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April 27, 2016

How to handle the Taliban


April 27, 2016

So the Afghan president is signalling his lack of confidence in the much talked about Quadrilateral dialogue with Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s April 26 has sent us a message, from the floor of the Afghan parliament, that Kabul no longer seeks Pakistan’s help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table but instead requires us to use military means against Pakistan-based Taliban leadership. This comes as no surprise after the April 20 terror attack in Kabul. The attack, which signalled the latest Taliban offensive, killed 60 Afghans and injured hundreds.

Ghani’s statement essentially conveys also that for Kabul the core question is that of the Taliban. Like Afghanistan’s three-decade long deadly story of invasion, intervention, infighting and exploitation, the question of dealing with the Taliban is a highly complex one. While in recent years Kabul and Nato forces have deployed increased air power and invested resources in training and equipping the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police, there has been a significant number of dismissals and desertions from both forces – signalling that their fighting and intelligence capacities need to be considerable enhanced if they are to effectively confront the military strength of the Taliban.

For Pakistan any military choice concerning the Taliban must raise important questions. While Kabul and Washington have regularly sought Pakistan’s help in using force to militarily defeat the Pakistan-based Taliban, both Kabul and Washington have remained engaged in political dialogue with different Taliban groups, with and without Islamabad’s facilitation. The Ghani government retains indirect contact with the Qatar group while the former Afghanistan president has stated on record several times that he favours talks with the Taliban.

In a meeting with this writer late last year, the former president denied that he had anything to do with sabotaging round two of the Kabul-Taliban talks scheduled for late July. He said, instead, that he strongly supported peace talks with the Taliban and implied he had contacts with them. Other players on Afghanistan’s ruptured power scene, including former Afghan interior minister Umar Daudzai and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are in touch with the Taliban. Reportedly, an Afghan jirga has begun dialogue with the Taliban.

While there is harsh criticism of the terrorist attacks in Afghanistan by the Taliban and their allies the Haqqani Network, countries in the region have established and in some cases increased contact with them. Washington already has a set of demands from the Taliban regarding the latter’s prisoners, and their movement and assets – something Washington is mulling over. In recent months China, Iran and even Russia have been engaged in dialogue with the Taliban. Beijing in fact hosted talks in Shanghai before the initiation of the Quadrilateral dialogue and on occasion now refers to the Taliban as the Afghan ‘opposition’. More recently Moscow, through Tatarstan, has also established contact with the Taliban while also providing covert military and financial support to them.

There is no doubt about the military support that the Taliban manage from within Pakistan, but the issue again is complicated. While the Taliban draw a degree of military, material and political support from inside Afghanistan, the draw their physical and military sustenance from the shelters they enjoy in certain areas within Pakistan. Independent analysts acknowledge that the Taliban use weapons they seize from ANA forces they capture or kill, get material support, food and funds from locals Afghans and are able to treat their injured within Afghanistan.

While Pakistan has sections of the Taliban leadership as well as an unknown number of Taliban fighters based here, the influence of the group is circumscribed by several factors. Although allowing, and in some cases facilitating, Taliban presence in Pakistan, since the post-9/11 days when Pakistan handed over the Taliban’s Ambassador Zaeef to the CIA, the ISI became the Taliban’s major enemy. The paradox of the Pakistani security forces still allowing the Taliban to use Pakistani territory raised expectations abroad and ironically within sections of our own security managers of Pakistan being able to ‘deliver’ the Taliban to Kabul.

Pakistan’s 1980s policies have earned it across-the-board resentment from the Afghans who now linearly believe that we benefited from the prolonged Afghan bloodshed. The question then for Pakistan is if causing more Afghan bloodshed by battling the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) is a wise policy?

Similarly, if Kabul and other capitals are diplomatically engaged with the Taliban why must Pakistan become the ‘bad boy’ in the pack and be responsible for Taliban deaths? Also while Pakistan seeks the defeat of the TTP and recognises that the Taliban cannot return to Kabul to rule like they did in 1996, it also knows that they are far from being politically defeated within Afghanistan. Therefore, the possibility of some Taliban role in a future Kabul setup cannot be ruled out.

Is it then wise for Pakistan to be the one that kills the Taliban, thereby investing in ill-will within Kabul’s future likely ruling coalition? There are also questions of logistics and capacity in battling the Afghan Taliban on Pakistani territory. Are the Afghan militants based in specific areas? Can they be easily targeted to the exclusion of the hundreds and thousands of Afghan refugees still being given shelter in Pakistan? As Pakistan fights its own battle for reclaiming its own territory, earlier voluntarily ceded to terrorists, can the country open new battlefronts by taking on the Taliban who are obviously fighting their own survival battle?

Within Afghanistan, despite President Ghani’s words of anger and of presumed control, the political situation remains tenuous and highly fragmented. This emboldens the Taliban and does not inspire confidence in Pakistan concerning Kabul’s ability to deal with the Taliban and also as a stable interlocutor with Pakistan. The best factor in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations has been the current Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, Ambassador Zakhilwal, a former minister who enjoys the confidence of the present and former Afghan presidents. In Pakistan Zakhilwal enjoys widespread respect for his candour and his commitment to improving Pakistan-Afghanistan relations in all spheres ranging from trade and commerce to security. Zakhilwal continuously engages with Pakistan’s elected leadership and with security managers yet Pakistan and Afghanistan remain deadlocked on the Taliban question.

What then is the best way forward for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the Taliban issue? They must increase not abandon the recently begun high-level engagement between Pakistani and Afghan institutions and individuals that are on the frontline of influencing and implementing their respective country’s security policy.

Pakistan’s army chief, ISI chief and corps commanders have engaged with President Ghani and their counterparts through visits, Skype calls etc. Pakistan has suggested greater border controls, more joint intel-led operations against militants, and also shared with Kabul steps taken to ‘control’ and down-grade the Taliban. Clearly players on the Afghan power scene do not find the outcome of all these steps satisfactory.

While President Ghani’s parliament speech throws the ball in Pakistan’s court, we will have to yet again reach out to Kabul for cooperative security engagements. And Kabul will have to engage with us while remaining mindful of the problems that, while being facilitated to some degree by Pakistan, are intrinsic to Afghanistan’s organically linked power games. That is the only way forward for the essential peace that Afghanistan and Pakistan both desperately need.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra


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