Intrepid Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times describing the Obama administration's secret decision to ramp up talks with the Afghan Taliban, trying to find a negotiated solution to a decade-long conflict. In a follow-up phone call, Rashid said that the Obama administration ought to announce these talks publicly and pressure Afghanistan's neighbors to get behind them.
Amar C. Bakshi: What is the shift in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan?
Ahmed Rashid: For a very long time there was a lot of division about whether the U.S.would talk to the Taliban or not. Those divisions have now more or less ended. There is much greater determination to set in motion not just secret talks but everything around it that has to happen.
For example, the Taliban are very keen to open an office somewhere in one of the Gulf countries or maybe Turkey. There is nowU.S.support for that. There would presumably be international support for that also. These are the kinds of steps that are needed to get a political process going.
There is the acknowledgement that an over-dependence on a military strategy is not going to work in the long-term. Secondly, the economic and international situation is really not in favor of a long-term military strategy. What is needed now very much is a political strategy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself has said this several times in the past few weeks.
What would a deal with the Taliban look like?
We are a very, very long way away from that. Many questions are being raised. For example, would there be a power-sharing with the present government? How would it take place? How would the constitution accommodate something like that? There are all sorts of social and legal issues about the constitution and Islamic law.
One of the key steps that the Americans have taken is that for the last two years or so, the Obama administration has been talking about preconditions – that the Taliban has to renounce Al Qaeda, accept the constitution and President Karzai. Now what we’re seeing is that talks are going on without any preconditions. These preconditions, or red lines, are something that everyone assumes will be accepted by the Taliban at the end of the talks rather than at the beginning. That is a very positive thing because I don’t think either side could go into their talks with their preconditions.
There are Taliban preconditions that seem to be watered down too because the Taliban were insisting that they wouldn’t talk until the American forces started to leave. But they seem to be willing to put that aside for the time being.
Why is this shift happening now?
The overall international and economic situation is very, very dire. First of all, the majority of European countries want to pull their troops out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible and that includes some of the leading nations like Britain, Germany and Canada.
Economically they can’t do it. They’re cutting their defense budgets. They are in recession.
And secondly the huge expenditure by the Americans themselves: Something like $108 billion is going to be spent on Afghanistan this year on the war effort. This is clearly not sustainable with all the economic crises that President Obama is facing right now.
What can the U.S. do to help make India and Pakistan see eye-to-eye on Afghanistan?
That is obviously a very crucial part of it. The big tussles going on over Afghanistan right now is between India and Pakistan in a battle for influence there. I think the U.S. needs to play a more upfront role – privately at least – to bring the two countries together if not on the other issues that divide them like Kashmir and larger issues, then certainly on Afghanistan. I think that’s very doable.
The more we get into this endgame and negotiations - the more the world realizes that the Americans are talking to the Taliban - I think it becomes very imperative for both the governments in India and Pakistan to accept the fact that they will have to work with each other if they want to be part of the ultimate equation.
Does Pakistan want to see stability in Afghanistan?
Pakistanis very keen to see stability in Afghanistan. An end to the war in Afghanistan could have a very dramatic effect on containing terrorism inside Pakistan too and containing the Pakistani Taliban. So I think Pakistanis very keen to see stability.
The question at the moment is: If the U.S. is going to take the lead – or the United Nations or whoever we are going to see in the months ahead take the lead on this – they have to bring together all the neighboring countries, of which Pakistan is probably by far the most important, but all of the neighboring countries have to agree to some king of on non-interference in Afghanistan.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are being exacerbated by upheavals throughout the Middle East. How might Saudi Arabia and Iran see eye-to-eye in Afghanistan?
For the last 30 years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been rivals in Afghanistan. For example, the Saudis backed the Taliban regime in the 90s. The Iranians very strongly opposed it.
The point right now is that with the tensions in the Gulf - the Saudis accusing the Iranians of destabilizing Bahrain and Saudi Arabia– they are both searching for allies.
The Saudis have recently been approaching the Afghans and the Pakistanis to ally with them against Iran. That is something that neither country can afford to do – neitherAfghanistannorPakistan. Secondly, you need the compliance of both Saudi Arabia and Iran for any eventual Afghan peace settlement.
So taking sides on this Iran-Saudi dispute in the region is not a good idea. It is not very helpful, especially if you want to bring the two countries into the peace agreement.
So a major diplomatic lift is needed?
Yes, absolutely. We’re talking about a huge diplomatic effort, which the former U.S. Af-Pak Special Envoy, Richard Holbrooke, had started. It needs a very big push by the United States, NATO and the European countries.
It needs some public diplomacy. Things need to be done and said in public so that people around the world can see that there is movement on this. As well, of course, a great deal of private diplomacy is needed such as dealing with this Iran-Saudi Arabia issue, bringing India and Pakistan together. A mixture of private and public diplomacy is needed.
We might see some of that public diplomacy in July when President Obama marks the withdrawal of some U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The quicker the United States gets on with this, the better it is going to be. One of the big steps it should take in the public realm is admitting that the U.S. is having talks with the Taliban and set out a roadmap as to what the President would like to see. The quicker we see the administration doing this, the faster this process will move.