January 12, 2012

Dialogue of dangerous kind

Games being played by US, Pakistan and Taliban
by D. Suba Chandran


DURING the last two months, there have been media reports relating to three parallel dialogues involving the Taliban — all of them having serious consequences for the future of Afghanistan and the stability of the entire region. While the major players engaged in these dialogues include the US, Pakistan and numerous Taliban factions across the Durand Line, the others in the region — the Karzai government, members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, Iran and, hopefully, India — are likely to respond to these initiatives and their end-games.
The first and foremost of this dialogue is between the Taliban and the US. By now, it is no more a secret that the US administration has been engaged in a negotiation with the Taliban — moderate or otherwise. While Washington DC may project this American dialogue as that with a “moderate” Taliban, this is more for domestic consumption rather than based on any reality. Whoever represents the “moderate” Taliban? Whoever is willing to speak to the US? Or whoever uses less the suicide bombing tactic?
Whether moderate or not, a section within the Taliban is engaged in a dialogue with the US. It is highly improbable that this dialogue is happening without the knowledge of Mullah Omar. If that is the case, it is even more dangerous, for it would be highly unproductive. Talking to a few Pashtun warlords and criminals, who may use the Taliban tag, may even be counter-productive.
The recent report on the Taliban wanting to open an office in Qatar should be read against this background. It is widely believed that this initiative to have a Taliban office in Qatar is primarily to facilitate the dialogue between the two primary military actors in Afghanistan — the US and the Taliban.
It appears that the US has tacitly agreed to such an initiative. It is also reported that the negotiations would include the release of some Taliban leaders from the Guantanamo prison in return for the Taliban’s agreement to take part in a future set-up in Kabul.
One could understand why the US is desperate to reach out to the Taliban. This has been a part of its exit strategy and perhaps the American Plan-B, if its Plan-A (a stable government under Karzai) fails. Clearly, Plan-A is unlikely to succeed, for Karzai needs time and more support, and not an exit route by 2014. Moreover, given the inherent weaknesses of Karzai and his government (being corrupt, not having the ability to govern and being incapable to fight the Taliban), the present regime is nowhere close to making Plan-A work.
But why would the Taliban agree to negotiate with the US? This is what would make this dialogue between the US and the Taliban (moderate or otherwise) dangerous. Both Taliban factions — led by Mullah Omar and the Haqqanis — are desperate and may have any deadline to take care of. Both the Afghan factions of the Taliban, in recent months, have been on an offensive and there are no visible signs of either fatigue or failure syndromes afflicting them. Both are waiting for the American-led international troops to leave Afghanistan to regain Kabul. If that is the case, why should they enter into a dialogue with the US now?
Perhaps, for the Taliban, this is a tactical move. They have nothing to lose. If what they want to achieve after a bloody fight in 2014 is about to be delivered on a platter to them, that too with an international recognition, why would they refuse?
The dangerous part is, what would they commit in return? Deception and treachery have always been a part of the various Pashtun militias. If the Americans have any doubt, they should read Afghanistan’s history, especially since the Anglo-Afghan wars. From the “journal” of Lady Florentina Sale (wife of General Sir Robert Henry Sale), who was captured by the Pashtuns before the British troops ultimately rescued her, to that of British priest TL Pennel, who lived “among the wild tribes of the Afghan frontier,” numerous accounts highlight how treacherous the Pashtun militias have been in the past. Or ask the Pakistanis who have concluded multiple deals with them during the last decade. These militias consider treachery as a part of their tactic, and browbeat how they fooled and foiled the plans of a bigger power. One only wishes the Americans read the Afghan history; if they had, they would not have invaded Afghanistan in the first place!
Karzai is apprehensive and upset with the dialogue between the Taliban and the US about deciding the future of Afghanistan. Though there have been a few statements from his administration, the US would dictate him to keep quiet and adhere to the outcome of the dialogue. Besides Karzai, members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance are also equally apprehensive of any dialogue with the Taliban. What is even more worrisome for the above two Afghan sections — Pashtun and Non-Pashtun — is the fact that they are not a part of this dialogue. They will be provided with an American-led solution while it is they who have been facing the problem.
The second dialogue is what makes the first one even more dangerous. In the first week of this year, various Taliban factions, both Afghan and Pakistan varieties, formed a five-member council — Shura-e-Murakbah, representing Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis, Hakimullah Mehsud, Waliur Rehman and Mulla Nazir. The primary objectives of this Shura are threefold. First, to unite all the Taliban factions — Afghan and Pakistan. Currently, there are two major Afghan factions led by Mullah Omar and the Haqqanis. Fortunately for the Afghan Taliban, despite the divide, they do not fight each other; the Haqqanis, in principle, owe their allegiance to Mullah Omar. However, this is not true about the various Taliban factions within Pakistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is more an umbrella than a monolithic organisation. Besides the intra-tribal differences among the various Pashtun tribes in FATA, especially between the Mehsuds and the Wazirs, there are clear divides on how they see and fight the Pakistani security forces.
The second objective of this five-member Shura formed in early January is to stop fighting the Pakistani security forces. While Pakistan would welcome this development, what makes this Shura dangerous for regional stability is their next objective — to combine their strength and fight the NATO-led international troops in Afghanistan. If the Taliban factions are indeed engaged in a dialogue with the US, why would they form a Shura and make a combined effort to wage a war against the international troops in Afghanistan?
What would be the calculations of the Taliban in pursuing a parallel strategy, contradicting each other? Either the Taliban feels that this would give their movement a leverage against the US during negotiatiions or they could get what they want in the negotiations — release of prisoners, a role in the future set-up in Kabul, international recognition and, at the same time, ensuring that the exit for the international troops is anything but a face-saving exercise. Or is it possible that the US is negotiating with a Taliban faction that neither belongs to the Mullah Omar camp nor the Haqqanis?
The last set of the dialogue involving the Taliban has been taking place for the last few months between the Pakistani security forces and sections of the TTP. During November 2011 itself, the local media in Pakistan reported about this negotiation. The ANP, which has formed the government in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province, has publicly announced that it is not aware of this negotiation and not a part of it. Clearly, this was a negotiation between the security forces (to be read as the ISI?) and the TTP. Perhaps, one of the objectives of the American attack on the Pakistani posts during end-November was to scuttle the dialogue.
Since the killing of Nek Mohammad in 2004, there have been multiple instances of drone attacks during such secret negotiations. While the US would negotiate with the Taliban, it would object to Pakistan doing the same.
Whatever may be the objectives of these three dialogues, these are certainly not complimentary. In fact, these are contradictory, and that makes the development dangerous for regional stability.
The writer is Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, and Visiting Professor, Pakistan Studies Programme, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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