Dancing with the Taliban

Spearhead Analysis – 20.06.2013

Dancing with the TalibanA very short historical review would be helpful to set the context. Osama bin Laden harnessed the hatred against the US presence in Arab lands and there were incidents of bombings in Saudi Arabia, the attack on a US warship and the bombings of US embassies. Osama’s Arab warriors were the seeds for AlQaeda though he could not have foreseen the havoc that the movement would cause worldwide. The US funded the jehad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and religious extremism and militancy got a focus. The Taliban were born in the chaos that the US left behind in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union withdrew defeated. The Taliban got sponsors and AlQaeda saw the vacuum in Afghanistan and the opportunity. The result was 911 and the reaction to that was the war on terror by the US and its allies — first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. The US got out of Iraq but the country is in turmoil and violence is rampant. The Shia-Sunni divide is now an exploitable reality. The US and its allies are now planning to leave Afghanistan and there is much speculation on what will be the post US/NATO scenario in Afghanistan. That scenario will determine the regional situation.

The US/ISAF has handed over complete responsibility for operations and security to the Afghan National security Forces even though their capacity was in much doubt. That the US did so while ISAF is still full strength in Afghanistan will give the Afghans much needed confidence. The US also followed up this decision with another potentially game changing decision — direct talks with the Taliban and the opening of a Taliban office in Doha for these political contacts and reconciliation discussions. The office is designated as the office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — an entity that does not or at least did not exist till it found a home in Doha. The timing of the Doha event with the handover of security responsibility is significant and apparently the hope was that the Taliban would halt or slow their operations. They have not done this and have vowed to continue their activities — they know they have the whip hand and want to keep it. The US/ISAF are vulnerable during the 2014 pullout. In a worst case scenario the Salang Tunnel could be blocked in the north and a running fight situation created in the south as the logistics move out through Pakistan.

Karzai has called off the discussions for an agreement with the US post 2014 to register his government’s objection to the Doha Taliban office being called the Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. He wants the Afghan High Peace Council fully involved and the process to move to Afghan soils quickly. He also does not want to be sidelined and probably sees a Pakistan hand in the Doha reconciliation process. With almost total economic and financial dependence on the US and the West it will be hard for Karzai to maintain this position. Should Karzai persist he may actually be sidelined. Pakistan is totally supportive of the reconciliation process because with the Afghan Taliban on the political table a peaceful logistic exercise through Pakistan is possible. Pakistan will then have options to deal with the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as it will be under pressure from the Afghan Taliban to end activities and from Pakistan’s military. The dialogue route will then appeal to the TTP especially with governments in Pakistan’s western provinces that favor dialogue.

President Obama’s recent statements and efforts sum up the difficulties — an “important first step toward reconciliation,” — even as he cautioned that there will be “a lot of bumps in the road.” — We don’t anticipate this process will be easy or quick, but we must pursue in parallel with our military approach,” — U.S. had anticipated “some areas of friction, to put it mildly.” — ‘Our hope and expectation is despite the challenges, the process will proceed,” — “They’ve been fighting a very long time, there is enormous mistrust,” — even as the parties pursue “some frankly difficult negotiations” on the US role, post 2014, “we still believe you have got to have a paralell track to at least look at the prospect for peace. Whether that bears fruit post 2014, are they going to be fighting? That’s a question only the Afghans can answer.” — Obama had personally talked with Karzai and the emir of Qatar to push plans for an “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process.” — Obama briefed leaders at a summit of the world’s largest economies in Northern Ireland on the developments, and administration officials said there was “significant international support” for a reconciliation process “even with all the attendant difficulties.”

Pakistan wants to move quickly to revive a declining economy and for this internal security is a prerequisite. While the situation on its western borders is changing Pakistan will want to end urban violence and the militants who operate on ethnic, criminal, separatist or extremist platforms. If it can ensure this it will be in the best possible position to focus foreign policy on bilateral relations with all its neighbors and the US. Economic survival and revival will become an achievable goal.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual).