Peace with the Taliban


Even as the American troop surge is underway in Afghanistan, sensible minds have increasingly accepted that restoring peace in Afghanistan will require negotiating peace with the Taliban. The US defence secretary has acknowledged that the Taliban are “part of the political fabric” of Afghanistan. The recent London Conference agreed to finance a programme for the reintegration of Taliban elements. President Karzai called for reconciliation with them. Pakistan has consistently advocated this.

However, there is as yet no clear vision, on any side, of the purpose, process and content of a negotiated peace with the Taliban. Four major questions need to be addressed and answered: who is peace to be negotiated with? When should negotiations take place? How should they be conducted? And what should be the terms of a settlement?

Until very recently, the US felt that only the Taliban foot soldiers, who were presumed to be fighting either for money or from fear, ought to accommodated., With Karzai’s all-encompassing peace initiative, it is now increasingly accepted by the US-Nato coalition that negotiations will have to be held with all the Taliban, including leaders like Mullah Omar, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Gulbadin Hekmatyar. The two caveats now are: one, that the Taliban break their links with Al-Qaeda and, two, accept the Afghan constitution.

The McCrystal Plan envisages that negotiations would be held after the American troops surge had inflicted serious military reversals on the Taliban. The Americans’ belief in this strategy may have been revived following their reported “success” in clearing Marjah and, even more, the capture of Mullah Baradar, Mullah Omar’s chief of military operations, and several other Taliban leaders by Pakistani intelligence.

Apart from the military significance of these developments, they may also reveal the nature of the process through which negotiations are likely to proceed. According to reports, Mullah Baradar had opened contacts with Karzai’s emissaries. His capture by the ISI could well be a signal that no negotiations with the Taliban can exclude Pakistan. Kabul’s efforts to “repatriate” the captured Taliban have been blocked. In a clear signal, the Pakistani army chief has publicly highlighted Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan. Indeed, Pakistan is well placed to play a key role in negotiating peace in Afghanistan, given its old ties to the Taliban leadership, including not only Mullah Omar’s group but also those led by Haqqani and Hekmatyar. The captured Taliban leaders add to this leverage. Yet, despite its strategic position and vital interest in the outcome, Pakistan will confront considerable difficulties in playing the intermediary’s role.

Pakistan will need, first, to ensure that negotiations with the Afghan Taliban do not compromise its priority objective of subduing the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP), who have shadowy relationships with Afghan and Indian intelligence.

Second, a clear vision of a desirable and achievable outcome will need to be formulated. While both the US and the Taliban will seek peace on their own terms, Pakistan should evolve a plan that can prove acceptable to both sides.

Third, US acceptance will have to be secured for such an outcome. There will be resistance from militarists and other lobbies in Washington. However, the recent enhanced intelligence cooperation between Pakistani and the US may indicate that a measure of understanding may well have been reached regarding the future order in Afghanistan.

Four, it will be necessary to ensure that the negotiating option is not jeopardised by competing interventions from India or other neighbouring or regional countries. India has already commenced a diplomatic campaign to frustrate a negotiated peace with the Taliban, protesting to the US, playing on Russian fears of Wahhabist revival in Central Asia and, no doubt, stoking concern in Tehran. Pakistan will need adroit diplomacy and ground action to neutralise India’s spoiler role.

The parameters for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan so far set out by the US or Karzai are unlikely to be acceptable to the Taliban. While they may consider breaking their links with Al-Qaeda, it is unlikely that they will accept the present Afghan constitution, or agree to join the Karzai government, which is still dominated by Tajiks and assorted warlords. The Taliban’s minimum conditions are likely to include a more representative central authority in Kabul, with adequate Taliban representation, exercise of power in the Pakhtun-majority areas of Afghanistan and, most critically, withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.

Since President Obama also wants to withdraw US forces as soon as possible and the US considers the Taliban a part of the Afghan political fabric, a deal with the Taliban appears to be eminently possible, unless extraneous factors and forces intervene to prevent this.

A negotiated outcome could contain the following elements:

One, a US commitment to a withdrawal of all foreign forces, linked to a timeframe or realisation of certain benchmarks.

Two, a verifiable Taliban commitment to severance of all ties with Al-Qaeda.

Three, an agreement for the early cessation of hostilities.

Four, formation of a coalition or “national unity” government in Kabul–including nominated Taliban representatives–exercising decentralised control over locally governed provinces.

Five, transfer of power at the provincial and local levels to “Shuras” or Councils composed of tribal and Taliban leaders.

Six, acceptance by the Taliban of reconstruction and development projects, executed with local and, where necessary, external participation. (This can include re-imposition of Mullah Omar’s old edict banning poppy cultivation and Taliban acceptance of girls’ schooling.)

Seven, creation of a genuine Afghan National Army, with at least 50 per cent Pakhtun representation, including soldiers from among the ranks of the Taliban.

A political settlement along these lines is not ideal–far from it. But a negotiated peace, however imperfect, is palpably preferable to the alternative: a prolonged and purposeless conflict in which the central threat from Al-Qaeda survives.

The prospects of negotiating such a settlement are likely to be better if pursued earlier rather than later. The Taliban have suffered some tactical reverses and are under threat of the impending surge. But the McCrystal plan, once implemented, will inevitably result in intensified fighting and higher casualties, including among civilians. It will make conciliation and compromise more difficult. And, if, as is quite possible, the surge does not succeed decisively, the US-Nato’s negotiating leverage would be considerably reduced. The Taliban may then conclude that to win all they need to do is survive and wait for Western patience to run out.

Therefore, rather than pursue further tactical objectives, like Marjah, and the planned offensive in Kandahar, it would be advisable for the US and Nato to open early and serious contacts with the Afghan Taliban, utilising Pakistan’s intercession, to evolve the broad parameters of an eventual settlement. A negotiated peace will be good for Afghanistan, for the US and its allies, and for Pakistan and the region.

The writer is a seasoned diplomat.

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