Last Thursday's (January 28th) London Conference on Afghanistan marked an important new shift in efforts to resolve the Afghan crisis. It extended an olive branch to the Taliban if it distanced itself from al-Qaeda and made generous offers to rebels who renounce armed activity against the Afghan government and coalition troops. Rebels were offered amnesty, potential job opportunities, and financial support.
The conference, attended by more than 70 countries and international institutions, approved a plan announced by Afghan President Hamid Karzai for reintegration of Taliban fighters who agree to end their rebellion. Support estimated at $140 million was announced to finance the first year of the plan.
The coming months will reveal how successful Karzai's internationally backed plan will be in pushing Taliban fighters to abandon their weapons and reintegrate into Afghan society. The picture may become clearer during the spring, typically known as the "fighting season" in Afghanistan because melting snow allows rebels greater freedom of movement to launch attacks.
During the past few years, the Taliban tried to adopt "spring offensive" tactics and managed to step up their operations, especially in the Pashtun states of the south and southeast. But over the past two years, western coalition forces have ensured the Taliban were poorly prepared for a "spring offensive" by launching pre-emptive attacks on concentrations of the Afghan movement, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar, the main Taliban strongholds in the south. These pre-emptive strikes seem to have compelled the Taliban to change tactics, as they began escalating attacks with improvised explosive devices or suicide bombers instead of launching attacks to occupy and control territory.
Battles are expected to escalate significantly compared with the past given the arrival of 30,000 additional US troops promised by President Barack Obama. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, hopes this increase will help ensure a sufficient number of soldiers—not only to rid population areas in the south of Taliban activity, but also to remain there and ensure the Taliban do not return.
This would reassure ordinary Afghans that they will not pay a price for co-operating with the government as foreign forces will protect them from retaliation by Taliban guerrillas, who were quick to return to the southern regions once foreign troops left. These forces had sufficient soldiers to win the battle against the Taliban but not to stay in areas from where the movement was expelled. This year will also see a major effort to strengthen the capacity of Afghan security forces by training thousands of new army troops and police and giving them responsibility for security of some directorates in a number of states, perhaps by the end of this year.
In addition to extending the hand of peace to Taliban fighters who agree to renounce violence and distance themselves from al-Qaeda, the last few days also saw leaders of the Pashtun Shinwari tribe in eastern Afghanistan saying they agree to support the Afghan government and are committed to countering Taliban members if they enter their territory. The stance of the leaders of this tribe, comprised of about 400,000 people, comes after Taliban leaders sparked outrage with their actions, which included abducting engineers building a dam in a government project.
Tribal leaders will receive $1 million for development projects in their areas from the US command directly, without the money passing through local Afghan authorities, according to a New York Times report on January 28th. The tribe's stance brings to mind Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq standing alongside the Iraqi government and US forces a few years ago, contributing significantly to the dismantling of al-Qaeda's infrastructure in that country. The Iraqi tribal leaders' stance against al-Qaeda occurred after it became enraged by the organisation's actions. The same dynamic seems to be occurring with the Afghan Shinwari tribe.
But those following Afghanistan affairs warn that the position of tribal leaders may not guarantee that all members of the tribe stand by their side, pointing out that Afghan tribal structure saw the dissolution of leaders' traditional authority during the country's 30 years of continuous civil war.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government appears to be continuing the policy of extending a hand to the Taliban leadership along with reaching out to its members. Within this context, news broke of United Nations involvement in this approach. During the past two years, the government of President Karzai made direct contacts with prominent Taliban leaders linked to the leadership of the Shura in Quetta, Pakistan. Media reports claimed Taliban head Mullah Mohammad Omar and some of his leaders are using the area as a base, something the Pakistani government denies. However, those contacts did not result in persuading Mullah Omar to end his war against the Afghan government or his insistence on the departure of foreign troops, which he regards as an "occupying force".
But rejection by Mullah Omar does not mean all leaders of his movement share his perspective. Many of them know without doubt that continued fighting means Pashtun tribes, representing the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and from which the Taliban draws most of its members, risk a war of attrition that threatens to lead to undesirable consequences, including confrontations among Pashtuns themselves with one section siding with the government and another with the Taliban.
These leaders also know that Pashtun areas risk further destruction and would see a big decline in their development while other Afghan ethnic groups (the Tajik, Uzbeks, and Hazara) see further prosperity and growth, possibly leading to a change in the balance of power in Afghan society that is not in the interest of Pashtuns.
It remains unclear whether the contacts Kai Eide of Norway, the UN envoy to Afghanistan reportedly made with leaders of the Quetta Shura in Dubai last month included leaders who seek an end to hostilities. But those contacts seem to have occurred without the knowledge of Mullah Omar, as evidenced by the movement's haste in denying they transpired, unless there are plans in the Quetta Shura to separate from Mullah Omar's leadership. And there are doubtless those within Mullah Omar's close circle who believe in the need to reach a settlement with Karzai's government as long as the rebels' main objective, the end of foreign "occupation", is achieved with a declaration by all foreign countries of their willingness to withdraw once the suitable opportunity avails and conditions for doing so are met.
Still unclear is the position of the Quetta Shura leadership on the subject of al-Qaeda activity in Afghanistan, should the leadership reach an agreement with the Afghan government. Notably, however, Osama bin Laden's organization is active in areas of southeastern Afghanistan, a stronghold of the Haqqani network, and not in the southern states, a stronghold of the Taliban – Quetta Shura. In theory, the Haqqani network is considered part of the Taliban, but its extension in Pakistan is located within the Pashtun tribal belt, particularly in northern Waziristan. The Taliban extension in the south (such as the states of Helmand and Kandahar) is in the Pakistani province of Balochistan (the capital of which is Quetta).