Chasing mirages

Afghan Peace Talks

Pakistan keeps its counsel to itself and won’t comment on the credentials of the ‘Taliban representatives’ at the Qatar talks.

The New Year began with hype over ‘secret discussions’ between the United States and Taliban officials. Optimism surged when Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid affirmed that insurgents are willing to open an office in Qatar. For a breathtaking clutch of days, it seemed the Barack Obama administration has hit the jackpot and booby-trapped Mullah Omar into talking.

Qatar has made a fine art of finessing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groupings in Libya, Egypt and Syria, which has been immensely helping the United States to be on the ‘right side of history’ in the Arab Spring – so far, at least. Qatar is expected to perform a similar creative role as surrogate with regard to the Taliban. The US Central Command is also located in Qatar. The US strategy is predicated on the belief that if the Taliban could be encouraged to diversify their external contacts, they would cease to be Pakistan’s exclusive ‘strategic assets,’; second, Qatar with its history of ‘trust deficit’ with Iran would keep the latter also out of the loop; and third, in this conducive setting the Taliban could be transformed as Islamist politicians, thus bringing the war to an end.

Accordingly, Washington dropped its preconditions for talks with the Taliban – laying down arms, severing links with the al-Qaeda and the insurgents agreeing to work under the Afghan constitution. It also agreed in principle to meet the Taliban request for the release of their top officials under detention for the past decade in Guantanamo Bay.

But all good things must come to an end. The US strategy is developing cracks. Afghan president Hamid Karzai insists that peace talks should be ‘Afghan-led’ – meaning, he expects a ‘hands-on’ role. Karzai anticipates the danger of being left behind as road kill unless he is on driver’s seat. He also demands that the US should transfer to him any Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay – and not to Qatar (as apparently sought by Taliban). Besides, he just raked up a contentious issue of continued US control of the Bagram airbase as a detention centre.

Meanwhile, Karzai is discussing with Pakistan the revival of the bilateral Afghan-Pakistani commission (representing civilian and military leadership) for reconciling the Taliban. This body became moribund following the assassination of former Afghan president and head of High Council for Peace Burhanuddin Rabbani last September. In sum, Karzai won’t hesitate to make common cause with Pakistan if Washington pushes the envelope.

Unsurprisingly, Islamabad is receptive to Karzai’s overture. It refrains from taking open stance on the move to talk with the Taliban at Qatar. Conceivably, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is on the ball and its chief Shuja Pasha even paid an overnight visit to Qatar.

Welcome release

Pakistan will probably welcome the release of top Taliban figures from Gunatanamo Bay such as Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa (former Taliban governor of Herat) or Mullah Mohammed Fazl (former deputy minister of defence), who were close associates of the ISI. Pakistan would draw satisfaction that Washington finally dropped its pre-conditions for talks with the Taliban and is open to talking even with the Haqqani network. And Pakistan didn’t put roadblock when former Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (who lives in Peshawar) deputed envoys to Kabul to sound out the US and Nato officials for a seat at the conference table in Qatar.

However, Pakistan keeps its counsel to itself and won’t comment on the credentials of the ‘Taliban representatives’ at Qatar, leave alone proffer opinion on the talks. The US hasn’t accepted a key element in the Pakistani vision of things, namely, putting in place in the first instance a ceasefire. The US instead sticks to the earlier strategy of ‘talk-fight,’ hoping it could ultimately negotiate with a weakened Taliban from a position of advantage. The Pakistani grouse is that the US consistently bypasses it and deals with the Taliban and it adds to suspicions about overall US intentions toward it. Of course, all this is being played against the backdrop of the rupture in the US-Pakistani relationship.

Pakistan’s priority will be to reset the relationship with the US first. It is not even budging on the reopening of the Nato’s transit routes. Actually, Pakistan didn’t have to do much to dampen the hype over the Qatar talks. The Taliban comprise hopelessly fragmented factions and neither Mullah Omar nor the Haqqani clan has yet commented on the proposed talks in Qatar. Pakistan can rest on its oars that the ISI would be the only party capable of shepherding these quarrelsome Taliban factions to come on a united platform for talks.

All in all, there could even be a backlash from the militant Taliban factions who feel left out. They might intensify attacks on Nato troops. A bloody period lies ahead. From their viewpoint – and Pakistani viewpoint, too – US is fudging the core issue of western occupation. The new US defence strategy unveiled in Washington on Thursday, in fact, underlines that “our (US’s) core goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda and preventing Afghanistan from ever being a safe haven again” continues into the “foreseeable future”, and that it will involve a “mix of direct action and security force assistance”. Interestingly, the document lists out countries where al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain active – ‘primary loci’ of al-Qaeda threats – and Pakistan heads the list ahead of Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen.

(The writer is a former diplomat)

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