A role for Mecca in Afghanistan

Washington, DC - Wandering seven long years in the mountains of Afghanistan with hardly an end in sight, the United States has just been offered a most fortuitous fix. It likely eludes America’s current president and queuing candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, but not for long.

The fix is found in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Long considered the most stable of US allies in the Middle East, the kingdom appeared this week best positioned to play a leadership role in the region after hosting a series of non-official talks between Afghanistan’s oppositional leaderships: those formally sanctioned in Kabul under Afghan President Hamid Karzai and those informally sanctioned, yet arguably equally powerful, under the Taliban.

Just as Qatar’s good offices ably brought Beirut’s embattled to the table to turn stalemate into starting point, Saudi Arabia can similarly serve as intercessor here.

Talks with the Taliban were never a non-starter with the Afghan government, nor is Kabul’s careful communicative overture new. The Afghan ambassador to the United States, whom I interviewed this spring, cited “different degrees of engagement [with the Taliban] right now” and reaffirmed Kabul’s continued willingness to communicate. This tone and tactic has long been untenable for the US administration, and so Afghanistan has been left to its own dialogical devices.

But now even Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defense, acknowledges that talks with the Taliban are necessary. “There has to be, ultimately, and I’ll underscore ‘ultimately’, reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this”, Gates said on Thursday. “That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us.”

The entrance of Saudi’s King Abdullah as acting arbiter, therefore, serves as a game-changer in the US-Afghanistan seven-year stalemate. Not only would Saudi-officiated talks save US face from a seeming capitulation, but Mecca is measurably more meritorious as neutral ground than Kabul could ever be.

Suppose talks ensue. Will this suffice, as some speculate, in severing linkages with Al Qaeda, taming the Taliban, or solving the country’s internal haemorrhaging? Surely not, but it will begin to force accountability among Afghanistan’s feuding politicos, leverage a more effective hand in dealing with Pakistan and ameliorate the misguided modus operandi of foreign forces.

This last point is of particular importance. America’s current solution to Afghanistan’s insecurity is solidly military, while political and economic solutions, not unlike in Iraq, are put on the backburner by Washington. Less than a dime of every US dollar spent on the country is committed to non-military assistance.

This Bush doctrine under the leadership of Condoleezza Rice will soon become the Obama or McCain doctrine, as projected aid by both candidates has amounted to no greater a percentage. Yet after seven years of a predominantly military mission, Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen stated in September his doubts as to whether the United States is winning.

Clearly a change in tack is necessary, but in what direction?

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Politically and economically, Afghanistan is in collapse. Additional troops, redeployed from Iraq, have little to safeguard as the country’s infrastructure continues to rot. At the local level, the average Afghan – whether a shopkeeper, doctor, farmer, governor, teacher, judge, imam, taxi driver, policeman or other civil servant – must be equipped with the financial and technical means for basic survival.

After being siphoned off by handlers from Washington to Kabul, American aid flows feebly on the ground, making it nearly impossible for the average Afghan to see visible improvement. Without tangible benefits in a country struggling with over 40 percent employment, 28 percent literacy and two-thirds living on less than $2 a day, the formation of alternative allegiances outside government auspices is hardly surprising.

The infamous Helmand province, for example, has upwards of 80 percent unemployment in some places, with two poorly stocked hospitals supplying healthcare for over 700,000 persons, and it remains the nation’s hottest province in terms of Taliban activity and poppy production. Illicit political and economic operations flowering in the country’s poorest province is hardly coincidental when Kabul is utterly uncompetitive.

The best salve, then, for this seven-year burn, treats the fragile, fertile ground that foments violence. Saudi’s hand, if extended to the Taliban, will undoubtedly be directed toward this goal. If manoeuvred deftly, King Abdullah provides the tribal Pashtuns (rallied under the Taliban) a much needed voice in long-unrepresented Kabul, secures an ally in cooling Pakistan’s border, and creates a pretext for holding culpable Mecca’s negotiators.

Meanwhile, America’s hand, if played in the pursuit of political and economic solutions, begins to build the basis of a country worth living, not dying, for.

Michael Shank is communications director at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. This article first appeared in The Guardian and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).