Taliban talks

Published March 29, 2016
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

THERE has been no fresh movement on the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. This should worry the Pakistani establishment. For once, Pakistan stuck its neck out by acknowledging the Afghan Taliban presence on its territory and promised to pressure them to come to the negotiating table.

While Pakistan has reiterated that it doesn’t control the Taliban, the spiel has always acknowledged that even if we can’t make the horse drink water, we can lead it to the pond. This had to be said, for it was the very basis of Pakistan’s argument that it must be kept central to all reconciliation efforts.

By all accounts, the Taliban’s recent refusal to talk has shocked Pakistani interlocutors. Over the years, it had become clear to the establishment that the Taliban would never want to be seen playing to the agencies’ tune.

But even more overbearing was the reality that their leadership’s presence in Pakistan and their inability to operate wholly from Afghanistan gave Pakistan leverage. Even if no one felt it would be easy, there was a firm belief that Pakistan could do enough to get the Taliban talking.

Nations are seeing an antidote to IS in the Afghan Taliban.

The problem all along was that Pakistan had never really tested this proposition, not until President Ashraf Ghani came to power and Pakistan organised the first round of Taliban talks in Murree last July. This should have been a wakeup call: while Pakistan did manage to bring Mullah Mansour to the table, the Taliban were literally forced to show up, courtesy of a promise that Murree wouldn’t be anything more than an icebreaker and threats of undefined consequences if the Taliban didn’t oblige.

It seems the establishment ended up drawing the wrong lesson: that Murree confirmed they could create opportunities for talks. They probably were further reassured when the head of the Taliban’s political commission, Tayyab Agha, resigned after the Murree round. Agha was against the idea of Pakistan-brokered talks.

Pakistani efforts as part of the quadrilateral have drawn blanks despite hints that Pakistan has somewhat uncharacteristically flexed its muscle to coerce them.

None other than the army chief himself has been involved in trying to get things going. He even made a not-so-secret trip to Qatar, presumably to use Qatari influence over the Taliban’s political commission. There have been arrests of Taliban in Pakistan and life has been made uncomfortable for a number of Taliban families. At least one respected expert confirmed that this is the farthest Pakistan has ever gone in putting a squeeze on the Taliban.

And yet, the ultimate tool up Pakistan’s sleeve remains missing: Pakistan is showing no inclination of going all-out after the Taliban as the world hopes it will if all else fails.

Here, its position remains unchanged. In fact, a rethink is less likely now given the growing belief that other regional players are offering to play patron to the Taliban. Countries like Iran and Russia are reportedly beginning to see a potential antidote to the militant Islamic State group in the Taliban. Media reports suggest that Taliban battlefield gains give them more space to hide within Afghanistan than they have had since 9/11. Some symbolic relocation from Pakistan into Afghanistan has also taken place.

Hence, the Taliban defy. And why wouldn’t they. Here is an insurgency operating in an environment where the Afghan state’s inability to defeat them is considered a foregone conclusion; Afghans recognise this, but are tired of the violence and want peace soon; the US attention is diverted towards IS in the Middle East; the insurgency seems to have better regional realignment options than before precisely because of IS’s rise; and there is no threat of complete obliteration in Pakistan. This is a dream scenario for any insurgent, one that is clearly egging them to fight on to see if they can bring the counterinsurgent to its knees.

If so, Pakistan’s stance is all but upended. For if its efforts are drawing blanks and it isn’t going to go much further in terms of its coercive tactics, Pakistan loses the most potent argument in support of Pakistan-brokered talks. The even bigger problem is that minus talks, the risk of Afghanistan’s descent into outright chaos is a real possibility, with the worst possible outcome for Pakistan.

The establishment knows its quandary. But that isn’t enough. Someone must be asking: is it time to think of radical options, whether in terms of acting against the Taliban in whatever way may get them to talk, and talk sincerely, or to stop insisting on Pakistan-brokered talks and let others see if they can engage the Taliban directly? The world will expect Pakistan to answer this question soon. Pakistan needs to, most of all for its own sake.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2016



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