As difficult as it may be for the United States and its NATO partners to discern what is actually happening in Afghanistan, there is an equal fog over Western intentions. In plain terms, no state or political grouping with an interest in Afghan affairs has a firm grasp on the intentions of their counterparts in the region or to a great extent even their own.
The United States still justifies its military participation in this nine-year war on the grounds of denying al Qaeda a sanctuary. Preventing the insurgency of the Taliban from regaining physical control of Afghanistan is expected to accomplish this. That in practice Afghanistan is more of a confederation of tribes and clans than a cohesive nation state is a major obstacle to the accomplishment of this task. And this is just the beginning.
The government of Pakistan believes itself well justified historically and politically to take not merely an influential but a determinant role in the evolution of its neighbor. The Americans want Islamabad's full military cooperation yet Gen. David Petraeus has deferred to President Karzai's desire to keep Pakistan on the sideline in any serious aspects of political rapprochement with the Taliban. At least that is the how the Pakistanis see it.
It became apparent last week that the much ballyhooed negotiations among Karzai's representatives and several Taliban leaders in October actually had included an individual falsely posing as Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the person said to be representing Mullah Omar. The first reaction to this ruse was that it was a clever device by the Taliban to get the American-directed Afghanis to show their hand before endangering any of the top Taliban leadership. This initial explanation has given way to a growing belief that Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, placed the imposter in the Taliban group in order to offer a lesson to the Americans and Karzai that there can be no Taliban negotiations without Pakistan involvement in all phases. Now there is a claim that an officer of Britain's MI-6 unwittingly sponsored the imposter.
It is not just ISI that wants any meetings with the Taliban be coordinated with them. Pakistan's embattled P.M. Yusuf Raza Gilani already has complained publicly that his office was not even briefed on the Kabul/Kandahar meetings. This is not petulance, say Islamabad's defenders, but a simple demand for acceptance of Pakistan's formative role in contemporary Afghan affairs going back to the creation of the insurgency against Soviet forces during the 1980s.
Pakistan's internal problems with Taliban-related groups heighten the priority of this issue. The security service of the nation believes it must focus on every aspect of dealings with the Taliban both in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- or so they have justified themselves to the Americans.
In spite of all its military and intelligence prowess, Pakistan has been unable to maintain effective control over the various components of the Taliban movement that it originally sponsored. No matter what, any ambition by the United States to mold the future of Afghanistan absolutely requires Pakistan's participation.
The Obama government has slickly worded its reversal of position on initiating a withdrawal from combat by July 2011. The year 2014, already Karzai-approved, replaces the original commitment. There remains now the new wrinkle in Hamid Karzai's attempt to boost his internal political standing: his insistence on the cessation of night special operations that have been so successful in killing mid- and upper-level Taliban leaders. From August through October reportedly 1,336 Taliban, of which one quarter were unit commanders, have been killed by these operations.
Karzai is preoccupied with his own long-term survival as the U.S. administration pretends it's not ignoring Obama's oft-repeated commitment for beginning American troop withdrawal by 2011. Meanwhile both sides try to look the other way as the U.S./NATO force (ISAF) challenges the Taliban whenever it can get to them. It is clear, however, that the U.S. and its allies have no real expectation of an early ending of hostilities.
There was a time when Pakistan's Frontier Force (FF) could police any outbreak among the mountain tribes. At best the situation has been reduced to Pakistan military control of the roads on its side of the border and little in the countryside. The result ultimately is a minimally effective influence of Pakistan on the tribal regions. Islamabad won't admit it, but its needs the often reviled American drone operations to support the FF.
Overarching all this is the mystery of an intermittently unstable Hamid Karzai and his effort seemingly to disassociate himself from his ultimate protectors in NATO. The Afghan president has intimated that it might have been more advantageous for him to accept Iranian offers as an intermediary in negotiations with the Taliban. The $52 million purportedly carried by his vice president to the UAE was interestingly timed in that regard. Certainly Karzai's well-bribed advisers have been playing the Iranian card in their own NATO contacts. As one British diplomat said on background, "It's the old Afghan game of working both ends to the middle -- meanwhile taking a bit of lolly from everyone."
This policy of playing all sides is a regional practice not limited to one nation or political leader. The real issue is whether the current Washington administration is sophisticated enough to participate successfully in such an environment. Changing plans for withdrawal from 2011 to 2014, and then implying they still could remain as "advisors" after that does not seem like much of a strategy.
The best way to explain the state of things in this part of the world is to observe the Afghan game of buzkashi, where teams on horseback struggle over a headless goat carcass in an effort to drag it across a finish line. It's an ancient sport indigenous to Central Asia and much beloved by the populace. It seems very appropriate to Washington politics.