The tipping point for a change in the strategy adopted by the United States and its allies in the campaign against the Taliban seems to be approaching fast. President Hamid Karzai, one of the first Afghanistan’s politicians to sign on to this strategy, has steadily become more vocal in his criticism. Recently, with NATO’s secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer sitting alongside, Mr. Karzai told journalists that a time-table should be set for ending the seven-y ear long campaign. Days earlier the Afghan President complained to a United Nations Security Council delegation that his countrymen could not understand “how a little force like the Taliban could continue to exist” despite all the action taken against it. Predictably enough, analysts supportive of these operations have tried to spin-doctor these comments by suggesting that Mr. Karzai made them only to shore up his political position ahead of the 2009 elections. What cannot be brushed aside is the fact that these statements reflect the deep anguish of all sections of the Afghan people over the horrific civilian toll of the U.S.-led military operations. The question is whether a change in military strategy will take place when Barack Obama takes over as President.
While there has been some discussion on the feasibility of winning over ‘moderate’ Taliban elements, Washington’s current focus is on ways and means of increasing troop strength on the ground. Mr. Karzai now appears to be on the side of fellow Afghans who feel that priorities must be reset. Militant formations in the Pashtun belt, whether affiliated to the Taliban or not, would have to be contacted for the dialogue process to make any headway. The U.S. has thus far refused to deal with these formations on the ground that such a process would legitimise the warlords who lead them. Although this has been a fairly consistent theme in Washington’s rhetoric, circumstances have forced it to live with warlord control over parts of Afghanistan that are dominated by other ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. There is little doubt that some of the Pashtun warlords are extremely unsavoury characters. An ideal situation would be one where groups that espouse extremist ideologies or follow men with overweening political ambitions are sidelined. However, an outcome of this sort is not likely to be achieved unless a dialogue is initiated with militant groups fighting primarily for the interests of their tribes. The one lesson taught by Afghanistan’s turbulent history is that only Afghans can find solutions to its problems.