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Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. — Photo by AP/File

End of the Afghan war: possibilities and pitfalls — I: Pakistan in contact with Afghan Taliban, former Northern Alliance

KARACHI: As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan for the second time, Pakistan is looking for a role in Afghan politics once again. This time, though, it’s putting its eggs in more than one basket.

Reports of Islamabad attempting to control proxies in Afghanistan are nothing new. For decades Pakistan has been involved in power politics next door, from supporting the mujahideen against the Soviets and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Taliban against the Northern Alliance to allowing Mullah Omar’s presence in Pakistan and arresting Afghan Taliban who could have facilitated intra-Afghan reconciliation talks.

But conversations with senior Pakistani security officials and security and foreign policy analysts indicate that as the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan draws closer, direct and more active contact has been established not just with the Mullah Omar-led Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, but also with members of the former Northern Alliance.

These contacts are a last-minute bid to prevent even more instability this side of the border and seem designed to indicate to the Taliban and the United States that Pakistan supports an intra-Afghan rather than a fundamentalist Islamist government in Kabul.

The conversations revealed that the Pakistani military now prefers a coalition government in Kabul to Taliban rule, making communication with multiple groups essential preparation for the uncertain post-2014 political scenario. A Taliban administration is considered a risky option carrying the potential for both civil war in Afghanistan and new safe havens there for Pakistani militants, and the best-case scenario is seen as being a loose federation of autonomous regions with a coalition set-up at the centre.

That thinking would indicate a move away from the state’s policy of banking on the Taliban as the primary, if unreliable, ally in Afghanistan. “The shift came about when it became clear that 2014 was a genuine deadline,” says former foreign secretary Najmuddin Shaikh.

But direct contact with multiple Afghan groups has not openly been admitted to despite increased public activity on the reconciliation front, including Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners and the Chequers summit last week where the Pakistani and Afghan presidents and military and intelligence chiefs indicated a six-month timeframe for a “peace settlement” but provided no further details about a desired political outcome.

And while in public the Taliban have said they are only willing to talk to the United States, Pakistani security officials tell Dawn the insurgents are open to talking to the northern, non-Pakhtun leaders, their traditional rivals, as the Western withdrawal draws closer.

Pakistan’s outreach, which adds to the publicly known reconciliation efforts facilitated to various degrees by several countries including the Afghan government, the United States, Germany, Japan and France, is unlikely to sit well with President Karzai. These separate strands of talks came about, according to Mr Shaikh, because international donors and Isaf members were eager to “get out with some honour” long before the US decided it made sense to talk to the Taliban. But he points out that Mr Karzai has felt sidelined by these efforts and wants his government to be considered the sole Afghan interlocutor.

In Pakistan, though, domestic instability has changed views, says Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, a Washington-based think tank. The security establishment “wants to get the Taliban back into Afghanistan in an inclusive reconciliation and power-sharing process,” he says. “They don’t want to attack Taliban sanctuaries or give the Taliban power. This has been the policy for some time, and other countries are now moving closer to Pakistan’s game plan.”

The Pakistani strategy is in part driven by the belief that both the Taliban and the northern leaders remain formidable groups. Pakistani intelligence estimates that the Afghan Taliban are a well-organised force of 40,000-50,000 fighters grouped into militant, political and finance wings with significant funding from the narcotics trade and extortion along transport routes in their areas.

But the northern leaders are also financially strong and highly motivated, controlling a wide expanse of land and commanding the support of several different ethnic groups. Leaving the two to divvy up power in Afghanistan would be a recipe for another bloody civil war.

According to Pakistani security officials, December’s intra-Afghan talks outside Paris — which included representatives from the Taliban, the government, and, significantly, members of the former Northern Alliance — were particularly important in terms of demonstrated Taliban willingness to consider a coalition and put forward specific demands related to such a set-up.

It remains, unclear, though, how Mullah Omar’s status in the eyes of the Taliban as Amirul Momineen, the leader of the Muslim ummah, could be reconciled with a power-sharing system.

Other well-known challenges remain, including the extent to which various factions and commanders within the Taliban, including Mullah Omar, agree on talks, let alone the notion of sharing power. They are also unlikely to accept even the residual American presence in Afghanistan that Washington and Kabul are negotiating. And the long-standing rivalry between the Taliban and the former Northern Alliance could scuttle any power-sharing agreement. For this reason, Pakistan’s preferred post-2014 scenario also includes a complete American withdrawal and a regional understanding in which neighbours, particularly Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, agree not to play favourites in Afghanistan.

In one example of the fears about rivals next door, the security establishment appears to believe that Iran has spread its influence beyond the Persian-speaking Herat region and is simultaneously supporting the Taliban with arms, safe havens and support for the narcotics trade as a way to get America out of the region, maintain its own influence in Afghanistan and contain that of Pakistan, which it sees as being too accommodating of American demands.

Journalist and Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid cautions that talk of a coalition set-up is premature. “The Pakistani military is now interested in a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan. But the talks are very far from anything like that,” he says, adding that they are still at the stage of trying to agree on confidence building measures. He also points to significant roadblocks and open questions. “The Taliban say they won’t talk to Karzai. They are opposed to a residual US force. And what about the upcoming elections? Can power-sharing be worked out before then?”

Pakistan may be interested in a coalition government next door, but whether the Taliban are interested in sharing power is another matter altogether. And if they aren’t, the consequences for Pakistan’s security situation could be disastrous.