When the Chips Fall

The ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban are re­al­is­tic this time and much has changed in the group’s dy­nam­ics with other stake­hold­ers.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. M. Hali

Gen­eral Nick Carter, Bri­tain’s top gen­eral and deputy com­man­der of the NATO-led coali­tion in Afghanistan has ad­mit­ted that the West should have tried talk­ing to the Tal­iban a decade ago, since it would have been eas­ier to find a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion when they were on the run in 2002. Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron too ac­knowl­edged that the orig­i­nal set­tle­ment for Afghanistan “could have been bet­ter ar­ranged.”

This vin­di­cates Pak­istan’s stance, since it has been rec­om­mend­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban for over a decade but its pleas fell on deaf ears. Now the US has been forced to con­cede con­ces­sions to the Tal­iban and what could have been an ef­fec­tive point of strength, if the Tal­iban were de­feated, has be­come a po­si­tion of weak­ness since it is the US and NATO troops, who have been van­quished in the guer­rilla war in Afghanistan.

For the last two years, the US has been keen to hold ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban but ow­ing to the trust deficit, it spurned Pak­istan’s of­fer of bro­ker­ing a deal to bring the Tal­iban to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble and suf­fered the con­se­quences. Read­ers may re­call the case of Mul­lah Man­sour, a sup­pos­edly se­nior Tal­iban com­man­der, who was flown to Kabul to meet Pres­i­dent Karzai in Novem­ber 2010. It turned out that he was re­ally an Afghan shop­keeper who had been liv­ing in Pak­istan and the im­poster, who was flown into Kabul on a NATO air­craft, van­ished af­ter be­ing paid hun­dreds of thou­sands of dollars. Since then the US in­ter­locu­tors be­came wary and re­luc­tantly sought help from their Pak­istani coun­ter­parts.

Pak­istan fa­cil­i­tated the move and the re­sult was the es­tab­lish­ment of a Tal­iban of­fice at Qatar’s cap­i­tal, Doha, which has re­set the pa­ram­e­ters of the de­bate and fa­cil­i­tated ne­go­ti­a­tions. Qatar is an in­ter­est­ing choice, which was ac­cept­able to the Karzai govern­ment too as a neu­tral venue. The Amir of Qatar was hos­pitable enough to pro­vide space be­cause Qatar has been keen to play cen­ter stage in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. How­ever, from the very out­set, a row over the sta­tus of the Tal­iban of­fice has over­shad­owed ef­forts to start peace ne­go­ti­a­tions there. The Tal­iban hoist­ing their flag over their build­ing and the name­plate of their po­lit­i­cal of­fice of “The Is­lamic Emi­rate of Afghanistan”, which was the name and en­sign used by the Tal­iban, irked Hamid Karzai, prompt­ing him to call off the peace talks even be­fore they com­menced. Since then, the Tal­iban have re­moved the of­fen­sive icons. The Amir of Qatar, who ac­cord­ing to the Tal­iban, had per­mit­ted them to fly the flag and the name­plate, has con­vinced the Tal­iban to dis­play the flag and the sig­nage in­side the build­ing only.

The US Ad­min­is­tra­tion had been keen to ne­go­ti­ate with the Tal­iban to en­sure a safe pas­sage to the draw­down of its forces and equip­ment. More­over, for last­ing peace in Afghanistan, it is es­sen­tial that the Tal­iban are a part of the po­lit­i­cal dis­pen­sa­tion. Even the Afghans do not want a re­peat of the re­pres­sive Tal­iban regime but the Tal­iban con­sti­tute an im­por­tant com­po­nent of the Afghan de­mo­graph­ics and can be ig­nored at the peril of de­rail­ing the peace process.

The Tal­iban pos­sess an im­por­tant ace up their sleeves. US Army Sergeant Bowe Robert Bergdahl is a Tal­iban pris­oner since 2009 and the Tal­iban are de­mand­ing the re­turn of five im­por­tant Tal­iban lead­ers be­ing in­car­cer­ated at Guan­tanamo for his ex­change. There is a high prob­a­bil­ity of this ex­change tak­ing place, paving the way for the peace ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Gen­eral Carter ex­pressed con­fi­dence that NATO’s han­dover of se­cu­rity to Afghan forces would even­tu­ally bring the Tal­iban to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. Hamid Karzai, on the other hand in­sists that the peace ne­go­ti­a­tions, if any, will have to be Afghan owned and Afghan led. A pet phrase used by the Tal­iban has been “you may have the watches but we have the time”, im­ply­ing that they could wait out the

ag­o­niz­ing pe­riod of US withdrawal and then they would have a free hand be­yond 2014.

This is no longer true. The win­dow of op­por­tu­nity is clos­ing rapidly. Next year in April, cru­cial pres­i­den­tial elec­tions will be held, in which Hamid Karzai is not el­i­gi­ble to par­tic­i­pate. If the Tal­iban miss the op­por­tu­nity of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the elec­tions, they will also lose the op­por­tu­nity to be a le­git­i­mate part of the govern­ment. The worst case sce­nario is an­other bloody civil war, which may leave thou­sands dead, maimed, wid­owed and or­phaned while mil­lions more will be forced to seek refuge in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. Pak­istan has al­ready borne the brunt of the pre­vi­ous ex­o­dus in 1989, when five mil­lion Afghan refugees sought asy­lum on its soil and it has hosted a ma­jor­ity of them for over twenty-four years.

The US and the Tal­iban have not reached any con­sen­sus as yet. US Sec­re­tary of State, John Kerry paints a rosy pic­ture, when he de­fends the peace over­tures made by the US to the Afghan Tal­iban. Af­ter a decade of spend­ing tril­lions and the hu­man de­struc­tion, the US is tak­ing the prag­matic line be­fore it pulls out of Afghanistan next year. The pub­lic opin­ion in the US has clearly tilted to­wards an early withdrawal and do­ing all it takes to wrap up the un­suc­cess­ful Afghanistan ad­ven­ture. Sec­re­tary Kerry’s ra­tio­nale is rather lin­ear: he has said that the great­est is­sue be­tween the US and the Tal­iban was the hand­ing over of Osama bin Laden, who is now dead. Fur­ther­more, the US also con­sid­ers al Qaeda to have been de­feated in Afghanistan and there­fore, a broad- based Afghanistan govern­ment, which in­cludes the Tal­iban as a power stake­holder, makes sense.

Opin­ion sur­veys, rather limited to this part of the world, also in­di­cate that both Afghanistan and Pak­istan want early peace and the Tal­iban to be en­gaged in ne­go­ti­a­tions. Hamid Karzai needs to shed some of his rigid­ity be­cause af­ter the de­par­ture of the for­eign forces, the Afghan National Se­cu­rity Forces will not be able to stop the on­slaught of a bat­tle hard­ened and in­creas­ingly con­fi­dent Tal­iban, whom the su­pe­rior and bet­ter equipped US and NATO forces failed to de­ter. Group Cap­tain (R) Sul­tan M. Hali, now a prac­tic­ing jour­nal­ist, writes for print me­dia, pro­duces doc­u­men­taries and hosts a TV talk show. He is cur­rently based in Is­lam­abad.

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