A diplomat's view

Published : Jul 30, 2010 00:00 IST

The U.S. diplomat James F. Dobbins provides insights into the formation of the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan in 2002.

FOLLOWING its easy success in October 2001 in debilitating Al Qaeda and the Taliban elements in Kabul, the United States was confronted with the task of cobbling together a provisional coalition government that would satisfy the aspirations of the different opposition groups until such time as other, relatively more permanent arrangements could be worked out. The Bush administration selected a veteran diplomat, Ambassador James F. Dobbins for the job. Dobbins had been associated with the U.S. involvement in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. In his own words, Dobbins acted as the Washington-based troubleshooter responsible for overseeing these interventions' stabilisation and reconstruction phases. After the Taliban is Dobbins' story, narrated in simple and honest terms, of how he used diplomacy, backed by America's enormous power, to persuade rival, scattered Afghan groups to come together and agree on the formation of a transitional government in Kabul.

The gist of the story is well known to all those who have followed the developments in Afghanistan post-9/11. Lakhdar Brahimi, the experienced and dependable negotiator for the United Nations, identified four anti-Taliban or opposition groups and invited them to the Petersberg, the German government's official guest house near Bonn, persuaded and cajoled them into making compromises and reaching a consensus on the formation of a government headed by Hamid Karzai and the sharing of Cabinet portfolios. Dobbins gives full credit to Brahimi and offers interesting insights into the behind-the-scenes deals that he had to offer to produce the final result.

It was the impression of this reviewer that Hamid Karzai was Washington's choice imposed on the others. This does not seem to have been the case. It is true that Karzai's small resistance group was supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which on one occasion physically rescued him from a threatening situation. It seems that Karzai's name was suggested separately by the Northern Alliance, the Peshawar group and the Iranian-backed faction, the so-called Cyprus group. Only the royalist camp, consisting of King Zahir Shah's faction based in Rome, put forward a candidate for the post of interim President, but it was persuaded to give up its claim. Dobbins says that it was Dr Abdullah Abdullah, more than anyone else, who pushed Karzai's name. This is somewhat ironic, considering that Abdullah was engaged in a bitter campaign with Karzai last year in the election for President.

The task of securing an agreement among the groups on the composition of the government proved much more difficult. Brahimi asked each group to give him a list of its candidates for various portfolios. This was particularly difficult for the Northern Alliance, since its members already headed all the Ministries and many would have to give up their positions. There was a deadlock and at one stage Yunus Qanooni, the head of the Northern Alliance delegation, proposed an adjournment for a week or two. But this was shot down by Washington. Dobbins lobbied other key envoys, including India's Satinder Lambah. Finally, Russian intervention persuaded the Northern Alliance to accept the package.

Russian ultimatum

The Russian Ambassador conveyed his government's message to the Northern Alliance that if it did not agree to the composition, all further Russian aid would stop. Even after this breakthrough, Qanooni, on fresh instructions from Kabul, insisted that the Northern Alliance must not only have the three most important Ministries, namely, Defence, Foreign Affairs and Interior, but must also get three-fourths of the total. The deadlock was broken by the Iranians. Javad Zarif, the Iranian Special Envoy, asked Qanooni to join him in a corner of the room. The two of them whispered for no more than a minute. Qanooni returned to his seat and agreed to a compromise formula. The interim administration would comprise 29 department heads, 16 of whom would be from the Northern Alliance. Disappointingly, Dobbins does not reveal the magic words Zarif whispered into Qanooni's ears.

Dobbins has high praise for Lambah's contribution. He describes Lambah as a distinguished senior diplomat, white-haired, elegant, soft-spoken, with an English diction I could only envy.

Lambah, he says, understood that the U.S. needed Pakistan's support to prosecute the war in Afghanistan and was careful not to adopt an anti-Pakistan tone. He was one of the few people to show any kindness to the Pakistani delegate.

Constructive Iranian role

Dobbins takes a very positive view of the Iranian contribution. The Iranians adopted a constructive attitude throughout the negotiations. In March 2002, in Geneva, Dobbins organised a series of meetings among those who could contribute to rebuilding the Afghan security sector. Iran was represented by Ambassador Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, who was then Iran's envoy in Kabul. He had a general in full uniform in tow. The general offered to participate in an American-led programme of support to the new Afghan army. Dobbins was struck with the Iranian offer, which was made in spite Iran being clubbed in the axis of evil.

Dobbins tried to get Washington interested in Iran's approach but was rebuffed by his bosses. He mentions more than once that the U.S. fear was that communication with Iran would lead to mutual accommodation and a greater improvement of relations. This is exactly what the hardliners in Washington did not want: normalisation, they feared, would make the demise of the Teheran regime less likely. When the Americans asked for access to suspected Al Qaeda operatives being held in Teheran, the Iranians agreed but asked in return for similar access to the leaders of an anti-Iranian terrorist group held in U.S. custody. Washington refused. Dobbins' assessment of the Bush administration's logic was: Why settle with Iranian revolutionary government when an opportunity to replace it might be just around the corner?

Dobbins takes a somewhat more benign view of Iran than the official U.S. position. While Washington was fond of characterising the Iranian regime as a fundamentalist theocracy, the truth was more complex. Iran was not Switzerland, but its government was more democratic than Egypt's, and less fundamentalist than Saudi Arabia's. Iran's Parliament and President were popularly elected in a hard fought contest. The council of popularly elected clerics even chose the country's supreme leader. None of these ballots was entirely free or fair, but the Iranian people had more influence over the choice of their leaders than most other societies in the Middle East. Of course, this was before the presidential election of June 2009.

Dobbins, who knew Richard Holbrooke better than any Indian negotiator is likely to, thought of him as hot tempered, flamboyant, by turns warmly engaging and infuriatingly abrasive, and always eager for limelight.

India and Pakistan had expressed keen interest in building and training the Afghan army. An Indian army general accompanied Lambah for this mission. However, Dobbins took the view that no neighbour of Afghanistan should be associated in this strategically important area.

Dobbins shows excellent understanding of the India-Pakistan equation in Afghanistan. The most pressing Pakistani concern was that any Northern Alliance-dominated government would be beholden to India, which had supported its resistance to the Taliban, and would, therefore, be hostile to Pakistan, which had backed the losing side. Pakistan would consequently find itself encircled by unfriendly neighbours, India to the south, Iran to the west and Afghanistan to the north. Pakistan was going to be hostile to any Afghan government it could not influence.

As for the Kashmir issue, Dobbins believes that diplomatic efforts should be deployed to encourage India and Pakistan to resolve the dispute. That dispute, after all, is the root cause of radicalisation in Pakistani society, and the main reason the Pakistani government has aligned itself with terrorist groups in the past.

Giving his assessment of the current situation, that is, as of 2008, Dobbins states that the natural front of the war on terror is neither in Iraq nor in Afghanistan but in the border regions of Pakistan. Potential terrorists in Western societies travel to Pakistan, not Iraq, not Afghanistan for inspiration, guidance, support and directions. Pakistan has geopolitical and domestic incentives for allowing the Taliban and other radical groups to operate within its territory. Islamabad fears an Afghanistan aligned with India and seeks to weaken those non-Pushtun factions that are susceptible to New Delhi's influence.

In an insightful paragraph he gives his assessment: So unless Pakistan's government can be persuaded to abandon its reliance on extremist elements within its own society, halt its support for terrorism, provide its youth educational alternatives to fundamentalist madrassas, extend effective governance into its border provinces, and curtail the use of its territories by insurgent movements, there is little likelihood that Afghanistan will ever be capable of securing its own territory. To this should be added: Pakistan must shed its anti-India obsession.

The following observation is noteworthy: Pakistani cooperation was essential to prosecuting that war [against terror]. India's was not. Thus, Pakistan, heretofore an international pariah and target of U.S. sanctions, was suddenly Washington's most important ally in the war on terror. Relations with India, only recently seen in Washington as a democratic counter-weight to a rising China, were now on the administration's back burner.

It is a matter of some satisfaction to this reviewer that Dobbins has emphasised the importance of diplomatic surge and the inclusive diplomatic strategy that will obtain support within the region. (He has repeated this point in a recent op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune.) The reviewer, together with Ambassador Karl Inderfurth, an American analyst, in the columns of the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, has suggested an initiative whose aim is to get Afghanistan's neighbours to agree to mutual commitments on non-interference and non-intervention. Dobbins has also taken a view on an important and sensitive issue we have advocated. The United States should also work with more conviction with [the] Afghan and Pakistani governments to establish an agreed bilateral regime and to legitimise the current border.

In an aside on the then U.S. ambassador at the U.N., Dobbins offers the following comment on diplomacy at the world body: From my earliest days at the United Nations, I had found multilateral diplomacy more exciting than work in bilateral embassies. In embassies we offer advice but we never make policy decisions. Its most demanding aspects are social. In New York, by contrast, even fairly junior officers could become negotiators. While the capitals still wrote the instructions, the missives had to be carried out in a dynamic environment, where the views of more than a hundred other governments had to be accommodated in real time and often against close deadlines. Bilateral ambassadors and their staffs could spend years persuading their host government to take a course of action Washington desired. At the U.N., by contrast, issues were either decided by consensus or put to a vote every day. The issues were sometimes trivial and the results ephemeral, but the sense of success or failure at the end of each workday was nevertheless palpable. He rates U.N. ambassadorship as the most prestigious posting for American diplomats, as assessment with which this writer is in full sympathy.

All in all, a readable, informative book that students of recent Afghan history will find profitable to read.

C.R. Gharekhan is former Under Secretary-General in the U.N. and former permanent representative of India to the U.N. Until recently, he was Special Envoy of the Prime Minister for West Asia.

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