Features | Security | Central Asia

Talking with the Taliban

As US-led forces engage in a major offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, commentators in Pakistan are still taking stock of the London conference and what it could mean for the role their country plays in their neighbour’s stability. Mustafa Qadri reports that many believe the road to such stability and security will inevitably run through Pakistan–and to the Taliban.

By Mustafa Qadri for

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.

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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.

Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has publicly ruled out negotiations with US-led forces until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan, a demand he has made ever since US forces invaded in late 2001. However, with the US building a massive new embassy in Kabul and an extensive network of military bases, it is questionable whether they do in fact intend to ever leave the country entirely.

But either way, there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest that Mullah Omar is actually more flexible than his rhetoric indicates.

According to Sultan Amir Tarar, the retired Pakistan military spy chief considered Omar’s mentor when the Taliban was patronised by Pakistan in the 1990s, he is ready to talk. Since last year, media reports have suggested that Omar has indicated the possibility of a renegotiation of the national constitution with other Afghan leaders (the Taliban considers the current one illegitimate owing to Western involvement in its drafting). Another demand is the integration of ethnic Pashtun Taliban forces into the Tajik-dominated Afghan National Army. But most significant of all was Omar’s statement last November during the Muslim holy festival of Eid, that a future Taliban government would not pose a threat to neighbouring countries, a clear suggestion that al-Qaeda would no longer be welcome.

For Pakistan, this has made disarming the Afghan Taliban within its borders even less appealing than it already was. For a start, Pakistani security forces have had to rely heavily on pro-Afghan Taliban commanders in North and South Waziristan to capture the main sanctuaries of the Pakistani Taliban. Unlike its Afghan cousin, the Pakistan Taliban movement has sought to overthrow the Pakistan state, an existential threat to Pakistan that has meant current operations have been aimed at eliminating this branch. Even so, the Army, which is co-ordinating operations (although much of it has been undertaken by the paramilitary Frontier Corp) has chosen not to expand the fighting into neighbouring tribal areas such as North Waziristan and other areas of the South, arguing any such a move would be highly destabilising. According to senior spokesperson Gen. Athar Abbas, Pakistan is looking to consolidate its gains in those two regions rather than open new fronts, because security forces are already ‘overstretched.’

Gen Tariq Khan, one of Pakistan’s most experienced field commanders and currently Inspector General of the paramilitary Frontier Corp, which has been heavily involved in counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban, echoes those concerns. In Afghanistan, US-led forces are expected to engage the Taliban in an attempt to force them to the negotiating table. If and when that occurs, Khan argues, it will be difficult for Pakistan to retain the sensitive ceasefires that enable access to strategic regions of the tribal areas and ensure that the Afghan Taliban don’t join the insurgency in Pakistan. ‘Pakistan can’t fight on all fronts [at once],’ Khan says.

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Yet such calls have created much consternation among US planners who still have reservations about Pakistan’s resolve to eliminate the Taliban and al-Qaeda aligned groups within its borders. The United States has scaled up its missile strikes on suspected militant strikes. In its largest strike to date, drone aircraft fired 19 missiles at a village in North Waziristan in an attempt to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, operational commander of the powerful pro-Taliban Haqqani network. Once an anti-Soviet mujahedeen on the CIA payroll, Sirajuddin’s father Jalaluddin was a key ally of Pakistan during the 1990s when it was scouting for a proxy to exert influence over Afghanistan.

Retired intelligence officials in Islamabad told The Diplomat that Pakistan has continued to maintain contact with the Haqqanis, but it has only limited influence over them. Shuja Nawaz, author of the seminal text on the Pakistan Army and a long-time military insider, agrees with that assessment. But Western officials remain deeply suspicious of lingering Pakistani links to Haqqani and other members of ‘the big three’ of the Afghan Taliban–Mullah Omar and Gulbaddin Hekmatyar.

This month, US Director of Intelligence Dennis Blair told the US Congress that Pakistan’s conduct of military operations against the Taliban were praiseworthy. But the Obama Administration has continued to pressure Pakistani leaders to widen their efforts to include the senior leadership of the Afghan Taliban, known as the Quetta Shura because it is believed to be based in the capital of the large and remote province of Balochistan.

Last December, Pakistan Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar finally admitted that Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura did actually exist after several years of Pakistani officials denying any knowledge of the Afghan Taliban leadership’s whereabouts. Yet Mukhtar’s glib assurance following the admission, when he stated that the Shura had been ‘taken on’ by security forces and no longer posed a threat, gave Washington little confidence that Pakistan was finally, truly cracking down on the leaders of the Afghan insurgency.

Careful Balancing Act

Already fighting a politically sensitive war that makes much of the population feel their government has become ‘a US puppet,’ as several local newspapers describe it, Pakistan’s security establishment feels it must tread a careful line between a belligerent United States and the on-the-ground reality that it can’t exert its influence over the entire tribal areas through force alone.

The murder by Pakistan Taliban militants this month of eight people, including three US soldiers, three schoolgirls and a Pakistani soldier in the Lower Dir region highlights the continued sensitivity of Pakistan’s special relationship with the superpower. Although the United States had been discreetly giving Pakistani security forces counterinsurgency training under the Bush administration, the deaths of the soldiers represents the first public acknowledgment that US forces have indeed extended the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan. The fact that it was disclosed through an act of terrorism has added further grist to the national rumour mill that sees hidden US hands in the violence and political turmoil gripping the country.

And in Pakistani eyes, at least, India adds a further complication to the mix. Although India has slightly reduced its troop levels in the disputed Kashmir region and spoken of a willingness to recommence dialogue with Pakistan, observers in Islamabad have been alarmed by its growing influence in Afghanistan.

In addition, intelligence officials are convinced that India has been involved in the spate of terrorism that has rocked most of Pakistan’s major cities and is co-ordinating these efforts through a string of secret bases along the border in Afghanistan. Regardless of the veracity of such claims, it is common knowledge the Afghan Government has developed close links with India, particularly in trade and development, closer ties reflected in a recent poll that found that 71 percent of Afghans surveyed felt India was playing the most favourable role in their country.

This wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by Pakistan’s leadership. In a series of public briefings, the usually media shy Chief of the Pakistan Army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, reiterated that India remained Pakistan’s primary ‘concern’ at least until the dispute over Kashmir was resolved.

Prominent TV journalist Talat Hussain says Kayani’s stance is not just posturing. ‘You have to understand, India has increased its clout in Afghanistan… [Pakistan] still faces a hostile army in Kashmir [and] much of the insurgency in the tribal areas has been removed,’ Hussain told The Diplomat. ‘If America leaves Afghanistan [other foreign powers] will fill the power vacuum.’

For Pakistani planners, that means supporting whatever power will minimise Indian influence over Afghanistan. ‘We want strategic depth in Afghanistan,’ Kayani said. ‘But we don’t want to control it.’

Yet in truth, Pakistan lacks the capacity to control Afghanistan, even if it wanted to. Like everyone else, its leaders are still taking this battle one day at a time.