, and to put pressure on those it considers to be impossible to negotiate with (read: the Haqqani group), but honestly, what incentive do Talibs who do come to the table have to stick to any agreements once the US is gone. The battle for Afghanistan, for them, is ideological, not driven by political agendas.

In other news, while I’m not going to touch the morass of opinion, crisis and just general unpleasantness that is the India-Pakistan dialogue process in this post, US CJCSC Adm Mike Mullen’s just left Delhi, talking about how militants could push India and Pakistan to the brink of war, and emphasising how there needs to be greater understanding, and more concrete anti-terror movement, between the two neighbours. I find this interesting only because of a recent discussion about how the US divides its military commands to separate India and Pakistan (Pakistan comes under USCENTCOM, India under USPACOM), thus making it impossible for them to think about the two together. I think that argument is interesting, but practically speaking, the US has been forced to deal with the realities of India’s and Pakistan’s  problems with each other, because of Afghanistan. Whether or not it does something about these problems, though, is a whole different kettle of fish. But they do know Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan is not divorced from its enmity with India.

These men (the ANA) are not going to be securing anything,
other than perhaps their lunch, for a while

In other news:

General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has been given a 3-year extension as Chief of Army Staff. The only surprising thing about this story is the length of the extension – a one or two year extension was expected, but to keep the COAS on for three more years means he will outlive the current government and all its officials (except the Senators, notably Rehman Malik) and, moreover, will muck up the Army’s seniority ranks quite royally. Nevertheless, he was always going to be given an extension, given his excellent relationship with the US, his generally non-confrontational behaviour with the democratic set-up, and the fact that he has not utterly failed at his job. Note use of the word ‘utterly’. Anyhow, enough intelligent commentary has been written on the man and his extension, so I shan’t add to the cacophony. Read Shuja Nawaz on the AfPak channel in particular, and Ikram Sehgal, who has long been arguing for changes to the overall command structure of the military. Sehgal wanted Kayani to be appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

– Federal Minister for Education Sardar Aseff Ahmed says, on the fake degree issue, that Chairman of the NA Standing Committee on Education and fake-degree-witchhunter-in-chief Abid Sher Ali has no authority to deal with the issue, and that “a single person could not exceed his powers for the sake of fame”. Presumably finding out that lawmakers have lied about their eligibility for public office is a publicity stunt, according to the minister.

– Gibran Peshimam has taken the trouble to write us an op-ed telling us that he has no idea why violence breaks out in Karachi periodically. Wonderful. That’s useful.

– Crazy LHC petition of the day: Pak-Afghan transit trade agreement challenged as ‘unconstitutional‘.

– Crazy Twitter Update of the Day: Punjab Governor Salman Taseer wants to be accused of having a fake degree, defaulting on bank loans and tax fraud.


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Filed under Afghanistan, Musings, Pakistan, Security, Terrorism/Counter-terrorism

A land of miracles

Pakistan, I keep telling people, is a land of dreams. It’s a country where what’s possible is limited only by your imagination. Where words, in fact, do not just describe reality, they create it.

Take university degrees, for example. According to Nawab Aslam Raisani, Chief Minister of Balochistan, “a degree is a degree, whether real or fake”. Ta-da. There. Crisis averted. He went on to say that regardless of the authenticity of degrees, he will “continue to live in [his] house”. Good to know.

Pictured: A magician. “And for my next trick, watch me make corruption
allegations against all government officials go away . . . Governance is
governance, even if it is corrupt. Presto!” [Picture courtesy APP]

In other news:

– US congresswoman Nita Lowey refuses to give Afghanistan another cent, because she says too much US aid ends up in the pockets of ‘corrupt Afghan officials’. She says she will recommend that no more money is given, other than ‘life-saving humanitarian aid’. Watch this story – it may go nowhere after the subcommittee hearings, of course, but it’s significant, and symptomatic of the growing lack of patience with this nation-building project in Afghanistan.

Another day, another drone. This time it’s near Wana, and interestingly some alleged ‘Punjab Taliban’ and al Qaeda militants were killed. Hm.

– The CS Monitor‘s done a story on how ethnic minorities in Afghanistan are against all this talk about negotiating with the (mainly Pashtun) Taliban. In particular it quotes minority Afghan lawmakers, and anger from public figures about the ouster of Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief, who was also an ethnic Tajik.

– While we’re talking about negotiations in Afghanistan, US President Obama has made one of his more nonsensical remarks on the matter: he says the talks should be viewed with a mixture of “scepticism and openness”.  So what you’re saying is . . . we should be open to the idea, but not really think it’s going to work? And if that’s the case, how, exactly, are you planning to pull out in June 2011?

– Benazir Bhutto’s name has now been inscribed into law (as the Benazir Income Support Programme Bill 2010). Hardly surprising, considering that this government has inscribed her name into virtually everything else it could get its hands on. I’m just surprised cheeseburgers aren’t now known as Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Burgers.
Now I’m not even entering the debate of whether or not Ms Bhutto was a capable leader – I’m just humbly suggesting that maybe we should spend less time arguing in the National Assembly about chest-thumping on self aggrandizement, and maybe just a little bit more on . . . I don’t know, let’s say . . . governance?

– Finally, thank you Twitter, for letting me know that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is a massive Messi fan, and that Marvi Memon just killed a lizard with her shoe.


Filed under Afghanistan, Musings, Pakistan, Politics

Well, we wanted an activist judiciary . . .

This was always going to be a problem, once the principle of an activist judiciary was conceded as being a sound one in Pakistan today. I’m not arguing against the judiciary taking a pro-active role in delivering justice (and forcing the government to deliver governance) to the people, but this comes with the territory: you now have a Lahore High Court, always known for being the most conservative in the country, that’s handing out blanket bans on websites like they were Eidi.

(In other news out of that court, lawyers of a murder accused helped him escape from the court after his bail plea was rejected. What, exactly, is going on over in CJ Khwaja Sharif’s little fiefdom? Apparently senior lawyer Ahsan Bhoon, of marching-with-the-lawyers-and-then-taking-oath-as-a-PCO-judge fame, ‘saved’ the unfortunate policeman who tried to stop them – the lawyers were about to take him to the bar room to ‘teach him a lesson’. I’m guessing that this lesson wasn’t going to be on, say, the finer points of constitutional law . . .)

The question is, after this provisional ban on Google, Yahoo, Bing, Amazon, MSN, Hotmail, Youtube, Islam Exposed and In The Name of Allah, what happens next? The lawyers community of Bahawalpur has already announced that it is going to observe a complete strike on Wednesday . . . . . . against the ‘publication’ of this ‘blasphemous’ material on these websites.

Leave aside, for a moment, the absolutely nonsensical nature of the ban – both because of the fact that it violates basic right to information and because it betrays a complete lack of understanding of how the internet works (even if you agree, for some reason, that ‘objectionable’ material should be banned, banning search engines is a bit like ordering that all of Karachi’s roads should be dynamited because an aunty made an illegal U-turn on Amir Khusro Rd). Let’s talk about getting the ban reversed through legal means.

The only way to do this is to file a constitutional petition in a High Court or the Supreme Court, arguing that the ban is, to put not too fine a point on it, idiotic on every level. Here we run into the trouble I pointed out in my last Op-Ed – will the SC or an HC rule in your favour, because it will be seen to be ‘supporting blasphemy’, a move politically akin in Pakistan to stabbing yourself repeatedly in the heart while simultaneously reading Vogon poetry? Well, we’ll never know if we don’t try – otherwise this country will continue to move incrementally towards the intolerant right. This case, of course, is subtly different from the Facebook case in that it calls for blanket bans of search engines, which do not even host the material that is being found objectionable – it can be argued, therefore, without reference to the acceptability of the material itself.

The way to fight this ban, ultimately, is not just on the Op-Ed pages of  English language newspapers, or in witty comments on Twitter (I plead guilty to the latter), it’s through the processes of government. I’m not based out of Karachi at the moment, but I am willing, if others want to pursue this case, to arrange the drafting of a constitutional petition and to find a Sindh High Court advocate who will argue the case pro bono. Get in touch if you’re interested.

In today’s other news:

– The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has handed in his resignation after this politically ill-advised profile in Rolling Stone, and its now up to US President Barack Obama to either accept it, or let him stay on. And even though McChrystal, an ex-Ranger known for his gung-ho attitude and the ‘prophet’ of Counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics, called everyone in the White House a bunch of “wimps”, aiming particular snipes at US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and national security advisor James Jones, he may yet survive this, because Obama needs continuity in Afghan operations. Either way, however, his position is going to be weakened: either fire the general and appoint a new head of operations in a war you’re trying desperately to turn around, or leave him be and undermine your own authority by allowing such comments from your military top brass. Between the devil and  . . well, a gung-ho ex-Ranger. Read Maureen Dowd, Simon Tisdall and Michael Tomasky on the issue to really get to grips with how difficult this choice is going to be for Obama.

Also, I strongly recommend reading the profile itself. As a reporter, it makes me go all tingly.

– On the court front, the LHC is not the only court doing some crazy things. The SHC CJ, Sarmad Jalal Osmany, has apparently asked for, and been granted, funds by the government to fly to the US for surgery. The government is footing the bill for his flights as well as his treatment. Now, I’m sorry that the CJ has dodgy ankles, and from all accounts he’s an excellent and fair judge who tolerates no nonsense in his court, but it is simply not the government’s place to pay for this treatment, particularly after a provincial and federal ban on precisely this sort of thing.
And this is coming a few weeks after the same CJ demanded that he be given an incredibly expensive bullet-proof vehicle. Why? Because the CJ of the Peshawar HC got one.
Dear god, give me strength.

–  Today’s uplifting story of the day: How International Relations Theory can be adapted to deal with a Zombie Apocalypse. Brilliant.

– Today’s completely random Express-Tribune story of the day: Fatima Bhutto says she has moxie, and craves only Justice. That latter reminds me more of this, than this.


Filed under Afghanistan, Musings, Politics

Ssshhhhh . . . I’m hunting Bin Ladens.

Alright, I realise that in my last post, two-and-a-bit months ago, I promised to write more regularly. I then disappeared off the face of the planet, ignoring this blog with the sort of dedication one usually only finds among the devout, or the criminally insane.

This time I mean it – somewhat idiotically, I timed my last pledge to coincide with all of my papers and exams for the small matter of my MA. Have been in Karachi on a research trip for the last month, but should now be in a position to write more regularly.

So there.

Now, to business. Specifically, yesterday’s story of the day: American construction worker with failing kidneys sets off into the woods of Chitral to hunt down Osama bin Laden (I’m linking to the NYT story on this because it’s just . . . well, better than the ones in the local papers. Better researched, more details, less meaningless standard news-writing – but I’m going off on a tangent. More on that later.)

So, armed with a dagger, night vision goggles, a pistol (with 40 rounds of ammunition – this man must be a dead shot, if he was planning on taking out OBL’s hideout and killing him with just 40 shots fired. Or maybe he’s Chuck Norris.), a camera and, my personal favourite, a “small quantity of hashish”.

Great. As if Pakistanis don’t have enough things to worry about, now we’ve got to be on the lookout for crazy, drug addled Americans roaming around the countryside, like demented wolves, looking for a bearded men to kill.

Today’s reading:

Dawn says Pakistan is trying to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan through the Haqqani network. This is not news, but here’s some food for thought: with the realignment in the Afghan security establishment (i.e. intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh quitting and Karzai’s comments showing acceptance for a Pakistani role in negotiations (though the man’s statements on Pakistan’s forward-looking role in Afghanistan tend to be slightly schizophrenic, to be fair)), are we seeing another (small) step towards a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, brokered through Pakistan. Also, where does Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami fit into this jigsaw? It’s possible that in order to broker peace in Afghanistan, the interlocutors will have to get not just the Afghan government, NATO and the Talibs to talk to one another, but the militant groups to talk amongst themselves. Tricky. Beyond demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops, Afghan militant groups may well have varying agendas, and there will be a significant amount of power up for grabs in these negotiations.

– Karachi’s caught, once again, in the grips of sectarian violence. Actually, that’s not true. Karachi’s caught in the midst, at this particular moment,  of sectarian, political and ethnic violence. While sectarian groups are carrying out targeted killings of each others workers (the Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jammat, the SSP’s new name in Pakistan has played a central role here), political killings continue. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Rehman Malik tweets he will not “will not allow anybody to ignite violence in Karachi, or any other part of Pak. Peace will be established at all costs.” Ah. So we should all just rest easy, then. Malik’s on the case. This would be comforting, if he were any good at this sort of thing. More on the lack of movement against militant groups and actors later, but this sort of thing is symptomatic of the government’s piece-meal approach of negotiated values when it comes maintaining stability.

– Poor old Hussain Haqqani just wants some helicopters. Quote of the day: “I have been ambassador here for two years, and all I have to show for it is eight secondhand Mi-17 transport helicopters […]”.

– And because no day’s reading is complete without a crazy story, here’s this, from the Express-Tribune. Aamina Haq thinks animals are awesome, and wants to do something hardcore. Thanks, E-T! My life is now complete.

Finally, there’s an Op-Ed I’ve just written up appearing in Dawn in the next few days, so will repost that. Next post soon, and very likely on thoughts to do with my MA dissertation research: What do militant media strategies look like, and how do they fit into the idea of a Pakistani public sphere? Fun times.

p.s. I’m now on Twitter. Oddly. Look me up (AsadHashim), and watch as I grapple with what should be the next Olympic event: Tweeting – attempting to communicate intelligent in 140 characters or less.

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“Hey, don’t leave now – what ever happened to killing bad guys?”

So, as promised, I went and talked to some informed people about India’s interests in Afghanistan. And by talked to I mean, of course, listened to. The informed Indians in question were Ambassador KC Singh (former Indian Ambassador to Tehran and current Co-ordinator on Counter-Terrorism for the Indian government), Ambassador Kanwal Sibal (former Foreign Secretary, amongst many other posts) and Praveen Swami, an assistant editor at The Hindu. They were joined by Pakistanis Gen (r) Aziz Khan (a former Chief of General Staff), Talat Husain (of Aaj TV) and Aamir Rana (Director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies).

Right, so what’s the story?

Well, as far as one can tell, Indian interests in Afghanistan seem to be driven by two material concerns. First, there is the security dimension, and the concern regarding having a possibly religiously radical and ideologically driven State in the neighborhood, with the associated concerns regarding possible attacks on Indian soil. To be fair, one of the panelists did note that attacks on Indian soil did not rise during the Talibans’ previous time in power, from 1996 to 2001, as compared to other periods, so this link is not entirely direct. Nevertheless, there is the concern of having a State that can harbour militants antagonistic towards India in the neighborhood.

The second interest is perhaps the more pressing one. India needs a stable Afghanistan in order to have a stable land route into Central Asia. This land route is not, of course, for Manmohan Singh to have a convenient and picturesque place to take off on a road trip to: it’s for trade. As noted rather interestingly here by Yousuf Nazar, the Indian model of power is built not primarily on military strength, but on economics (though this was not admittedly the thrust of Nazar’s piece). Indian foreign policy is driven by two things, both linked: economics and energy. In that sense, having a stable Afghanistan is vital in order to have access to both power from, and trade to, Central Asian states.

In fact, while the debate at the panel began in the expected rather friendly and conciliatory tones, as time went on one panelist said that if it came to a situation where the Taliban were seen to be taking control in Afghanistan in a manner inimical to India’s ‘interests’ (security, trade and ideological opposition, in this panelist’s case), India would not hesitate to work “together with Iran and Russia” to work towards ousting that regime and to defend its interests.

The Indian argument is couched in strong moral tones. The words ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘evil’ often make an appearance, with one ambassador terming the West’s apparent turnaround in its stance on talks (“We won’t talk to those evil terrorists” to “Well . . we’ll talk to those of them who are willing to lay down arms, to the reconcilable elements” to “Well, we’re going to have to talk to them eventually, aren’t we?”) intensely “disheartening”. He then delivered a grimace to his mostly British audience, as if in reproach.

Now this is not to say that morality doesn’t have a part to play in international relations. I’m just not sure what such a role is, and, further, whether or not this is just another case of packaging real strategic interests in easily defended moral terms.

So India supports the Karzai regime, because at the moment that’s the only game in town that protects its interests in that country. And the underlying reality to such a strategy is this: India’s strategy in Afghanistan is defensive, not offensive, and is certainly not directed against Pakistan in particular. This may come as a shock to some Pakistanis. Deal with it – we are not the be-all-end-all.

There are other underlying issues within this discussion. The first, obviously, is the idea that the war is already all but over, that the US-led coalition has lost, and that Afghanistan is going back to the Taliban. The second, flowing from the first, is that the Taliban can be negotiated with in a reasonable manner. Further, there is also the contention that the Afghan Taliban has no outward-looking designs in the region, and that they are essentially only interested in defending their homeland. It seems that on a policy-making and strategy-formulating level, there is a huge disconnect between Pakistani and Indian thinking on this matter.

More on these later.

Today’s random reading:

This, in the Guardian, from Julian Glover, about how Britain needs to figure out how big a power it really can be. Interestingly, Praveen Swami, the assistant editor at The Hindu, raised the same question regarding the United States. “Great powers need to be prepared to make sacrifices. And so the US needs to decide if it wants to be a great power,” he said, responding to a question.

This story from The News, about proposed amendments to the Pakistani constitution. Highlights include clauses making signing on to a PCO by judges an act of treason, and changes to eligibility criteria for MNAs and MPAs (taking out a clause disqualifying anyone if “he [sic] is propagating any opinion or acting in any manner, prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or sovereignty, integrity of Pakistan or morality or the maintenance of public order or the integrity of independence of judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings ridicule to the judiciary or the armed forces of Pakistan.” This, of course, means that I’ll soon be eligible to run for Parliament. Excellent.

This, on Pakistan’s power woes and our lack of movement on a power deal with Iran. Interestingly, also in the paper recently was a story about how we were all set to buy some 85MW from a rental power plant that is to be shipped in on the coast, near Karachi. Something’s not quite right here.

This, from Shahzad Chaudhry in the Daily Times, on issues in Afghanistan.

And finally, this, on Leo Messi’s sublime performance against Zaragoza for Barcelona on in the Spanish League on Sunday. Highlights are here. I watched the game, and, just as Sid Lowe notes, was breathless by the end. Messi is . . magic. I’ve been a Barcelona fan for about ten years now, and, this team that Pep Guardiola has put together is the very embodiment of the club. Receive, Pass, Offer. Receive, Pass, Offer. Being pathologically wary, though, I will note this: Messi’s brilliance this year is making up for the lack of sharpness in Barca’s play this year, as compared to last. Eto’o’s industry is missed, and passes are going astray which were pinging from foot to foot last year. But then, this is me quibbling over perfection.

“Encirclement?” Manmohan asks, perplexed.  “Of who?”


Filed under Afghanistan, India, Musings, Pakistan, Security, Terrorism/Counter-terrorism

Right hand grumbles, left hand nabs Baradar.

First off, before we get to any of the fun stuff about counter-insurgency, politics, and rock n’ roll, this: I’m going to try and post a little more regularly here than . . well, my publishing schedule, from now on in, so check back often, if you find any of this even vaguely interesting.

Now, onto things that explode.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an Op-Ed for Dawn about how the US was going to be forced into  negotiations, whether it likes it or not, in order to end hostilities in Afghanistan. I also wrote that Pakistan’s recent capture of Mullah Baradar, Mullah Umar’s right-hand-man, in addition to increased arrests in urban areas, was significant in that it signaled Pakistan’s intent to be central to any negotiations; just in case the US, or other agencies, had any misconceptions about the Pakistani establishment’s interests in that country, and their determination to remain a key player.

Then, this morning,  Lyse Doucet, one of the BBC’s more senior correspondents, breaks this story from Oslo: apparently the UN had been engaged in “secret contacts” with the Taliban (they weren’t particularly secret, to be honest . . everyone just kept quite tightlipped about them when questioned on meetings that everyone knew were happening in the UAE). Anyhow, so Kal Eide, the former UN envoy to Afghanistan says Pakistan “did not play the role it should have” by arresting a high-ranking member of the Taliban.

This is not the interesting part of this story. The interesting part of this story is that while the UN had apparently opened up these “secret lines” of  communication in order to have “talks about talks”, and therefore was unhappy about their points of contact being picked up willy-nilly across Pakistan, the US was saying this: that al-Qaeda is on the run thanks to greater cooperation between the CIA and Pakistan, epitomised by the joint operation that resulted in the pick-up of Mullah Baradar.

So . . what exactly is going on here? Clearly the final Afghan solution is one that no-one has really decided on, or, at the very least, coordinated on. The US is working to its own ends, the UN to its, Pakistan towards some sort of central role in either of their negotiations, and India – well, to be honest, I’m going to hold off on speculating on India’s intentions in Afghanistan until I’ve spoken to some intelligent people about it. Or, alternately, someone involved in Indian policy making.

Other things to keep an eye on:

– Cyril Almeida sums up the Shahbaz Sharif ‘Taliban-gate’ (his words, not mine) scandal quite well here. The issue’s structural, as usual. Too much discourse seems to focus on the superficial: what he said. What we need to look at it is not what he said to the Taliban about leaving Punjab alone, but why he said it. And, for added measure, to whom.

– So a friend informs me that I won’t be able to see the US Senate in session during a planned trip to Washington DC in a couple of weeks because it will be on Easter break. This broke my heart, because I wanted to sit in the observer’s gallery and yell ‘DO MORE!’ periodically at that august gathering. Never mind, because Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has done it for me. Here. [Sadly, I don’t see any direct quotes in that story that attribute the exact words to the FM.]

– Finally, this. Now I have no particular interest in this murder case from Karachi, other than the fact that on my first day at Dawn‘s city pages, my editor and I had a chat about the police’s lack of investigative skills, and their inability to build cases that hold up in court (this ended up being the motivation for many of my stories for the Karachi Metropolitan pages). That day he picked up the paper and pointed out this story, and how based on the case the police had presented, there was absolutely no way a conviction would be achieved. Today, the two accused have been acquitted, for exactly the reasons he outlined. Now I could go on about how the police are ridiculously incompetent in court, but I’ve already done that elsewhere, and, well, I’m sure you’ve had enough for one day.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Musings, Pakistan, Security, Terrorism/Counter-terrorism

There’s losing, and then there’s losing

[Op-ed originally published in Dawn, March 2, 2010, here]

The US-led military coalition is going to lose the war in Afghanistan.

But, of course, there is losing, and then there is losing.

Let me qualify that first statement: The US-led coalition is certainly not going to win the war, militarily, in Afghanistan. In the very description of this engagement, some ground rules need to be laid for definitions. What constitutes victory (and defeat)? Is it the setting up of a vibrant Afghan democracy and the killing of every militant who ever bore arms? Or is it setting up a framework that vaguely resembles a functioning state under a weak central government before retreating to watch the whole mess descend into inevitable civil war? These are extremes, of course – there is a spectrum of possible, and, I hasten to stress, more likely, definitions in between.

Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US-led coalition cannot win the war against the Taliban outright as things stand. Indeed, cognizant of this, where several years ago policy makers in Washington DC were talking about talks with the ‘evil Taliban terrorists’ being simply out of the question, there is now the suggestion, from both military officials and civilian policy makers, that negotiations are not so much desirable as inevitable.

This is not just US President Obama’s hope and change approach to government (as opposed to  former President Bush’s Shock and Awe doctrine) – this is down to the facts on the battlefield. Without compromise, there will be no peace; and there is no surrender on the cards in this war. The Afghan Taliban are too well entrenched (both militarily and socially), and Western forces are unable to gain, hold and secure significant ground across the country. In fact, their very presence is probably doing more to drive recruitment for the Taliban than any propaganda drive on the part of the insurgents.

And now there are more of them than ever. With the 30,000-strong US troop surge underway, and a new major offensive in the south of the country, ISAF is taking the fight back to the Taliban – so wither negotiations?

Well, if you’re going to negotiate, you’ve got to have somewhere to negotiate from. So while Taliban leaders periodically make statements indicating that lines of communication will remain entirely closed “as long as a single foreign soldier is on Afghan soil”, they must realise that the Western offensive is meant to show them the coalition is resolved not to simply let this fight go, to succumb to war fatigue within electorates back home, pack up and leave (the Dutch withdrawal notwithstanding). Winning, as noted earlier, is unlikely to be at either extreme, and the offensive in Helmand is designed to show the Taliban that they will not be able to simply outlast the coalition. Not without significant losses, at any rate.

Further, drone strikes against significant targets in FATA continue to take out militants involved in attacks on Afghan soil. This further weakens the Afghan Taliban’s position, but does not necessarily cripple it (given the structure of the organisation). All this serves to make negotiations a more desirable option than they perhaps presently are.

When such negotiations begin, of course, Pakistan will likely have a key role to play. The recent capture of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Baradar by Pakistani authorities, even if it was inadvertent (as has been claimed from some quarters), indicates that Pakistan realises this and will not be sidelined in the stepped up offensive. By the same token, US officials of late have been seen to offer a few carrots in with the ‘do more’ sticks it periodically throws in Pakistan’s general direction.

The truth is, ultimately, the coalition will need Pakistan in order to act in what has become its traditional role as negotiating agent. The US will go through Pakistan and its intelligence agencies to access the so-called Quetta Shura – they have no other point of contact, after all.

Any treaty to end hostilities between the two sides will, of course, involve ceding ground on both sides. The Taliban will either have to be incorporated into the existing state setup, or given control entirely of provinces where it has historically held sway (primarily in the south, with the divide roughly following ethnic divisions).

In return for this, and the disengagement of ISAF soldiers from Afghanistan, the Taliban will have to end all hostilities against both Western and Afghan state targets. Further, any deal will also likely involve a disavowal of al-Qaeda, either allowing Western forces to target the organisation in Afghanistan, or, more likely, expecting the Afghan authorities to do so. This disavowal may not be as unlikely as it seems, seeing as how dispersed al-Qaeda already is across the globe, particularly in Arab states such as Yemen.

Pakistan, meanwhile, it should not be forgotten, will also have a stake in which direction these negotiations go. Any deal, since it will likely be brokered with substantial input from Islamabad, will have to take into account Pakistan’s fears regarding governance in the areas that may become Taliban-controlled, as these will be on the Pak-Afghan border. Negotiating any peace deal will be perhaps the trickiest for Pakistan, the middle man in this particular Mexican standoff.

There is, of course, one other, rather unlikely alternative: the coalition’s original plan. This involves training the Afghan National Army to the point where it is capable of securing the country and ensuring that the state has room to function. Given the fact that in order for this to work the ANA will have to wean popular Pashtun support away from the Taliban and induct members of that community into its ranks in numbers, this is unlikely. It is, after all, seen as part of a Western puppet regime.

And, even if that happens, as one London-based analyst quipped the other day, the best that would do is help to set up a “halfway decent military dictatorship” in Afghanistan. And in Pakistan, we know how that story goes.

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