Return of the Taliban

US is striking a deal with Pakistan and the Taliban and any collateral damage in the bargain to other countries is not its lookout.

The commencement of Afghan peace talks in Doha comes as a surprise. Senior United States officials project that president Barack Obama has a ‘hands-on’ role in kick-starting the talks. They singled out Germany, Norway and Britain for having ‘contributed significantly’ through the past one –year period, but the ‘core players’ are the governments of Afghanistan, Qatar, Pakistan and the US.

They say Washington “particularly appreciates” Pakistan’s role in the recent months in urging the Taliban to join a peace process. The US officials perceive a ‘genuine’ shift in Pakistani policy. As they put it, “Pakistan has been genuinely supportive of a peace process… there has in the past been scepticism about their support, but in recent months… we’ve seen evidence that there is genuine support and that they’ve employed their influence such as it is to encourage the Taliban to engage, and to engage in this particular format (at Doha).”

Quite obviously, there has been very close US-Pakistan coordination. The US secretary of state John Kerry met Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Kayani at least twice in recent months. Special representative James Dobbins visited Kayani in Rawalpindi a fortnight ago. Kerry telephoned prime minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday and is scheduled to visit Islamabad.

This ‘genuine’ shift in the Pakistani stance generates optimism in Washington regarding “a regional buy-in for stability in South Asia.” The US officials hope “to get that type of regional consensus.” Evidently, Kerry hopes to utilise his forthcoming visit to Delhi and Islamabad to harmonise the Indian and Pakistani approaches. However, Delhi will have some searching questions to ask Kerry. Where Delhi needs an extra leap of faith is over the inclusion of the Haqqani Network in the Doha talks. Delhi estimates that the Haqqanis perpetrated the murderous attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul and the killing of two senior Indian diplomats. The US had empathised with Delhi but has now done a volte-face.

The US officials now have the following to say – “we consider the Haqqani Netqork an especially dangerous element of the overall Taliban movement. So the Haqqanis declare themselves part of the overall (Taliban) movement, and we have all evidence that supports that claim… so we consider them a fully subordinate part of the overall insurgency. So when the Taliban movement opens the office and is represented by its political commission, that political commission represents, as we understand it, the Haqqani elements as well. We don’t know the exact makeup of the Taliban delegation, but we believe that it broadly represents, as authorised by Mullah Omar, the entire movement to include the Haqqanis.”

The sophistry in the argument is self-evident. So, why is the Obama administration doing this? Without doubt, the US is going to ‘incentivise’ the Taliban by meeting their demand for release of their top leaders detained in Guantanamo Bay. The US hopes the detainee exchange will “lead to a diminution in violence.” Conceivably, the Taliban will allow the orderly retreat of the US troops. Most important, Obama will link his decision regarding “the exact shape of our (US) commitment, of our presence beyond 2014” with the outcome of the Doha talks. In short, the US seeks the Taliban’s acquiescence with the establishment of the American military bases in Afghanistan.

Taliban’s wish list

But why should the Taliban give up their robust opposition to foreign occupation of their country? Evidently, Taliban too have a ‘wish list.’ Their (and Pakistan’s) calculation is that time works in their favour. Once ensconced in power in Kabul and in the provinces straddling the Durand Line, they will be in a position to incrementally assert their dominance, being the most cohesive and ideologically-motivated group and enjoying the full backing of Pakistani military. The Doha talks do not demand the disarming of the Taliban. Conceivably, Taliban cadres could even merge with the Afghan armed forces.

Meanwhile, the western powers have declared an end to all combat operations and their stated intent henceforth will be to prevent a comeback by the al-Qaeda. The Taliban as such are no longer regarded as ‘enemy.’ No doubt, the Taliban and their Pakistani mentors are fully justified in assessing that with the passage of time, the strategic balance will work in their favour because the US and its western allies will not have the stomach to revert to an active ‘combat role’ once again in what would by then become a fratricidal strife between Afghan groups.

The US officials admitted that “the levels and nature of our presence are obviously going to be influenced, on the one hand, by the levels of violence in Afghanistan, and on the other hand, by the presence or absence of international terrorists in or around Afghanistan.” That is to say, on the basis of Taliban’s guarantee to cease the attacks on American soldiers, the US will establish the military bases. In return, Taliban get rehabilitated politically and they would certainly relish the “level playing field” to work towards incrementally establishing their dominance at the inter-Afghan level.

For India, the worst-case scenario is emerging. The heart of the matter is that the US desperately wants to end the war but needs to remain embedded in the region as part of its ‘rebalancing’ strategy. The US is striking a deal with Pakistan and the Taliban and any collateral damage in the bargain to other countries such as India or the Central Asian states is not the US’s lookout.

Kerry will try to sell the Doha package to our leadership with a smiling demeanor. But it is time to do some plain speaking – that the decision to negotiate with Haqqanis is appalling and the US’s geopolitical agenda impacts negatively on regional security and hurts India’s vital interests. 

Afghanistan is a sovereign country and not the playpen of the US and Pakistani military. We share the sense of dismay president Hamid Karzai feels about the trade-off between Washington and Rawalpindi and the Haqqanis behind the fig leaf of ‘Afghan-led,’ ‘Afghan-owned’ peace process.

(The writer is a former ambassador)  

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