Taliban talks – a necessary but not sufficient condition for peace

May 20, 2011

We have known for months that the United States has begun direct talks with representatives of the Taliban. And as I wrote in this story, the death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid on May 2 should make it easier for the Taliban to break with al Qaeda, a fundamental requirement for including them in any eventual political settlement in Afghanistan. But lest anyone should think these talks, combined with bin Laden’s death, would somehow produce an early end to the Afghan war,  it is important to remember that engaging with the Taliban is only a necessary but far from sufficient condition for a political settlement.

As Thomas Ruttig  writes at the Afghanistan Analysts Network,  any deal between the Taliban and Afghan President Hamid Karzai that was simply meant to open the exit door for foreign troops would not serve the interests of Afghans.  ”… they need an end of the bloodshed that will also physically reopen spaces for economic and political activities, a debate about where their country is going. A deal which does not address the main causes of the conflict (namely the monopoly over power of resources concentrated in the hands of a small elite, then possibly with some additional Taleban players) will not bring peace.

 ”Therefore, the ‘political process’ … needs to involve a representative cross-section of Afghan society, including former anti-Taleban mujahedin, the ethnic minorities … and what usually is called civil society … They need to hammer out a much broader political compromise that will guarantee, finally, the political stabilisation of Afghanistan where everyone has to concede something but finally everyone gains.”

The Taliban led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, described by Washington as the Quetta shura Taliban (QST), are not comparable to a national liberation movement with whom a peace deal can be struck and the war ended. Even among the Pashtun community, their support is patchy; and they are regarded with deep suspicion by other groups, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, with bad memories of Taliban rule from 1996 – 2001. Already there are signs that some of the Taliban’s most bitter opponents are mobilising to scupper any peace talks - among them Amrullah Saleh, former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency.

The insurgency itself is also fragmented – even within the so-called Quetta shura Taliban, no one is sure how far Mullah Omar can deliver some of the younger fighters into a peace settlement.  Then there are other major groups including the Haqqani network and the Hizb-e-Islami-Gulbuddin (HiG) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. So far, according to official sources from several countries, the United States is talking only with representatives of the Quetta shura Taliban.  (The Taliban themselves deny being involved in talks, while Washington has made no official comment.)

Yet the Haqqani network in particular is one of the most active insurgent groups in Afghanistan and blamed among other things for involvement in a suicide attack which killed CIA agents in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.  It is based on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, along with the remnants of al Qaeda, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and various other militants from groups with their roots in Pakistan’s Punjab province. What happens to them in the event of a political settlement in Afghanistan which draws in the Quetta shura Taliban?

This is where it gets even more complicated.  The professed objective of the United States and its allies has always been to bring stability to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Yet as Shuja Nawaz writes here,  the Pakistani Taliban have declared war on the Pakistani state,  claiming responsibility for a string of bombings inside Pakistan.

“If the battle against these terrorists does not improve, Pakistan faces a grim future, especially after the United States begins to exit from Afghanistan and funding for the fight for Pakistan declines, either as a result of general cutbacks or because of differences with Pakistan over the Pakistani lack of vigor in battling Al Qaeda,” he writes.

“Even if Afghanistan settles down, Pakistan faces a long war for which it is not fully prepared. The result may be continuing instability inside Pakistan and creeping radicalization may become a reality in society at large and perhaps even infect the military over time. In nuclear-armed Pakistan, this may pose a regional and global threat to peace and stability.”

Caught between U.S. pressure to “do more” to fight militants and a need to protect its own citizens at home (the Pakistan Army, rightly or wrongly, sees these two compulsions as competing and sometimes contradictory), Pakistan has dithered between wanting to use the Haqqani network to bring the Pakistani Taliban to heel and promising to fight it.

It is a chaotic situation which is showing no signs of improvement, and which is very unlikely to be made any simpler by bin Laden’s death. (Many of the groups fighting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are driven by compulsions which exist independently of al Qaeda, whose roots have always been in the Middle East.)

Ultimately any political settlement in Afghanistan, or for that matter any new policies on either counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency, would have to take account of what is a vicious mix of Islamist militancy, political grievances and ethnic rivalries across the region. That is not to say that talking to the Taliban is a bad idea. But it would an illusion to think that these talks, combined with bin Laden’s death, will pave the way for an early exit for the United States.

For more on the complexities of a political settlement in Afghanistan, do read this detailed lecture by Britain’s former foreign secretary David Miliband, this article by Giandomenico Picco published by the OxfordResearchGroup and The Century Foundation report (pdf) written by a group of international experts led by Lakhdar Brahimi and Thomas Pickering.

(Photo: refugees fleeing fighting in Pakistan’s tribal areas caught in a dust storm.)


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