As if the US did not enough troubles already in Afghanistan because of its flawed Afghan strategy, the gross misconduct on the part of its soldiers keeps aggravating its problems. The latest tragic incident was the massacre of 16 Afghan villagers, including women and children, by a lone American soldier in Panjwayi District near Kandahar on March 11. This tragedy took place in the wake of the disgusting videos showing American soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses and the desecration of the Holy Quran, which led to widespread demonstrations in Afghanistan and the killing of Isaf soldiers by the Afghans. The Americans are, thus, not only losing the political battle in Afghanistan, but they have also lost the moral high ground to the opposition.

These incidents reflect the hatred between the Afghans and foreign soldiers, as well as the failings of US strategy in Afghanistan, particularly the alienation of Pashtuns, the imposition of a government of its choice on the independent-minded Afghans and the unsuccessful attempts to impose a liberal order on a deeply conservative society. There is little doubt, therefore, that the US is bogged down in Afghanistan, despite the high price it has paid in terms of blood and treasure. The American people are increasingly turning against the war in Afghanistan that, in their view, appears to lack any clear aim or purpose, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden. America’s current economic problems make it difficult for the administration to justify the high cost of the war. Little wonder, therefore, that Washington is now in desperate search of a graceful way out of the predicament in which it finds itself in Afghanistan. The situation calls for a thorough review and modification of America’s Afghanistan policy. This, in turn, would require course correction of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy, since any changes in the US strategy would have direct implications for our security and well being.

It is not enough that every time a disgusting or repulsive incident involving American soldiers takes place in Afghanistan, the US government and military commanders should apologise to the Afghan government and people. What Washington needs to do, in addition, is to set for itself realistic goals in that country and formulate a well considered strategy for their achievement. The realistic US goal would be a peaceful and stable Afghanistan from where Al-Qaeda cannot pose a threat to other countries.

The starting point of the strategy for the achievement of this goal should be an intra-Afghan dialogue involving the Taliban/Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other significant Afghan political groups/parties. The aim of this dialogue should be national reconciliation and power-sharing arrangements leading to the establishment of a broad-based government in Afghanistan. The challenge facing the Americans is to work out the modalities for bringing the Taliban into the mainstream of Afghan politics and persuade them and other Afghan parties to join the intra-Afghan dialogue.

The negotiations for national reconciliation in Afghanistan would be difficult. In view of the tendency of the Afghans to take a quick recourse to guns rather than dialogue, the success of the intra-Afghan dialogue is hardly guaranteed. Hopefully, however, both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance have learnt by now that neither of them alone can rule over and establish durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. If this indeed is the case, a generally acceptable political settlement in the country would become a possibility.

Needless to say, the US should encourage and facilitate such intra-Afghan dialogue without laying down impossible preconditions for its initiation. In view of the current animosity between the Taliban and the US, both sides should consider adoption of confidence building measures (CBM’s) to set in motion the process of talks. These CBM’s could include swap of prisoners and even a temporary halt in fighting by both sides. Hopefully, the suspension of talks with the Americans announced by the Taliban a few days ago would be temporary, allowing the two sides to resume their contacts soon.

In view of the hatred that many Afghans have towards foreign soldiers, total withdrawal of the US/Isaf troops from Afghanistan would have to be an essential element of any deal that is worked out among the Afghan parties, and between them and the Americans. The US target of withdrawal of the Isaf troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 seems realistic, if other pieces of the Afghan puzzle fall in place and a broad-based Afghan government takes over the reins of power by that time.

In view of the experience of the 1990s, when various Afghan parties and regional countries made a mess of the situation in Afghanistan after the fall of the Najibullah government, the US would be well advised to refrain from a precipitate military withdrawal to avoid the renewal of hostilities among the parties into which the regional countries may also be sucked in. It would be preferable instead to condition the total military withdrawal of the US/Isaf troops from Afghanistan on the conclusion of a political settlement and the establishment of a broad-based government in Afghanistan and cutting off all links with Al-Qaeda by the Afghan parties. However, even after total military withdrawal, the US should remain engaged in the country to provide support to developmental activities there.

The proposed arrangement would have a reasonable chance of success, only if it enjoys the support of the regional countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran, and major powers like China and Russia. It is important, therefore, that these countries are taken into confidence, while the intra-Afghan dialogue is continuing. But as the government of Pakistan has pointed out from time to time, the peace process in Afghanistan must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Pakistan and other countries should simply act as facilitators for the intra-Afghan dialogue in way without trying to predetermine its end result. Several recommendations worth the consideration of the Pakistan government flow from the foregoing analysis.

Firstly, Pakistan should do all that is in its power to encourage the Afghan Taliban and other Afghan parties to initiate intra-Afghan dialogue. This should, however, be done delicately without in any way interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. We and other countries must allow the Afghans to take their destiny in their own hands.

Secondly, since the intra-Afghan dialogue must involve the Afghan Taliban, it would not make any sense for us to take military action against them, even if some of them happen to be on our soil as long as they avoid terrorist activities against Pakistani targets. It would be ideal, if all the Afghan parties and the foreign troops in Afghanistan can be persuaded to halt hostilities temporarily pending negotiations for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan.

Thirdly, in handling the situation in Afghanistan, we must not repeat our strategic blunders of the 1990s when we alienated the non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan, while supporting the Taliban. A determined effort must be made by us to build up bridges of understanding and friendship with the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, etc.

Fourthly, in view of the disastrous experience of our support to an exclusively Taliban government in the 1990s, we must clearly understand that such a government is neither in our interest, nor feasible if the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan is desired. The situation in Afghanistan calls for a coalition government of the Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns.

Finally, our ultimate goal should be to have close friendly relations and cooperation with an independent and sovereign Afghanistan. Our real strategic depth lies in a friendly Afghanistan that is capable of taking decisions about its own destiny, rather than an Afghanistan that is under our thumb.

n    The writer is a retired ambassador.