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Will the Taliban opt for peace?
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
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For the past 35 years Pakistan protected, housed and fed Afghans fleeing wars, occupation and civil strife. Unlike the Iranians, who confined them to camps and strictly policed their movement, Pakistan offered them a hundred other freedoms, such as the freedom of its land, access to schools and colleges etc. In fact, it treated them as part of its national family.
That is not to say that it should have behaved differently but to point out that it acted selflessly, notwithstanding the strain the influx of 3-5 million Afghan refugees placed on its infrastructure and the social fabric of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
I was stunned therefore that educated Afghans and, in particular, those who attend international seminars and conferences openly denigrate Pakistan, challenge its existence, as their forefathers did when they voted against Pakistan’s membership of the UN, and claimed that all of Pakistan up to Attock rightfully belonged to Afghanistan.
I happened to be sitting next to one of them on a panel discussion in Tangier, in 2010, when he repeated this claim. So I reminded him it was King Abdur Rahman of Afghanistan who had conceded the Asmar Valley and an area of Kafiristan that went with it to Sir Mortimer Durand, in return for a raise in the subsidy the British paid him by 50 percent to 1.8 million rupees, and the right to sell brandy and opium in India. “A deal is a deal”, I stressed, “or else the French could reclaim Louisiana from America and we would have to redraw the map of the world.”
Animated criticism of Pakistan by these mostly Dari-speaking Pakhtun Kabul dwellers and Tajiks, contrasts sharply with their muted and perfunctory condemnation of America when it comes to incidents of rape and torture of Afghans; the murder of innocent civilians and defiling of the Holy Quran or urinating on the corpses of the Taliban by US marines. Even Karzai has more spunk than them.
Similarly, an International Herald Tribune (IHT) report states that the former Afghan defence minister’s son, who runs a trucking/security company, apparently bribes the Taliban not to attack his vehicles, one of this lot incredibly blamed Pakistan for compelling him to do so. It’s like the Indians, whose soldiers and police murder and rape Kashmiris and then accuse Pakistan of instigating the ensuing protests. It’s not surprising the Indians and the Afghan get on. They truly are ‘birds of a feather’. But, by Jove, if Afghanistan were to revert to fratricide this bunch will rush pell-mell to Pakistan for refuge. Of course, green card holders and other collaborators will be headed for Los Angeles and Langley (CIA).
Hence, when a former colleague returned from an international conference the other day, brimming with complaints of Afghan malevolence towards Pakistan saying he had been profoundly shocked, I suggested he calm down and join the queue of similarly ‘shocked’ Pakistanis.
Afghan history is a sordid saga, replete with intrigue, changing sides and playing one against another. We should have stayed away from Afghanistan. Instead, our fate is now intertwined with a rickety, medieval like kingdom- turned -republic that, for all its riches under the ground, has none above it, including leaders of stature. But it’s too late for regrets. So what of the future?
Scared by the prospect of a return to civil war Kabul and Washington are concerting on peace plans and one is already in the works. Called the ‘The peace process road map-2015,’ and authored by the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, it envisages an Afghan-led effort – “Afghans will be the engines of this peace track,” – with the US having an “input on a number of critical issues, including the terms for initiating negotiations”.
Islamabad’s role ostensibly will be confined to the transfer of Taliban prisoners to Afghanistan or third countries and grant of safe passage to prospective Taliban negotiators. Almost certainly, however, we will be tasked ‘to do more’, including interceding with the Taliban when progress falters since Kabul is convinced the Taliban dance to our tune. Of course, that’s nonsense, as those who have dealt with the Taliban on our behalf will readily aver. So there is every possibility we will end up being accused of being partial to one side or the other.
I recall the Italian foreign office asking me how could we possibly ‘allow’ the Taliban to blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas implying that somehow we could have prevented that outrageous act. “How”, I asked impatiently, “should we have bombed them?”
Nevertheless, the portents for peace may not be as bleak as they appear. True, getting two sides that are at each others’ throats to talk peace is a challenge but by no means insurmountable. The Taliban too are fearful of a civil war that looms if no political solution is found. There is battle fatigue among them too -especially the older lot who yearn for peace.
Current obstacles to the two sides getting together, such as the Taliban’s insistence on talking to the Americans and not Karzai, and Washington’s equally adamant demand that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution as the law of the land, can be sorted out. In fact, the Taliban have been dealing directly with Kabul regarding a political settlement through three of their most important financiers, Gul Agha, Amir Abdullah and Nasir Haqqani. And the Americans have been talking to the Taliban in Qatar about the release of prisoners without either appearing to be bothered about whether their respective preconditions for talks were met.
What is needed is a framework within which negotiations can take place and a clear roadmap for a political settlement sorted out. And if the ‘Peace process road map-2015,’ is intended to fulfil that need then, properly fleshed out, it could work. The Taliban cannot afford to antagonise the international community endlessly by spurning negotiations.
If they do, they may discover support for their cause waning within the movement, their supporters in Pakistan and Afghanistan and also with financiers in the Gulf states. Moreover, Pakistan seems emphatically committed to international efforts for reconciliation in Afghanistan and has no intention of playing the role of a spoiler.
That said, it’s not the fear of failure at the peace table but the exhilarating prospect of forming governments in the southern Afghan provinces in return for a ceasefire and a modicum of Taliban cooperation with Kabul that has roused the Taliban’s interest. The Taliban will give an arm and a leg to assert unchallenged sway over southern Afghanistan. It will provide them much-needed respite from war, the opportunity to take stock, reorganise and rearm and thereafter to consider their options.
But lest the Taliban think they can march on Kabul, they may have already discovered a great deal has changed since the mid-1990s. The opposition is infinitely better armed and stronger. Reclaiming all of Afghanistan, therefore, is not a viable proposition and an attempt to do so would mark a return of internal fratricide. Moreover, the Taliban’s opponents would be able to call on material and political support from neighbouring states and, of course, the Americans who are already there. Besides, this time Pakistan, having learnt a bitter lesson, will keep studiously aloof.
There is a good chance, therefore, that a more mature Taliban leadership, realising that Afghans are tired of war, and aware of the many benefits to be derived from the regional buy into Afghanistan’s economic viability, will curb their fighting instincts and opt for development rather than war.
That suits Pakistan because, even if the Taliban were victorious in Afghanistan, their proselytising instincts will eventually drive them to take us on. Preventing that and, if it occurs, defeating it should be our foremost goal. As for the Pakistan haters among the current lot in Kabul, by then they won’t matter.
The writer is a former ambassador. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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