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.
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.
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.
“The effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory—as the administration in which I served had to learn from bitter experience.”
The quote is from Henry Kissinger on Vietnam but you could just as easily apply it to the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan of aiming to weaken the Taliban enough to bring them to the negotiating table. And unfashionable as it is to compare Vietnam to Afghanistan (it was hopelessly overdone last year), it does encapsulate one of the many paradoxes of the American approach to the Taliban.
One of the issues that seems to arouse the strongest emotions in the Afghan debate is the question of when the United States and its allies should engage in talks with the Taliban. Some argued that the moment was ripe a few months ago, when both sides were finely balanced against each other and therefore both more likely to make the kind of concessions that would make negotiations possible. It was an argument that surfaced forcefully at the London conference on Afghanistan in January. Others insisted that U.S.-led forces had to secure more gains on the battlefield first.
If you go by this survey carried out in December by Human Terrain Systems (pdf) (published this month by Danger Room) the people of Kandahar province were convinced at the end of last year of the need for negotiations: (as usual health warnings apply to any survey conducted in a conflict zone):
from India Insight:
New Delhi said this week it will adopt "quiet diplomacy" with every section of political opinion to find a solution to the problems in India-ruled Kashmir about four years after it opened a dialogue with separatist groups there.
from India Insight:
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has dropped a plan to travel to Egypt next month where he was expected to hold further talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh following their meeting in Russia this week.
Pakistan's foreign office has said Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani will attend the summit of Non-Aligned Nations in the Egyptian city of Sharm El Sheikh although soon after the Singh-Zardari meeting in Yekaterinburg the two sides announced plans for a second meeting in July.
The debate about whether the United States should open talks with Afghan insurgents appears to be gathering momentum — so much so that it is beginning to acquire an air of inevitability, without there ever being a specific policy announcement.
The U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, became the latest to call for talks when he told France’s Le Monde newspaper that reconciliation was an essential element. “But it is important to talk to the people who count,” he said. ”A fragmented approach to the insurgency will not work. You need to be ambitious and include all the Taliban movement.”