Talking to the Taliban - Rahimullah Yusufzai - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An increase in the high-level interaction between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the seemingly significant recent shift in the US policy towards the Afghan Taliban should have brightened the prospects for peace in the Af-Pak region. However, there is still no sight of a breakthrough that would bring the conflict to an end through political, instead of military means.

Instead, one feels that the Taliban position has hardened parallel to the softening of the stance taken by President Hamid Karzai’s beleaguered government in Kabul. It is possible that the Taliban interpret the repeated offers of talks by Karzai and his Western backers as indicative of a weakening resolve on the part of the US-led coalition forces arrayed against them or even as a sign of looming defeat for their enemies.

Taliban haven’t felt there is a need for them to sit at the negotiating table until their core demand of withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan is met. They haven’t been weakened enough to sue for peace on the terms presented by their foes. Defeated or weakened, the Taliban would be less inclined to negotiate and settle for an unfavourable power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan.

In fact, there won’t be any need to negotiate with the Taliban facing defeat. If the Taliban are unwilling to negotiate with the Afghan government from a position of strength in which they are apparently placed at present, there isn’t much hope that they would agree to talk in case they become weak and are on the verge of defeat. And as the current NATO[1] strategy is based on this flawed premise, there cannot be much hope that it would succeed.

Two recent developments should be kept in mind while analysing the Afghan conflict and the prospects for peace in the wider Af-Pak region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s February 2011 speech at the Asia Society in New York signalled a major, little-noticed shift in US policy towards the Taliban. No longer was the US insisting on the ‘red lines’ for the Taliban to first renounce violence, abandon al-Qaeda and abide by the Afghan constitution before they could be allowed to join any political process. As Hillary Clinton explained, these three conditions were being set aside to henceforth serve as the necessary outcome of the peace talks with the Taliban.

As her choice of words explained, it was distasteful and even unimaginable for her to talk to an enemy as brutal as the Taliban, but the US had to do this due to the needs of diplomacy and the demands of the situation. Even a superpower has its limitations and the US as a pragmatic great power was conceding its inability to force a military solution to the Afghan conflict.

Indeed, it would be difficult for the US and its Western allies to justify talking to the Taliban after having demonised them for years and having tried every tactic to defeat them. After 10 years of war and at the cost of many lives and huge funds, the US finally appears to have realised that it would be less costly and embarrassing to strike a deal with the rag-tag Taliban.

The second important development was the visit of Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani to Kabul in the company of Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) head Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha and defense, interior and foreign ministers. Representing Afghanistan in the talks were President Karzai, his Army chief General Bismillah Khan, the Intelligence Directorate Head Rahmatullah Nabil and defense, interior and foreign ministers. In the words of Prime Minister Gilani, it was to show that Pakistan’s civil and military leadership and all state institutions were “on the same page” over the issue of Afghanistan’s stability. To quote him again, he also wanted to inform the world that the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan had introspected deeply and could discern friends from foes.

It was the first time that the civil and military leadership of the two neighbouring Islamic countries engaged in their own wars against militancy and extremism came together under one roof and discussed the challenges facing them. Both Gilani and Karzai appeared overwhelmed by the occasion and the latter termed it historic as it was his initiative to bring the two leaderships closer in a bid to achieve reconciliation with the Mullah Mohammad Omar-led Taliban[2].

A major outcome of the visit was the decision to upgrade the Pak-Afghan Peace and Conciliation Commission, established in January this year, to a two-tier body so that the chief executives of Afghanistan and Pakistan along with the army and intelligence chiefs and foreign and interior ministers could sit in the first, higher tier to facilitate decision-making.

A related development was the deterioration in the already difficult relationship between Pakistan and the US, two uncertain allies fighting the war with different objectives. The damage to their ties caused by the incident involving the disguised CIA operative Raymond Davis hasn’t been repaired even though Pakistan’s civil and military authorities behaved embarrassingly to facilitate his release. The presence of many more such CIA agents disguised as ‘diplomats’ and ‘military trainers’ in Pakistan continues to poison relations between the two countries.

Another emotive issue is the unchallenged use of the CIA-operated drones by the US to attack militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The botched drone strikes in recent weeks have killed scores of civilians and caused outrage in Pakistan, but the US has arrogantly dismissed criticism of its actions and refused to mend its ways. The statement by the CIA Chief Leon Panetta was instructive after meeting with ISI Head Lt Gen Pasha that he would continue to take action as part of his duty to protect American citizens. It is another matter that the ‘action’ being taken by the CIA to protect Americans often amounts to extra-judicial killings of people of other nations.

With so much distrust in their relations, it would be surprising if Pakistan and the US were able to work together to pursue military or political objectives vis-à-vis the Taliban. It also makes one wonder whether the US approved the recent high-level talks between the Afghan and Pakistani leaders and their decision to form and use the joint peace and conciliation commission for reconciling with Kabul’s armed opponents.

More importantly, one has to wait for the Taliban response to the deepening of the relationship between Islamabad and Kabul and the likely effect it would have on the Afghan peace process. The Taliban have rejected Turkey’s offer to host Taliban office to facilitate contacts as part of the peace initiative. President Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari had backed the Turkish initiative, but the Taliban have made it clear that Turkey as a NATO[3] member with troops in Afghanistan isn’t neutral and is thus unable to act as a peacemaker. The first choice for the Taliban to set up an office is their homeland, Afghanistan, followed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Once they make up their mind to negotiate, the Taliban would prefer talking to the Americans instead of the Afghan government in view of their stated position that Karzai is a puppet of the US and hence powerless.

It won’t be easy for the Taliban to agree to a power-sharing arrangement with Karzai after fighting for 10 long years with his government and the NATO[4] forces. Taliban field commanders and hardliners could revolt against Mullah Omar and his shura if he settled for some berths in the cabinet or for control of certain southern provinces. Just like the Karzai government in which hawkish elements mostly belonging to non-Pashtun groups oppose reconciliation with the Taliban, Mullah Omar’s followers too are divided into factions that differ over the likely solution of the Afghan conflict. There are also limits to Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban, who won’t make a deal that goes against their own interests. Karzai wants Pakistan to deliver the Taliban to him, but Islamabad risks alienating the Taliban if it were to push hard to make this happen.


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