The debate about negotiating with the Taliban as a means to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan has become as tedious as its practice has been unfruitful. While the US is gearing up for withdrawal, the Taliban is adamant about introducing Sharia law. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is reluctant to sign a security pact with the US, out of a desire for an Afghan-led process with no outside intervention.
The Taliban suspended talks with the Americans in February, while denying any participation in the Dubai discussions on a prisoner exchange. The US is threatening to withdraw troops in full from Afghanistan by the end of this year if the security pact is not signed—now a running bilateral sore. Although the US has reportedly reduced drone strikes in Pakistan to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban, it is looking at other Asian bases for drones after its withdrawal. This scenario seems unpromising.
The conflict in Afghanistan is becoming more complex by the day, beyond its serious regional ramifications to an international dimension, with fear of a simmering global jihad rising in the West. This dictates the US resistance to a purely Afghan-led process, contrary to the view of the regional players: China, India and Pakistan. While their regional balancing may lead to greater co-operation on Afghanistan, it does not dispose of the rivalries among the trio. The violent conflict in Afghanistan is more a Clausewitzian continuation of politics by other means, with each party seeking to bargain from a position of strength.
Taliban upping the ante
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the number of casualties and civilian deaths last year returned to the level of 2011, after a dip in 2012. The Afghan Analysts Network attributes 74% of the deaths to the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The Taliban has furthered its offensive in Kabul, in an attempt to drive out the West and dictate terms in resolving the conflict.
There are operational and ideological differences between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The former restricts its targets to the Pakistani state and is more a creation of al-Qaeda, whereas the latter is under the leadership of Mullah Omar and all its activities are directed against Kabul and the West, with none on the eastern side of the Durand Line. Thus Pakistan does not really consider the Afghan Taliban as its enemy but remains apprehensive about the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has stoked sectarian violence through its Sunni affiliate Lashkar-I-Jhangavi, in Balochistan, Karachi and Peshawar.
The Pakistani army launched air strikes in North and South Waziristan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area in February, reportedly with foreign militants among the dead, in an effort to drive al-Qaeda and its franchises out of Pakistan. This happened only a week after talks with the TTP were suspended as violence escalated. On any dispassionate assessment, Pakistan is descending into chaos and is almost on the verge of collapse.
The bilateral relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan has become estranged, especially after the assassination in 2011 of the former Afghan president Badruddin Rabbani, purportedly by the militant Haqqani network. Nevertheless, such warlords comprise six out of 11 candidates for the presidential elections on April 5th, the tradition of warlordism linked to tribal loyalties.
Any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan would have to indulge warlords reportedly associated with serious human-rights violations, many having participated in the country’s civil war. A recent suicide attack claimed by the insurgent group Hizb-i-Islami bears testimony to their re-emergence after a fairly long hiatus. Warlords were able to sustain their power during the prior Taliban rule because of funding received from the US—which may explain why a Loya Jirga approved the US security pact. The Taliban meanwhile is a loose and fragmented organisation, while there are rebel groups who contest control over land on both sides of the Durand Line.
Beyond the Durand Line
After the 1978 Soviet invasion, the political landscape in Afghanistan underwent a transformation which wreaked havoc on its fragile democracy. The political parties transformed into resistance organisations predominantly based in Iran and Pakistan, ethno-politically and linguistically segregated.
On any dispassionate assessment, Pakistan is descending into chaos and is almost on the verge of collapse.
Pakistan meanwhile faces growing tensions with its predominantly Shia neighbour. The firing of rockets by Iranian border forces into Pakistani territory in December threatened very serious repercussions. And the recent capture of Iranian guards by rebels at the border was followed by an attack on the Iranian consulate in north-west Pakistan, with responsibility claimed by a TTP affiliate.
With the focus on the Pakistan Taliban, little if any attention has been given to the war in Balochistan, which has entailed grave human-rights violations equating to crimes against humanity. Pakistan believes India is supporting the secessionist insurgency as does India conversely vis-à-vis Kashmir, where the Indian army also fears infiltration by Taliban militants. Easing the tensions between these two countries would definitely assist a peaceful transition in Afghanistan. Indeed, without securing a safe future for the beleaguered minorities in the region, any political settlement in Afghanistan would not be viable.
In such a complex scenario, however, it would be foolish to believe a deal with the Taliban would turn the trick.