Talking to the Taliban and the last man standing

March 23, 2009

The debate about whether the United States should open talks with Afghan insurgents appears to be gathering momentum — so much so that it is beginning to acquire an air of inevitability, without there ever being a specific policy announcement.

The U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, became the latest to call for talks when he told France’s Le Monde newspaper that reconciliation was an essential element.  “But it is important to talk to the people who count,” he said. ”A fragmented approach to the insurgency will not work. You need to be ambitious and include all the Taliban movement.”

His remarks follow much more guarded comments by President Barack Obama who said in an interview with the New York Times that Washington might look for “comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region” as it did in Iraq, involving “reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us.”

Vice President Joe Biden has also said that U.S. assessments were that only five percent of the Taliban were “incorrigible”.  He told a news conference in Brussels that whatever happened would have to be initiated by the Afghan government. “But I do think it is worth engaging and determining whether or not there are those who are willing to participate in a secure and stable Afghan state.”

According to the New York Times, the Afghan government has already begun exploring the potential for negotiations with the Taliban leadership council of Mullah Omar and with mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Al Jazeera has also reported that the Afghan government has begun talks with Hekmatyar, while the Christian Science Monitor said Kabul had opened preliminary negotiations with the network of mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.

I have just written an analysis on what any U.S. dialogue with Afghan insurgents would mean for India and Pakistan, two countries with a major stake in any political settlement, and am still trying to pin down the implications for other major regional players, including Russia, Iran and China.

One theme that is emerging is the extent to which any dialogue with the Afghan insurgents would aim to peel them away from the Islamist ideology of al Qaeda by stressing their Pashtun identity above their religious affiliation. (The Pashtun lost their dominant position in Afghanistan when the Pashtun Taliban were toppled by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.)

According to C. Raja Mohan, quoted in my analysis, “Addressing Pashtun grievances is indeed the key to any settlement. The real problem is different: all Taliban are Pashtun; not all Pashtun are Taliban. Finding the space here is the real challenge.”

The distinction between stressing the Pashtun identity over the religious identity of the Afghan insurgents could prove to be fundamental in the coming months (and that is not to suggest that the insurgents can be reduced to a single identity — you have to assume that like everyone else they have multiple loyalties, to religion, tribe, nationality, ethnic group, family etc etc).

And that brings me to what I think are the most interesting questions about any U.S.-backed talks with Afghan insurgents. How would you frame these talks in such a way as to reach a political settlement that would satisfy both the people of Afghanistan and the regional players?

Would you, for example, use Saudi Arabia as an intermediary, as has been done in the past? Saudi Arabia had close links with the Taliban before they were ousted in 2001, and is also a U.S. ally.  At the same time, its foreign policy tends to have a religious tint to it, and its involvement could create problems with Iran – a major rival in the Islamic world, which also wants to be sure that any government in Kabul respects the rights of Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun Persian-speakers and of its Shi’ite minority.

Does the United States have a choice? Or, facing financial mayhem at home, will it accept any settlement in Afghanistan as long as it eliminates al Qaeda as a global threat?  (Shazia Rafi at The  Women’s Media Center and Fareed Zakaria at Newsweek both have interesting takes on how far the United States should be ready to compromise with hardline Islamists.)

I don’t have answers, but I did scroll back to a blog I posted last May asking: Who will be left standing when the Afghan war ends? At the time, I asked the Reuters reporter who covered the fall of Saigon in 1975 for his answer to that question. He quoted me the following truism of asymmetric warfare; “the strong lose if they don’t win and the weak win if they survive.”

The situation in Afghanistan seems to have moved very quickly since then, until we are now asking not whether the United States should support dialogue with the insurgents, but how.

(Reuters photos: U.S. troops on patrol in Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama)

Comments

Global watcher: Provoking Hindu extremism inside India is part of the plan. This will help alienate the Indian Muslims even more and that can be used as a leverage in Pakistan’s jihad against India. Like you, I detest the Hindu fundamentalists too. But they have emerged due to emotional reasons where justice is elusive. When 9/11 happened the reactions shown by Americans anything associated with Islam/Muslims was stark. They didn’t hesitate to show their true feelings. One Tamil actor named Kamal Hassan was denied entry to the US from Toronto because his name sounds Muslim. His name is based on Sanskrit, but that didn’t matter. So worldwide human beings react the same way when emotional buttons are pushed. It is unfortunate, but those who plan long term conflicts to divide up people, rely on these things. They cause the damage, wait for the reaction and capitalize on it. India unfortunately is falling in that trap.

 

@Mauryan,

No Mauryan, India will not fall into that trap, if the reaction to Mumbai is any indication.

India will continue to become stronger in democracy, secularity and equality for all, regardless of caste, race and religion.

India has inertia of 7000 years of civilization, like the great civilizations of Persia, China, Greece, India will always persevere, always has and always will and will emerge greater than ever in its own successes.

Dalits, muslims, Sikhs, all of these people have positions of power and beginning to realize as they try harder, they are equal to everybody else, as the old hatreds and resentments melt away, Pakistani’s get more scared than ever.

India is ancient, secular, democratic and inclusive. Those strengths are beyond measure and words and fuel jealousy in Pakistan.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive
 

Global watcher,

Your words are comforting. We should remain positive.

 

From the Hadiths of Abu Dawud
Book 14, Number 2478:
Narrated Imran ibn Husayn:

The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said: A section of my community will continue to fight for the right and overcome their opponents till the last of them fights with the Antichrist.

Then shall victory come. Allahu Akbar!

Posted by gina | Report as abusive
 

Pakistanis are jealous of Indians eh ? If that’s the case why are the Indians so obsessed with Pakistan, as evidenced by this blog ?

Returning to topic, the US is now engaged in dialogue with militants and wants deals. So why was Pakistan criticized and condemned so heavily for doing the same ?

 

@Pakistanis are jealous of Indians eh ? If that’s the case why are the Indians so obsessed with Pakistan, as evidenced by this blog ?
- Posted by Aamir Ali

-This is called “alert and watching” for the fallout of the events inside Pakistan. You guys are obsessed with the word “obsessed”.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive
 

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