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After Karzai-Obama Meet, Agreement on Two ‘Processes’


Presidents Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday (EPA/ZUMApress.com)

The presidential communique has been issued. A longer-term “Strategic Partnership Declaration” will follow by the end of the year. But the most important and immediate result of this week’s visit to Washington by Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a consensus each side will claim for two “processes”: one for outreach to the Taliban, and the other for rolling back its influence in portions of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

[Security1] There is no indication of a quid pro quo. But in public appearances Thursday, the day after Karzai met at the White House with President Obama, senior U.S. and Afghan leaders left little doubt that they would claim the support of the other for the two major initiatives, each of which is a high priority for the other.

Seated beside Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded research organization, Karzai said one of the major messages he would take back to the Afghan people is “U.S. backing of the peace process,” a term he has used repeatedly this week. The peace process refers to an effort beginning with a “consultative peace jirga,” or conference, that Karzai will hold on May 29 for Afghans to come to consensus on the terms of a peace deal to offer to the Taliban in the hope of ending nearly nine years of insurgency. Since his November inauguration to a second term in office — which came after his election was defined by widespread fraud — Karzai has prioritized demonstrating that he will provide the negotiated end to the war that Afghans repeatedly tell pollsters they desire.

That effort received a high-profile endorsement from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, during a Pentagon news conference. McChrystal called the peace jirga “an appropriate effort” to figure out “an Afghan-led process” for ending the war. “The way ahead cannot be war,” McChrystal said, “The way ahead has to be a resolution to it.”

Karzai was similarly declarative about a long-telegraphed U.S. priority — turning military and Afghan governance attention to Kandahar, a major southern city of about 850,000 Afghans and the spiritual home of the Taliban. While much of the city remains under at least formal government control, the Taliban have been able to re-establish major presences in the city and its surrounding areas, most recently assassinating the deputy mayor in a mosque in broad daylight. Karzai previously indicated discomfort with the prospect of major fighting in the city, telling a shura council of 1500 Kandahar notables in April that no operation would go forward without local support.

On Thursday, however, Karzai, McChrystal and Clinton sounded harmonious notes about what McChrystal described as not an operation but a “rising tide of security” into the city. All three expressly forswore the use of the word “operation” — the word conjured up inappropriate images of “tanks, troops moving” through the city, Karzai said — and instead said Kandahar would be a “process” featuring more out-governing the Taliban than out-fighting it. Karzai suggested he became more comfortable with the “process” in Kandahar in the last week.

“This is the consequence of consultations that we have had” with the Americans, Karzai said. “The effort in Kandahar and the surrounding area has to be explained better, the modality of it has to be explained better, so we’re not calling it at all an operation.” Instead, the “process” would feature “bringing conditions to the Kandahar region and around where there is better governance, better resources and more active, vigorous vibrant intelligence activity and then, if and when and where needed, an operation militarily, in consultation with the community and backed by the community.”

McChrystal told reporters at the Pentagon not to expect a “D-Day and an H-hour and an attack” on the city, calling it “a process, not an event.” Instead, he will surge forces — NATO and Afghan — into Kandahar and its surrounding areas “without lapsing into major fighting” that he said “the insurgents would love to see.”

While McChrystal did not specify his battle plan at his briefing, informed sources indicated to TWI that McChrystal would seek to raise the current force mix in Kandahar from 6900 NATO troops and 5300 Afghan troops currently to 11,850 NATO forces and 8500 Afghans by September, with an emphasis on more than doubling the Afghan police presence there. That “rising tide” will coincide with planned rapid assemblies of local jirgas to “reconnect” Kandaharis to national, provincial and local government representatives — something to which Karzai said today he is committed. By November, McChrystal’s command expects to see subtle and favorable changes in Afghan perceptions of the capabilities of the government to provide a better life and for Afghan security forces to keep the peace.

McChrystal said in his press briefing that one of the lessons of months’ worth of difficult fighting in Helmand province is that change is measured in Afghan perceptions of which side offers a better future — and can’t be easily observed. “If you go every day, each day, it’s not a dramatic change,” McChrystal said. “If you go months’ difference, then it is.” That raised the prospect of months of ambiguous progress, at best, occurring alongside what McChrystal forecast would be violent and bloody contests with the Taliban.

While McChrystal and the Afghan government intend to press the insurgents into exercising diminished relevance in Kandahar, Karzai was more forceful than his American counterparts in saying explicitly that he seeks to negotiate peace with the Taliban.

“The peace process will be with those of the Taliban and other militant groups who are not part of al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks or ideologically against us — when I say us I mean the allies and all of us — in any way that will endanger our constitution, the freedoms and the democracy and the progress that we have achieved,” Karzai said. He said he wanted robust efforts at reintegrating what he called “countryside boys” who have fought alongside the Taliban out of material or transactional concerns, but he also pledged to talk to the senior Taliban leadership, an effort that would lead him to turn to Pakistan and regional countries to support and facilitate.

Clinton, by contrast, lowered expectations for what the peace process will deliver, the pace at which it will move, and what the U.S. can support. “People cannot just show up and say that they’re prepared to reenter Afghan society after having directed suicide attacks and other kinds of violence against Afghanistan,” Clinton said, claiming no distance from Karzai’s position. “This process really starts with the reintegration off the battlefield that the president was describing, of people who for a variety of reasons found themselves in the ranks of the Taliban. I don’t think any of us can predict what the outcome of the next phase will be,” referring to talks with the senior Taliban leadership.

She expressed skepticism that “leaders of the Afghan Taliban” are interested in a peace deal. “They are very much against it,” Clinton said. “We don’t expect to see them walking through the door.” Clinton conceived of an Afghan peace process defined by “starting with reintegration but thinking hard about what reconciliation would mean.”

In a joint appearance with Karzai yesterday, President Obama implicitly tied the two “processes” together.

“At what point do the Taliban start making different calculations about what’s in their interests, and how the Afghan people feel about these issues, is in part going to be dependent on our success in terms of carrying out our mission there,” Obama said at the White House. “So we are a very I think important partner in facilitating this potential reconciliation and effectively empowering the Afghan government so that it is in the strongest possible position as these talks move forward.”

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