President Nicholas Sarkozy has reacted to the deaths of four French soldiers and the wounding of another 17 by an Afghan soldier in the Taghab valley of eastern Kapisa province by suspending all French training and combat operations in Afghanistan. He threatened to accelerate French troops’ withdrawal if the security situation inside the country did not improve. He has decided to dispatch his defence minister and head of the armed forces to Afghanistan to assess the situation. The incident serves to focus attention on an ongoing problem of western troops being at the receiving end of attacks again and again by Afghan troops ostensibly being trained or supervised by them. This has widened mistrust between the troops of the two sides. President Hamid Karzai’s message of regret and condolences may not salve the situation unless the suspicions on NATO’s side that the Afghan armed forces are infiltrated by or have Taliban sympathisers in their ranks are dealt with squarely.
While this increasing discord between the western and Afghan allies threatens to unravel the orderly transition of security to Afghan forces leading up to the cut-off withdrawal date of 2014, the US is waxing hopeful that its preliminary exploration of talks with the Taliban seem to be making progress. Qatar has agreed to host an office of the Taliban, with a circumscribed sphere of activities focused on the talks with the US and Afghan government side. But reports from within the Karzai administration indicate deep unease and questions being raised by the Afghans regarding the approach of the US and what if any concessions are on offer to the Taliban. One positive the US can point to is their growing confidence that they are finally in touch with credible emissaries of Mullah Omar. The issue of acceding to the Taliban request that some of their prisoners being held in Guantanamo be transferred to Qatar and kept under house arrest has met Afghan hostility on the grounds that such prisoners should be handed over to the Karzai government. Reservations in Washington about the rough and ready Afghan prison system and the effect of such a transfer on the talks are behind its reluctance to accept any such proposal. Meanwhile, Marc Grossman, President Barack Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan was expected in Kabul yesterday for clarificatory talks on this and other issues after Pakistan refused to host him on the plea that it had not yet completed its review of the terms of re-engagement with the US. Ominously for some, Grossman arrives in Kabul after visiting India. Information Minister Firdaus Ashiq Awan announced that a joint session of parliament would be called in the first week of February to discuss the recommendations on the terms of re-engagement framed by the parliamentary committee on national security. From media reports it appears that these recommendations may include hosting American military trainers but no drones. Although bases will be denied to the latter, it is a grey area what Islamabad’s response, if any, will be to the revival of drone attacks in FATA in recent days. There is also a proposal floating about to charge tolls from the NATO logistics and supply convoys to Afghanistan via Torkham and Chaman.
The fraught Pakistan-US relationship is one of a series of troubling factors about the shape of things to come in Afghanistan. Reportedly, the assessments of the US military, intelligence and diplomatic arms about the intentions and seriousness in negotiations of the Taliban appear to differ. The military is cautioning that the wily Taliban may simply be seeking a breathing space to see out the foreign troops while accelerating its insurgent operations. It is also wary of prisoners’ release from Guantanamo. The diplomats, in perhaps a recognition of necessity, see no other way to produce acceptable conditions inside Afghanistan to allow the troop withdrawal to proceed. Who is right only time will tell, but one important development should be noted. Despite our military and ISI’s insistence that they be central to any negotiations with their Taliban proxies, the Qatar talks seem to be heading in the direction of an empty seat at the table where our military and intelligence hoped to be parked.