Merkel Successor Given Poisoned Chalice?

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
Then-Prime Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of Saarland answers questions from reporters in Berlin, September 19, 2014 (Bundesrat/Henning Schacht)

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman Angela Merkel is grooming to be her successor, was sworn in as Germany’s defense minister last week, replacing Ursula von der Leyen, who was elected president of the European Commission.

The appointment came as a surprise, for two reasons:

  1. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was elected head of the ruling Christian Democratic Union in December, has claimed she had no interest in a cabinet position.
  2. The defense portfolio is considered a poisoned chalice in Berlin. Read more “Merkel Successor Given Poisoned Chalice?”

Germany Seeks Active Role to Ensure Inclusive Afghan Peace Process

Italian soldiers in Afghanistan
Italian soldiers on patrol near Bala Murghab in northwestern Afghanistan, November 20, 2010 (ISAF/Romain Beaulinette)

A week after a Taliban attack in Kabul left six people dead and over a hundred wonded, an all-Afghan peace summit is due to start in Doha on Sunday. Germany is co-sponsoring the meeting with Qatar.

Markus Potzel, Germany’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, made the announcement and said, “only Afghans themselves can decide the future of their country.”

Potzel has become a familiar face in Afghanistan. Just a few weeks ago, he held meetings with key stakeholders across the Afghan political spectrum. In May, he had at least two meetings with the Taliban.

Germany wants to play an active role in the peace process and ensure that it is inclusive. The Afghan government’s exclusion from bilateral talks between the Taliban and the United States is a concern in Berlin. The Germans believe only an all-Afghan process can pave the way to a sustainable settlement. The hope is that the Doha meeting will be a step in that direction. Read more “Germany Seeks Active Role to Ensure Inclusive Afghan Peace Process”

German Policymakers Worry About Losing Afghan Gains

German foreign minister Heiko Maas attends a memorial service at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, March 11
German foreign minister Heiko Maas attends a memorial service at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, March 11 (Auswärtiges Amt/Thomas Imo)

Despite American president Donald Trump earlier ruling out negotiations with the Taliban, recent talks in Qatar could pave the way for a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The prospect is welcomed by many here in Germany, although policymakers worry about the impact on civilian engagement and developmental assistance. Read more “German Policymakers Worry About Losing Afghan Gains”

Pakistan’s Political Star Imran Khan Down, Not Out

The political tsunami that Pakistan’s Imran Khan promised, and was so sure of achieving, never came. His party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, fell almost a hundred seats short of Nawaz Sharif’s conservative Muslim League which is now set to form a government.

The former cricketer’s meteoric rise in the past few years was perhaps the most notable feature of this month’s election. The massive turnout at his rallies in politically significant cities including Karachi and Lahore and the apparent appeal of his proclaimed “new Pakistan” led many to believe that he would be able to challenge the dominance of the Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif’s Muslim League.

Two things seemed to work in Khan’s favor: his personal reputation and a general anti-incumbency sentiment in Pakistan. The latter was restricted not only to the People’s Party government but extended to the entire political system which included Sharif, a former premier. Khan exploited it well by focusing on issues that were bound to find a receptive audience. In particular, he launched a strong critique against corruption, the perks and privileges enjoyed by government officials, especially the unofficial exemption from paying taxes, and Pakistan’s alliance with the United States and the resultant drone strikes on its soil. Read more “Pakistan’s Political Star Imran Khan Down, Not Out”

Indo-Iranian Cooperation in Afghanistan Faces Challenges

India reaffirmed on Saturday its willingness to develop Iran’s Port of Chabahar during the seventeenth meeting of the India-Iran Joint Commission in Tehran. With an initial investment pledge of some $100 million, the move further strengthens the emerging partnership between the two countries in Afghanistan.

The Chabahar port is critical to India’s Afghanistan policy. In the absence of direct physical access to the country and a hostile Pakistan denying Indian goods transit, the Iranian harbor is the most viable access point India has to Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia. Read more “Indo-Iranian Cooperation in Afghanistan Faces Challenges”

Pakistan Releases Taliban for Role in Afghan Peace Process

An American soldier patrols the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan, February 25, 2010
An American soldier patrols the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan, February 25, 2010 (USAF/Staff Sergeant Nicholas Pilch)

During a recent visit to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul secured the release of several Taliban prisoners in an effort to push the political reconciliation process forward in his country. The announcement came only a few weeks after Pakistan’s decision to release Taliban prisoners during the visit of an Afghan High Peace Council delegation to Islamabad.

Both countries have also agreed to provide a safe passage to travel for talks and work jointly to get at least key leaders of the Taliban removed from the United Nations sanctions list.

Pakistan, through these talks, is attempting to safeguard its strategic interests in Afghanistan and once again using the Afghan Taliban to facilitate it. As far as Pakistan is concerned, the Taliban, whatever its past experiences with them, still form the only political faction in Afghanistan that could possibly ensure its interests there.

Pakistan, however, does not expect the Taliban to be capable of securing a military victory or controlling the country as it did before the 2001 invasion. It is unlikely that Pakistan itself would want to see complete Taliban domination in Afghanistan in the future either. A broad based government representing the various political factions, including the Taliban, would be more acceptable.

Thus, by showing an eagerness to assist the Afghan peace talks, Pakistan is seeking to secure a place for the Taliban in a future representative political setup without a protracted armed struggle that could see the insurgents completely excluded from the process.

At the same time, by maintaining control over the release of the prisoners, Pakistan can ensure that only Taliban members who are amenable to its interests get to play a prominent role in the talks. Hence its refusal to release Mullah Baradar, despite repeated requests from the Afghan government, as he is believed to be staunchly opposed to Pakistan.

Moreover, the playing of a “constructive” role in the process helps Pakistan achieve the additional objective of somewhat allaying the allegations of its duplicity in the Afghan war and thereby ease the international pressure on that count.

Pakistan has always wanted to play a role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation efforts and resented attempts to isolate it from them. Mullah Baradar, for instance, was arrested when he rouched out to the Afghan government on his own.

It is possible that the release of further prisoners or any assistance in the peace talks depends on Pakistan’s own sense of its level of involvement.

The belief that Pakistan would be able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table is based on the assumption that it holds a massive sway over the group. This influence may be overestimated. Pakistani relations with Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, the faction with which the Afghan government and the United States wish to negotiate, are tenuous at best and restricted to the provision of physical refuge. The relations between Pakistan and the Taliban government were similarly strained. It may not be possible for Pakistan to play a bigger role than it already is.

Pakistan’s significance lies more in its capability to play a destructive role than a constructive one. It is capable of scuttling the peace process and can stoke violence by supporting groups like the Haqqani network and engineer attacks against the government or foreign troops in Afghanistan.

It is therefore worrying that Pakistan has yet to provide access to the higher echelons of the Taliban leadership as demanded by the Afghan government. Nor has it released all of the high-profile Taliban prisoners which the administration in Kabul believes can play a crucial role in reaching a final settlement.

Any progress with Pakistan on these scores would be contingent on how both countries deal with their deep rooted mutual distrust. There is a widespread skepticism, even hostility, in Afghanistan toward Pakistan and its role in fomenting violence. The continuous volley of accusations back and forth of providing safe haven to insurgent elements and traditional border disputes flare up from time to time and could derail the progress.

India’s Future Role in Afghanistan Severely Limited

Afghan president Hamid Karzai reiterated the importance of India’s assistance for his country during his visit to New Delhi this month. He urged the country, and in particular its private sector, to further increase its investment in Afghanistan. The importance of Indian engagement in Afghanistan has been acknowledged by the Americans as well who are pushing India to step up its involvement in Afghanistan post 2014, especially in the security realm.

There is no doubt that India has played a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan since 2001. Having contributed close to $2 billion in aid over the past decade, India is the fifth largest donor nation to Afghanistan.

Although India has committed to increase its involvement in Afghanistan, there are some major limitations to its engagement that need to be highlighted. Read more “India’s Future Role in Afghanistan Severely Limited”

Foreign Investment in Afghanistan Faces Obstacles

The recently concluded summits on Afghanistan held in New Delhi and Tokyo aimed at attracting foreign investments to Afghanistan in the hope that economic growth will simultaneously instill a sense of security and political stability. Although the Afghan government has managed to achieve its target amount — the participating countries pledged $16 billion for the next four years — any investment in the country is likely to face obstacles.

Security is the most obvious impediment for any development task undertaken in Afghanistan. Read more “Foreign Investment in Afghanistan Faces Obstacles”

Iran Denounces US-Afghan Strategic Partnership

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan walk at the White House in Washington DC, May 12, 2010
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan walk at the White House in Washington DC, May 12, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

Iran denounced the recently signed Strategic Partnership Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States. It sees the basing of American forces in the country and across the Persian Gulf as a security threat and has even reached out to the Sunni Taliban to balance this perceived threat.

The Iranians have long voiced discomfort with the prospect of a long-term American presence on its eastern border. They have attempted to use their clout within the political system of Afghanistan and the means of bribery to influence Afghan parliamentarians to vote against any security pact with the United States. Read more “Iran Denounces US-Afghan Strategic Partnership”

The Futility of Talking to the Taliban, For Now

The face-saving strategy of the United States to facilitate an honorable withdrawal from Afghanistan — reaching a political settlement with the Taliban — seems to be failing.

Last month, Mullah Omar’s Taliban leadership announced their decision to suspend the peace negotiations. The official reason given for the pullout was the delay and apparent reluctance of the Americans to release prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an important prerequisite for the talks to be held.

However, the fact that the suspension came in the wake of the massacre of seventeen civilians in Kandahar by an American soldier clearly suggests a link between the two. Read more “The Futility of Talking to the Taliban, For Now”