US Afghan policy changes subtly
Ahson Saeed Hasan says Washington's grim mood on Afghanistan may be changing
Friday, 18-May-2001 - The Friday Times
ISLAMABAD, While US officials deny that the Bush Administration might be changing tack on Afghanistan by moving towards the logic of engaging the Taliban, indications are that Washington is seriously debating the current policy of "sticks" alone against the militia.
Knowledgeable Afghanistan watchers and experts, who wield influence in Washington's policymaking circles, say that 'sanctions are only making the Taliban resolve tougher' and are recommending a policy review.
While there hasn't been a formal or overt change in the policy, which seems still to be predicated on the sanctions spelled out in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1333, efforts to engage the Taliban through back-channel diplomacy are becoming all too obvious.
State Department officials say the US is not about to change its tough stance towards the Taliban on the issues of human rights, terrorism and drugs on the one hand and the extradition of Osama bin Ladin on the other. A senior State Department official asked by TFT to comment on the situation and recent visits by US officials to that country said it is a misconception that Washington had disengaged from the militia. "We never broke contact with the Taliban and therefore these visits should not be looked at as back-channel diplomacy," he said.
Other officials, too, say the visits were necessitated by extraordinary circumstances. "Afghanistan's economy has been devastated and the drought has worsened the situation. It was important for us to go into that country and assess the impact of the drought. We do not want the Afghan people to suffer," one official told TFT.
However, it seems that equally important is the Taliban's ban on poppy cultivation. While Resolution 1333 alleged that the militia had done nothing to curb poppy cultivation, the fact is that since 2000 the Taliban have imposed a ban on the cultivation of poppy in certain areas of the country.
Meanwhile, experts at the Washington think tanks seem to be taking the lead on the issue of a new framework for engagement. Most seem convinced that sanctions alone would not work. Some experts are also pushing for the economics-first approach and hope that the upcoming conferences at the Asia Society in New York and the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, will help build momentum towards a review. Interestingly, there are likely to be representatives from the Six-Plus-Two countries at both the events.
But experts warn that there are no magical solutions even as they advocate working towards a process that could lead to peace in that country and the rehabilitation of the Afghan people.
Even hard-liners like Zalmay Khalilzad, the RAND expert who advocated against engaging the Taliban in a Washington Quarterly article last year, now speak of a 'new approach' towards the Taliban. Over the past few months, Khalilzad has been suggesting 'containment' rather than a policy wedded to merely sanctions against the Taliban. Khalilzad, who is about to be appointed to the White House as President Bush's advisor, is very likely to effect a change in the US Afghan policy while being in that position.
The UN Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan, has already criticised the sanctions policy. In fact, the UNSG thought it fit to speak out against 1333 after the resolution was passed, warning the Security Council that the 'future of Afghanistan is bleak, given the prolonged war there and a recent drought.' Sanctions, Mr. Annan wrote to the UNSC, 'cannot be an end in themselves'.
Before that warning from Kofi Annan, the UN Committee to review sanctions under the 1999 UNSC Resolution 1267, had also advised the UNSC against slapping more sanctions, saying in its report that 1267 had failed to achieve its objectives and had only spelled disaster for the Afghan people.
Ashraf Ghani, an Afghan anthropologist working at the World Bank in Washington and an astute observer of the politics of that country, has long advocated the policy of engagement. Ghani, known for his pragmatic views, is a proponent of 'reconstruction of Afghanistan by the Afghans.' While he is quite critical of the Taliban, he says that negotiating with the militia is imperative.
Some weeks ago an Australian scholar, Dr. William Maley, was invited to Washington by the US Naval Academy to speak on the Afghan issue. Maley, widely considered a leading expert on Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia, also spoke at the Afghanistan Foundation. He made it fairly clear that the US needs to 'go slow' on the militia, stressing that sanctions did not offer any solution to the problem. Maley's views on the reconstruction of the country almost matched Ghani's and he suggested that it was imperative for the unity and integration of Afghanistan to involve the Afghans in the process of rehabilitation.
Meanwhile, the South Asia team at the State Department is still not completely in place. While President Bush has nominated Christina Rocca as Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, she still has to assume office. Until now, Rocca was the chief foreign policy aide to Senator Sam Brownback, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Perceived to be the author of the Brownback Amendments that called for the lifting of sanctions against India and Pakistan, imposed after the two countries' nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, Rocca is said to want 'a first-class economic relationship' with New Delhi. Ms Rocca was a senior official in the CIA before becoming Senator Brownback's assistant.
President Bush has also nominated Robert Blackwill, currently Belfer Lecturer in International Security at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, as the new ambassador to India. Blackwill was on Bush's foreign policy team during the campaign and is considered a heavyweight. He also has rich exposure to the Middle Eastern and European affairs and was Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to President George Bush from 1989 to 1990.
Word is also out that Wendy Chamberlain, currently Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the INL and a former director for counter-terrorism affairs at the National Security Council, will replace William Milam as ambassador to Islamabad. Sources say she will get her confirmation hearings in the next few days along with Rocca. While Ms Chamberlain has experience of working with Pakistan, she is not considered a heavyweight like Blackwill and may not be in a position to influence policy decisions on Pakistan.
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