Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
According to Steve Coll in the New Yorker, the United States has begun its first direct talks with the Taliban to see whether it is possible to reach a political settlement to the Afghan war. He writes that after the Sept. 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington the United States rejected direct talks with Taliban leaders, on the grounds that they were as much to blame for terrorism as Al Qaeda. However, last year, he says, a small number of officials in the Obama administration—among them the late Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan—argued that it was time to try talking to the Taliban again.
“Holbrooke’s final diplomatic achievement, it turns out, was to see this advice accepted. The Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, several people briefed about the talks told me last week. The discussions are continuing; they are of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation.”
I had heard the same thing some time ago — from an official source who follows Afghanistan closely – that the Americans and the Taliban were holding face-to-face talks for the first time. He said the talks were not yet ”at a decision-making level” but involved Taliban representatives who would report back to the leadership. There has been no official confirmation.
And given that the idea of holding talks with the Taliban has been on the diplomatic agenda for a year, you would probably expect to see the various parties involved in the conflict sounding each other out – though diplomats say that in the first half of last year it was hard to get negotiations moving without the direct involvement of the Americans. By the second half of 2010 the Americans had given greater endorsement to talks, leading — according to the source I spoke to — to direct talks beginning towards the end of the year.
Buried in the Washington Post story on Marc Grossman taking over as the new U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are some interesting references to the possible departure of U.S. commander General David Petraeus.
“… virtually the entire U.S. civilian and military leadership in Afghanistan is expected to leave in the coming months, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the embassy’s other four most senior officials, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led international coalition, and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day military operations there,” it says.
The Afghan Taliban would be ready to break with al Qaeda in order to reach a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war, and to ensure Afghanistan is not used as a base for international terrorism, according to a report by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, released by New York University.
It says that the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda was strained both before and after the September 11 2001 attacks, partly because of their very different ideological roots. Al Qaeda grew out of militant Islamism in the Middle East, notably in Egypt, which — when fused with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan — created its own view of global jihad. Taliban leaders grew up in rural southern Afghanistan, isolated from world events. Many were too young to play a big role in the Afghan jihad, and had no close ties to al Qaeda until after they took power in 1996.
The New York Times has an intriguing story about the sourcing for a report that did the rounds last week saying that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rushed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar to Karachi last week after he suffered a heart attack. (h/t Five Rupees)
To recap, the Washington Post said last week that a private intelligence network, the Eclipse Group, had reported that Mullah Omar had a heart attack on Jan. 7 and was treated for several days in a Karachi hospital with the help of the ISI.
Not too long ago, you could have predicted relatively easily how regional rivalries would play out in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia would line up alongside Pakistan while Iran and India would coordinate their policies to curb the influence of their main regional rivals.
But that pattern has been shifting for a while — the row over Indian oil payments to Iran is if anything a continuation of that shift rather than a dramatic new departure in global diplomacy. And as two foreign policy crises converge, over Iran’s nuclear programme and the war in Afghanistan, the chances are that those traditional alliances will be dented further. It is no longer a safe bet to assume that rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran will fit neatly into Pakistan-India hostility so that the four countries fall easily into two opposing camps come any final showdown over Afghanistan.
U.S. pressure on Pakistan has always led to deep resentment within the Pakistan Army, which has taken heavy casualties of its own fighting Pakistani Taliban militants on its side of the border with Afghanistan. But there are signs that this resentment is now spiralling in dangerously unpredictable ways.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency has denied it was responsible for revealing the name of a senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official in Pakistan, forcing him to flee the country after threats to his life. But the suspicion lingers that the ISI, which falls under the control of the Pakistan Army, is flexing its muscles in response to U.S. pressure.
A group of academics, journalists and NGO workers have published an open letter to President Barack Obama appealing to him to support direct negotiations with the Taliban leadership.
The letter argues that the situation on the ground on Afghanistan is much worse than a year ago. “With Pakistan’s active support for the Taliban, it is not realistic to bet on a military solution,” it says.
Pakistan 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.
from Afghan Journal:
At about the time WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, including one related to a secret attempt to remove enriched uranium from a Pakistani research reactor, a top Pakistani military official held a briefing for journalists that focused on U.S.-Pakistan ties.
Dawn's Cyril Almeida has written a piece based on the officer's comments made on the condition of anonymity, and they offer the closest glimpse you can possibly get of the troubled ties between the allies.
The question of whether the links between the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda can be broken has been discussed at length over the past year or so, and will be a major factor in any eventual peace settlement with insurgents in Afghanistan.
So it’s interesting to see this post by Alex Strick van Linschoten highlighting what he calls the first semi-official acknowledgement from a Talib – former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef - of Osama bin Laden’s involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.