Pakistan talks up al Qaeda/Taliban split

December 7, 2010

british soldierPakistan is increasingly talking up the need for a political settlement in Afghanistan which would force al Qaeda to leave the region. And while there is little sign yet Washington is ready to hold serious negotiations with Afghan insurgents, analysts detect a new tone in Pakistani comments about driving Osama bin Laden’s organization out of its haven on the Pakistan border.

A senior security official said the Afghan stalemate could be lifted by setting a minimum agenda in which insurgents broke with al Qaeda. There were indications, he said, they could renounce the organisation and ask it to leave the region. Senior politician Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, a pro-Taliban member of the ruling coalition, also said a settlement “would squeeze the room for al Qaeda.”  ”Al Qaeda will have to fall in line or leave the region,” he told Reuters in an interview late last month.

Our story on this is here.

As discussed in the story, there is no evidence that the United States is ready yet for serious negotiations with Afghan insurgents – although over the course of this year it has become more open to the idea. Official sources outside Washington speak of widespread confusion over U.S. plans in Afghanistan, with the Pentagon in particular seen as pushing for ramped-up military operations and the State Department more open to exploring diplomatic solutions.

At the same time, some also speak of confusion over U.S. goals in Afghanistan.  This is significant because the confusion fuels conspiracy theories among those who suspect the United States has other motives for being in Afghanistan than defeating al Qaeda — its original reason for sending troops there after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Those conspiracy theories undermine U.S. efforts to win hearts and minds and feed a jihadi world view that they are engaged in a “David and Goliath” struggle against U.S. imperialism. And that in turn undercuts any gains the U.S. military might make on the battlefield in Afghanistan, or any public support it might hope to garner through financial aid to Pakistan.

By talking up the idea of a split between the Taliban and al Qaeda, Pakistan also appears to be trying to nudge the debate back into the original reason for the Afghan war. A senior security official said Washington should set “end conditions” for Afghanistan. A break with al Qaeda would be a requirement on which there could be no compromise. But concessions would have to be made on other U.S. preconditions for talks, which include a requirement that insurgents renounce violence and promise to respect the Afghan constitution.

Exactly how a Taliban/AQ split would work is unclear; as are the questions of if, how, and where al Qaeda leaders would go if they were forced out of their safe haven on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  Nor is it clear what would happen to other al-Qaeda linked militants in Pakistan if for example bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri were to move. India in particular would be anxious that any political settlement in Afghanistan which forced out al Qaeda would  leave intact what it calls “the infrastructure of terrorism” in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, the idea of reframing the debate to look at end conditions rather than the means of getting there (from tanks to talks) is an interesting one.

Meanwhile more food for thought on the same theme:

Former British special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, argues in an article on the cables published by WikiLeaks that Afghanistan’s problems are political rather than military:

“The real tragedy about these telegrams is that they miss the point: that the entire western military effort in Afghanistan will in the end be for nothing unless it is part of a wider political strategy. Such a strategy should bring together all the internal parties – not just the Taliban – to a decades-old conflict, and systematically engage Afghanistan’s neighbours in gradually stabilising the country, from which the whole of south-west Asia would benefit.

“In that broader strategic perspective, debating troop levels in Helmand is a bit like arguing over how much aspirin to give a cancer patient. Garrisoning the town of Sangin more efficiently may produce more relief from pain (or violence). But without action to treat the underlying disease (which is political, not military), such relief can be only local, and temporary.”

Giles Dorronsoro at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says that the current strategy of defeating the Taliban militarily is unrealistic:

“Rather than committing more troops, the United States should instead pursue a political solution to the conflict, including a cease-fire and negotiations with the insurgents. By insisting on power-sharing among the various Afghan factions and reserving the right to intervene militarily to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary for extremist groups, the United States can still accomplish the more limited objective of preventing the return of al-Qaeda.

“However, the United States must act quickly. Given the rapidly deteriorating security situation, every passing month strengthens the position of the Taliban. A viable exit strategy is still possible, but time is not on America’s side.”

Philip Mudd, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, argues in a piece in Foreign Policy in favour of rethinking U.S. objectives in Afghanistan to return to their original focus of tackling the threat from al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks:

“If our initial intervention stemmed from the attacks, should not follow-on decisions, such as whether to speak to the Taliban about reconciliation, relate directly to the al Qaeda fight? If we want to destroy al Qaeda, does our current strategy of isolating the Taliban — which has a far greater penetration of Afghan society and provincial life that we or the Kabul government ever will — make sense? It does if we want to build a civil society; it doesn’t if we want local Taliban leaders to limit an al Qaeda presence because it might interfere with their goal of creating an Afghan emirate.”

And finally, courtesy of Alex Strick van Linschoten, there is this.

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