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Movers and shakers

January 28, 2012

AFTER the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the Afghan Peace Council, last year, President Hamid Karzai had said in another outburst against Pakistan that since he did not know the address of the Taliban, he would talk directly to Islamabad.

Thanks to the United States President, Karzai no longer has that excuse. Facilitated by Washington, the Taliban now have an office address in Doha, Qatar. Karzai was venting his spleen in September not only on account of losing his main negotiator tasked with engaging the Taliban, but also out of frustration over years of failed attempts to persuade the Taliban leadership to engage in reconciliation.

Kabul had initiated the reconciliation process in 2003 with a plan to reintegrate low- and mid-level Taliban fighters by offering them incentives if they disarmed and disowned the Taliban. After that proved unsuccessful, President Karzai’s government had adopted a direct approach to engage Taliban in the peace process and launched various back-channel overtures including an initiative led by the president’s half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was later killed at his home. The killing was claimed by the Taliban.

The main reason behind the Taliban’s lack of enthusiasm to talk to Kabul has been their doubts about the Afghan government’s authority and ability to deliver on anything that it promises. Even Kabul has not been very clear on the give-and-take it has dangled in front of the Taliban and has considered the militants naïve enough to be satisfied with a few perks in their strongholds. Pakistan had seemed confident that it held the key to the Afghan reconciliation process and manoeuvred to protect its interests in Afghanistan. This could be at least part of the reason for Pakistan’s ambivalence towards and the eventual boycott of the Bonn summit last December.

Reports that the US had been holding direct back-channel talks with the Taliban for the last 14 months seem to have taken both Islamabad and Kabul by surprise. News about the talks was ‘leaked’ to the media after things had sufficiently developed. It lays bare the fact that while talking to the Taliban all the while, Washington had been pushing both Pakistan and Afghanistan to take the lead in starting reconciliation with the militants. This will do little to improve the flailing trust in Washington that Kabul and Islamabad are exhibiting.

Recent developments have left few options for either country to get much mileage out of the reconciliation card. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan can oppose talks between the Taliban and the US as both countries had prepared the grounds for this process, albeit with an eye on their respective interests.

Although initially this new tack had resulted in an altercation between the US and the Afghan government, it now seems that Washington wants to lead the peace talks contrary to the earlier rhetoric of any Afghan negotiations and settlement being Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Parallel to this, the US has also established contact with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s group and wants to open a similar channel with the Haqqani network.

The real surprise has come from the Taliban who seem to have achieved through these contacts something that no one had imagined possible until recently. While continuing to publicly deny assertions that they were involved or interested in any negotiations to end the insurgency in Afghanistan, they succeeded in getting the names of Taliban figures omitted from the UN sanctions list.

They not only brought the US from the battleground to the negotiating table they also made Washington see things their way on the issue of Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo. The Taliban have not disclosed their demands or hinted at what they ultimately want to achieve through talks. The US continues to insist on reconciliation contingent on the Taliban renouncing violence, parting ways with Al Qaeda and embracing the Afghan constitution.

It will not be easy for the Afghan Taliban to renounce Al Qaeda because of the latter’s influence over many Taliban factions and commanders including the Haqqanis. Acceptance of the Afghan constitution in its present form and renouncing violence before foreign troops leave Afghanistan, especially when the US is negotiating strategic partnerships beyond 2014 with Kabul, can cause ripples in the Taliban rank and file. It would be interesting to see the Taliban manage that front.

There are reports that the Afghan Taliban, led by Mullah Omar, are trying to bring on board all insurgent groups on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This would increase their leverage in talks with the US although there are speculations of this being a primary condition by the US, which thinks that it would be more productive and would save time if they talked only to one party. That would not be a small challenge for Mullah Omar and one where failure would substantially weaken his position in the talks.

It is also important to see how the Taliban manage Pakistan’s concerns and if they can operate a separate channel without consent or acquiescence from Pakistan. Equally important is how Pakistan responds to the emerging scenario. If the US target is Al Qaeda then bringing Pakistan on board may not be too difficult.

Although it is not yet clear if the US-Taliban talks — without direct involvement of Kabul and consideration of Pakistan’s interests — can change the political and strategic dynamics in the region the Taliban have proved that they know how to safeguard their own interests. To say that this has got alarm bells ringing in many regional capitals would be an understatement.

The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.