On Taliban talks and driving out al Qaeda

March 23, 2011

osamaIn the debate about the possibility of reaching a peace settlement with the Taliban in return for them breaking with al Qaeda, it has never been entirely clear how that breach would be defined. While on one hand the international community would expect the Taliban’s break with al Qaeda to be public and irreversible, few expect them to turn on al Qaeda’s leaders, preferring instead for them to leave the Afghanistan and Pakistan region.

 Somewhere in there is a huge grey area that has not yet got the attention it deserves. The Century Foundation in its newly released report (pdf) calling for a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war has come up with a suggestion which at least forms the basis of debate.  Its key point — or at least the one that jumped out at me — is that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar would declare the jihad over: 

“The international community will resolutely insist that an acceptable and durable political settlement must include a verifiable severing of ties with al Qaeda and guarantees that Afghanistan could never again be a base from which transnational terrorists could threaten international peace and stability.”

“A political settlement in which the Taliban agreed to be a part of a pluralistic governing structure would have far-reaching symbolic importance in the larger struggle against violent extremism and transnational terrorism. One potentially useful message of the end of the conflict would be an announcement by the Afghan insurgents, including Mullah Mohammad Omar as the head of the Taliban and its spiritual leader, that the jihad has come to a close and that the political settlement represents a definitive cessation of hostilities. This public statement could also reaffirm clearly the dedication of the Taliban to national Afghan goals and again emphasize the severing of ties with al Qaeda and any other transnational terrorist networks. It could declare that Afghanistan will not be used as a safe haven for terrorist groups and will not be allowed to serve as a base for regional destabilization.”

An announcement by Mullah Omar that the Afghan jihad had come to a close would be a powerful repudiation of al Qaeda’s own global agenda and would in itself constitute a significant ideological breach. That is not to suggest it will happen — publicly the Taliban rejects talks until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan — but it’s an interesting idea nonetheless.

Meanwhile on the subject of talks, Pakistani daily The Express Tribune has reported that the government has opened peace talks with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The report follows speculation that Pakistan might be planning an expanded military operation in North Waziristan. The two are not mutually incompatible — if Pakistan wanted to succeed in talks, it would probably want to convince the TTP that it had them cornered and they had an interest in coming to the table.   In this context, it is worth noting that Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of the most respected journalists on the tribal areas, has argued that the TTP has lost the trust of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network over its execution of two former members of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency who it had kidnapped in North Waziristan.

Here is what The Express Tribune had to say about the reported talks with the TTP.  ”The authorities, however, have made it clear to the TTP and others that no role of al Qaeda is to be accepted at any level in these negotiations…”

(To be continued. In my next post on this subject: If al Qaeda leaders are forced to leave the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, where do they go?)

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