Ramadan’s lost peace

A slew of questions were raised when a Chinook helicopter was shot down on 6 August in Afghanistan’s Wardak province killing 30 US servicemen – most of them elite Navy seals – and eight Afghans.

By Maleeha Lodhi

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Published: Fri 26 Aug 2011, 8:57 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:45 AM

Will the heaviest loss of American lives in a single incident since 2001 heighten doubts about the Afghan mission among a war-weary American public and Congress? Does the downing of the helicopter show the limits of America’s changed war effort that increasingly involves special operations missions? Most importantly this development laid bare the continuing tension in US policy between the declared goal of pursuing a negotiated political settlement and a military strategy still centred on kinetic actions. By the time the planned international conference convenes in Bonn this December, Washington wants to be able to announce that serious negotiations with the Taleban are in progress to end the decade long war. But are its military actions in Afghanistan serving this goal?

The answer is clouded in confusion. The helicopter incident came in the midst of escalating violence in Afghanistan. Recent months have seen a series of assassinations of high-profile Afghan officials and aggressive military actions by US/Nato forces targeting the Taleban in Kandahar, Helmand and extending to eastern Afghanistan. Violence has intensified even as trilateral meetings of the so-called core group – Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US – have been underway to discuss how to engage Taleban leaders in negotiations.

The Taleban’s hit and run tactics have increasingly taken the form of assassinating top Afghan government figures. Since March, several officials have been killed including President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. Meanwhile US Special Forces have been conducting an intense campaign of kill-or-capture raids to eliminate mid-level commanders and degrade the Taleban. These have entailed controversial night raids, which have provoked sharp criticism from President Karzai and calls for an end to the deadly operations. Nato officials say that between April and July there were around 2,832 special operations raids. The mission in which the US helicopter was shot down was one such operation.

The renewal of Drone-fired missile attacks into North Waziristan is part of the same US strategy of killing as many Taleban commanders as possible even as American officials accept that all Taleban groups could potentially be part of the peace process. Confusion abounds over what the US hopes to achieve by simultaneously wanting to target and talk to Taleban leaders. In this ‘kill-capture-or-reconcile’ strategy, the US expects Pakistan to assist by facilitating contacts and at the same time take action against Taleban leaders unwilling to ‘reconcile’. And this while the US itself continues to ramp up military actions against the Taleban.

This approach will produce more not less violence, and is hardly a promising setting for serious talks. The cycle of revenge killings by both sides will hinder not help the start of meaningful negotiations. That is why a change of course is essential especially as there are indications of Taleban interest in a negotiated settlement – reflected in recent statements posted on its website. Instead of pursuing the current fight-and-talk approach, Washington in fact had the opportunity to offer a Ramadan ceasefire to help prepare the ground for negotiations.

Pakistan has long advocated the need to advance the reconciliation process by peace building measures. It has stressed the importance of properly sequencing the steps necessary to secure a negotiated settlement. In recent exchanges with the US, top Pakistani military officials have said that the concept of ‘Afghan reconciliation’ needs to be turned into an operational plan. This means ensuring that the political strategy determines the military mission and steps taken in that regard advance a political settlement.

Pakistan has argued that a mutual reduction of violence will help to create the political conditions for dialogue. It has proposed a roadmap for an Afghan-led peace process that involves three phases and starts with a reciprocal de-escalation of violence to create the conditions for peace efforts. This is seen as setting the stage to persuade the Taleban to renounce Al Qaeda — the most important strategic goal shared by the core group. Once this is achieved talks can make real progress. The third and final phase aimed at securing acceptance of the Afghanistan Constitution can follow later in a process in which the Afghan parties can evolve a new constitutional consensus.

It remains to be seen how the parties in the core group are able to evolve agreement on translating the reconciliation objective into an implementable plan. What can give the early stage of this process a decisive impetus is if the US accepts mutual cessation of violence as a necessary starting point.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom

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