Taliban talks: the new mirage in Afghanistan
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has just said in public what many have been saying for months in private, that the United States is holding talks with the Taliban to try to reach a settlement to the decade-long war in Afghanistan. “Peace talks are going on with the Taliban. The foreign military and especially the United States itself is going ahead with these negotiations,” he said in a speech in Kabul.
We have been hearing reports about these talks for months. In the climate of disinformation that threads through the Afghan war, it is hard to say exactly when they started, but I first heard last November that the Americans had begun direct talks with representatives of the Taliban and if that was correct, they must have begun some time before that.
Such direct talks have long been promoted by many Afghan experts as a necessary but not sufficient condition for a political settlement. While western countries have argued that political reconciliation must be Afghan-led, the Americans are the power-brokers, and unlike the administration in Kabul, the only ones who have the authority to deliver on any concessions agreed in the negotiations.
And the United States has also shifted its position on the Taliban — effectively admitting that the movement can be treated separately from al Qaeda by convincing the U.N. Security Council to split its sanctions list imposing asset freezes and travel restrictions into two.
All that said, there is a danger that the U.S. Taliban talks become the new mirage in Afghanistan by suggesting that a political settlement is on the horizon if only the current strategy is maintained. According to senior diplomats involved in international discussions on Afghanistan, the talks have yet to gain any serious traction. One diplomat said the two sides were still “gauging each other’s temperature”; another said that, “there are no serious load-bearing talks going on.”
And despite U.S. insistence that its military campaign in Afghanistan is — to use its favourite phrases - “turning the corner” or “gaining momentum” – one diplomat suggested that the Taliban’s ambitions were still as high as they had been before Washington sent an extra 30,000 troops.
Unlike the role sketched out for them by western governments in which they would folded into a broader political process, he said the Taliban were still looking for a serious stake in power. Among their ambitions would be for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to be rehabilitated as “Amir ul-Mu’mineen”, or supreme leader of the faithful, even if not directly running the government - an idea talked about back in early 2010.
A report by Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter published by the Afghan Analysts Network backs up that assertion that the Taliban’s ambitions remain high. (the full pdf report is here). The report focuses on inroads made by the Taliban in the Afghan north – well beyond their Pashtun heartland in the south.
It argues that the Taliban had been effective in opening their ranks to non-Pashtuns in the north, bringing in ethnic groups like Uzbeks and Tajiks who were traditionally hostile to the Islamist movement when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001.
“The Taliban appear to have a clear strategy aimed at destabilising northern Afghanistan. Moving north, and thereby covering non-Pashtun areas, strengthens their claim to be the legitimate government of Afghanistan and to be fighting for the whole country, not just for an ethnic group or a specific region. The Taliban are not only fighting the Afghan government – they are seeking to replace it with their own administration. This, they do with astonishing effectiveness,” the report says.
The United States is hoping to convince Pakistan to lean on the Taliban, which it says is based in and around the town of Quetta in Baluchistan, to take part in serious negotiations. It also wants the Pakistan Army to push further into the tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan to eliminate sanctuaries used both by Afghan insurgents and foreign fighters, including al Qaeda.
Convincing Pakistan to work with the United States on either or both of these objectives has become more difficult after the souring of relations which followed the May 2 raid by U.S. forces who found and killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. But even assuming the two countries manage to repair relations – and both have an interest in a stable Afghanistan – there is another problem.
Pakistan has long complained that even if it were to drive insurgents out of the tribal areas, they would find refuge in eastern Afghanistan, leaving it vulnerable to counter-attack unless the United States military shored up its own presence there.
A report by Gilles Dorronsoro (pdf) paints a gloomy picture of eastern Afghanistan — where U.S. troops have been thinned out in order to allow them to concentrate on population centres in the south. U.S.-led troops in southern Afghanistan, he argues, are fighting the same Taliban that it sees as having a role in a political settlement, while allowing more aggressive players – like the Haqqani network, along with elements from al Qaeda and the Pakistani militant gorup Lashkar-e-Taiba – to thrive in eastern Afghanistan.
“Despite a lack of U.S. interest in these (eastern) regions, their strategic importance is infinitely greater than that of Helmand or even Kandahar.The importance of the Eastern Triangle is due to its location between the capital and the Pakistani insurgent sanctuaries, and its importance in facilitating the passage of insurgents from Pakistan.”
Dorronsoro also notes that many of these eastern Afghan border areas follow a Salafist tradition of Islam – as distinct from the Deobandism followed by the Taliban – giving them an ideological affinity with Salafist groups like al Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and raising the scope for them to become a new sanctuary for international jihadis.
“The final aspect of the insurgency’s actions in the east is the presence of transnational jihadist groups in the border regions. Al Qaeda, in particular, has returned to Afghanistan and is cooperating with the Taliban on individual operations … Lashkar-e-Taiba has long been present in Nuristan and Kunar and,less obviously, in Nangarhar Province, in the district of Khogiani. In any case, the area now represents a rather secure sanctuary capable of welcoming important leaders in the future, which would be a symbolic coup,” he writes.
To sum all that up, despite the intensive counter-insurgency campaign in the Taliban’s heartland in the south, the movement’s demands for political power remain high. The Taliban is increasing its presence in the north. And in the east, international jihadis are carving out a new sanctuary, expanding out from their original bases in the tribal areas of Pakistan. If all those reports prove to be correct, or even some of them, you could argue that the position of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan is getting worse, rather than better, as it prepares to start gradually withdrawing troops.
I first wrote in early 2009 about how regional experts were saying the United States should hold negotiations with the Taliban to reach a political settlement. Many others must have done so before that. Now that the United States has embarked on those talks, rather than asking whether they offer a way out of the war, perhaps we also need to ask another less palatable question. Have they left it too late?