July 03, 2013

BEGINNING OF THE ENDGAME

Friday, 28 June 2013 | Jyotsna Bakshi | in Oped
 
Is there any chance that the Taliban will change heart and work towards peace? Will their mentors agree?

The Afghan endgame prior to the scheduled withdrawal of the US-Nato troops in 2014 has begun to unfold. On June 18, the leading responsibility for maintaining the security of Afghanistan was formally handed over to the Afghan troops. The foreign troops present in the country will hereafter play only a supporting role.

The US and other Nato countries are keen to cut their losses and exit Afghanistan. The shortest and least expensive transport route to and from Afghanistan is through Pakistan. The northern route, called the Northern Distribution Network, passing through Russia and several Central Asian states, is longer and more expensive. The NDN was made functional by the US to reduce its total dependence on Pakistan. The fact remains that the US-led Western countries need Pakistan's support to ensure the smooth and safe withdrawal of nearly 1,00,000 troops, support staff and vast amount of equipment from Afghanistan. Pakistan is cashing on this to clinch a deal with the US.

The Taliban leadership under Mullah Omar, called the 'Quetta Shura' is well ensconced in Pakistan's Quetta city under the protection of Pakistan's military and Inter-Services Intelligence. Pakistan, therefore, is in the best position to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

For more than a decade, Pakistan has perfected the art of hunting with the hounds by joining the US-led war against terror in Afghanistan as its non-Nato ally, and running with the hare by supporting the Taliban insurgency. As a result of Pakistan's support, the Taliban have not only survived, but have also grown in strength. Militant groups that are fighting in Afghanistan and are involved in cross-border terror acts in Jammu & Kashmir are regarded by Pakistan's military establishment as "strategic assets" for furthering Pakistan's interests at the expense of its two neighbours. Pakistan has persistently sought "strategic depth" in Afghanistan in a bid to counter India from a position of relative strength.

However, the terror groups nurtured by the Pakistani establishment have become so powerful that they threaten the very survival of Pakistan's socio-political order. The spectre of Pakistan's Talibanisation looms large. Large areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas are beyond the control of the Pakistani military and the civil administration. The Taliban have destroyed girls' schools and killed women teachers in  these areas.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a loose alliance of militant groups known as the 'Pakistani Taliban', is pitted against the Pakistani security forces, with the aim of establishing a hardline Islamic system in the country. Pakistani rulers are following a dual policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network responsible for insurgency in Afghanistan, while fighting the Pakistani Taliban which challenges their authority within the country. No doubt, Pakistan's military-political elite would not like the extremist groups to establish dominance in their own country. 

Reports have come of late that the Government of Punjab Province ruled by Mr Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has given a grant-in-aid of Rs61 million to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organisation of the dreaded terrorist outfit, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, headed by Hafiz Sayeed, the Mumbai 2008 carnage mastermind. Pakistan's provincial Government has also allocated a sum of Rs350 million to Jamaat's Markaz-e-Tayyeba to set up a knowledge park there. 

Apparently, Pakistan is trying to buy peace with terror groups within the country. At the same time, it is working overtime to ensure that the energy and ambition of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network aligned with the latter are directed towards wresting control of Kabul. The Taliban are hardline Sunni extremist groups, whose support base is limited to the Pashtu-majority communities of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a heterogeneous and multi-ethnic country. The Taliban are well-entrenched among the Pushtun communities in the south and east. Despite their mutual rivalries, the ethnic groups living in northern Afghanistan formed the Northern Alliance in the past to fight the Taliban. The Northern Alliance may be resurrected if the Taliban imposes itself by force on the whole of Afghanistan. The present Constitution of Afghanistan, based on an inclusive representative democratic system, provides for the diverse people to live together and build on these foundations as a united country. In fact, President Hamid Karzai has even urged Mullah Omar to contest elections and come to power through democratic means. Any political dispensation that can keep the country united and bring peace to the war-ravaged nation should be based on tolerance and recognition of minority rights, respect for human rights and gender equality.

The million dollar question is: Will the Taliban tiger change its stripes for attaining greater acceptability within Afghanistan and the international community? Are the mentors of the Taliban within the Pakistani establishment willing to exert their influence or do they think that it is still possible to buy peace at home and export terror to neighbouring countries?

(The writer is ICSSR Senior Fellow and a former India Chair Professor at Tashkent, Uzbekistan)

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