Talking to the Taliban: Implications for Pakistan

The talk in Afghanistan of sitting down with the Afghan Taliban and thrashing out a solution to the conflict is now overt. To nudge the initiative forward, the Governor of NWFP, Mr Owais Ghani, has reiterated his earlier stance that the NATO-ISAF forces should consider talking to Mullah Umar. From Kabul, the signals too are meant for Mullah Umar and not for Al Qaeda or its other followers.

Does this show weakness? The British in Helmand are clear that war will not work. They are right because despite their acknowledged efforts half the province is still controlled by the Taliban. The NATO partners of the United States are generally averse to prolonging their stay in Afghanistan for domestic political reasons. But what is striking is that the Americans too are now talking about talks. What could be the reason for this on the eve of a political changeover in Washington in favour of someone like Barack Obama who wants to beef up the war in Afghanistan?

Many reasons have been put forward for this change of approach. Before examining them, let us say that two opposite trends are visible from these statements: first, there is the moral and political weakness of the Karzai administration; second, there is the three- or four-way split in the terrorist movement presided over by Al Qaeda, and efforts by Mullah Umar to chart a different course for the Afghan Taliban.

Mr Karzai is not heading a clean government and his own family is being accused of links with the drug smugglers who provide around $80 million to Al Qaeda annually to run its war. His control over the country remains tenuous and he has failed to get the Pashtuns of Afghanistan to back him, as is apparent from the fact that most of the new local army raised by NATO is composed of non-Pashtuns. Because Mr Karzai is seen as compounding the weakness of the NATO mission, the idea of talks with Mullah Umar is thought to possibly re-engage the Pashtuns and isolate Al Qaeda.

The second scenario is the one supported by the NWFP governor and some strategists in the West who believe that the Taliban elements are not united as one organisation but divided into factions that operate under different uncoordinated leaders. As opposed to the statement made some time ago by Interior Adviser Mr Rehman Malik that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are one and the same — which they are as far as Pakistan is concerned under their attacks — the new reading is that organisationally they are divided and can be talked to separately.

Mullah Umar has sent out signals too. He has asked the Taliban not to target schools, stay away from places where women and children can be killed as collateral damage, and not destroy CD shops. Needless to say, the Pakistani Taliban have not listened to him. This takes us back to the jihad against the Soviets when the Mujahideen commanders did not obey orders from their political leaders in Peshawar. The quality of Pashtun leadership is that it has to adjust to actions taken by the smaller commanders on the frontline in violation of their orders.

Mullah Umar of course says he will not talk unless the foreign troops leave Afghanistan. That takes us back to the dilemma of whether to start talking from a position of disadvantage. But let us assume for a moment that Mullah Umar negotiates a return of his government in Kabul in full or in coalition, then what will happen to the Taliban left behind in Pakistan? There is the phenomenon of the “emirate” in South Waziristan pretending to control all the Taliban within the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Then there are others to be taken account of. There are the Taliban in Swat under Maulana Fazlullah who can call upon “foreign fighters” controlled by Al Qaeda. Another significant element in the Pakistani Taliban is the large number of Afghan refugees who have refused to return to their country simply because they have never seen it and are active as terrorists on the Kohat-Hangu-Thall territory going towards the Kurram Agency. Joining them at Darra Adam Khel are all the jihadis predominantly drawn from Punjab, to say nothing of the local Pashtun criminal elements masquerading as Taliban.

But if the talks proceed on the lines indicated by the first step in this direction taken in Makka, on the basis of a broader regional view of the crisis, then something can be achieved. Therefore Pakistan is taking the right steps, normalising in the east with India and supporting a role for Iran in the west. If a solution is sought in this framework, then a new configuration of power can develop in Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan to deal with Al Qaeda and its “foreigners” as best it can. (Daily Times)