The dangerous supply routes through Pakistan that this correspondent reported on last year have become a lifeline for international and national forces in Afghanistan. But, as last month’s London conference on Afghanistan’s future demonstrated, Pakistan is set to play a role that extends far beyond mere logistics.
At the conference, world leaders effectively agreed to begin preparations for an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan, with responsibility for the country’s governance and security to be handed back to the Afghan authorities over a five-year period starting next year. This in itself would be a major step. But the story that grabbed many of the headlines was one of the ideas being floated to help achieve this security–engaging in dialogue with ‘moderate’ Taliban.
Calls to reach out to these less ideologically-driven members of the insurgency are still understandably sensitive. But a look at the challenges in creating a stable Afghanistan gives some indication as to why such measures are apparently being considered.
At the heart of the US-led drive for stability is its surge of 30,000 troops and an ambitious plan to increase Afghan National Army troops from present levels of about 86,000 to 170,000, and to bolster its police force over the next two years. But meeting these targets will be a formidable challenge. Like the Afghan police forces, the ANA has a high attrition rate, with the US Defence Department noting one in four recruits quit the army last year. Another problem with the army is that few recruits come from the Pashtun heartlands of the south and east where the Taliban are based.
If coalition countries, which are under intense domestic public pressure to withdraw their forces, are going to address this challenge including through holding talks with the Taliban, it makes sense to turn to Pakistan. After all, the country has historical links to key Taliban commanders stretching back to the 1980s and the period after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when it sought a reliable client regime in Kabul.
Indeed, according to veteran journalist Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan’s army has already approached some commanders in the pro-Afghan Taliban resistance with bases in the lawless tribal areas nominally within Pakistan’s borders. Based on interviews with members of the insurgency, Shahzad claims that Pakistani officials sought assurances that, in the event of a US withdrawal, Pakistan is viewed as a friendly Muslim nation.
‘The key is to return to the traditional tribal setup,’ says North West Frontier Province Gov. Owais Ghani, a veteran Pakistani Pashtun politician who says that gaining the trust of tribal groups is essential. He adds that doing so will mean negotiating a ceasefire with key players such as powerful veteran warlord Gulbadin Hekmatyar. ‘He was paid a big price for protecting Osama, so there’s no reason why he can’t be bought back,’ Ghani says.
Gen. Tariq Khan, current head of the Frontier Corp, a key paramilitary outfit that has been spearheading Pakistan’s counterinsurgency efforts in the tribal areas, concurs that many of those fighting US-led forces have no particular ideological affinity with al-Qaeda, and he says he believes the insurgency is in fact a direct response to the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
He also believes that it is inevitable that the Taliban will play some role in Kabul’s political future. ‘(The Afghan Taliban) will keep fighting until they find a way back into power,’ he says.