The message flowing from the London Conference on Jan 28 to pursue talks with “good Taliban” (by driving division within the Mullah Omar-led insurgency through a multi-million dollar Trust) has kicked off several questions because the “reintegration trust” as well as pursuit of dialogue is likely to further expose the region to multiple selfish competing interests and intrigues of neighboring countries – Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, China, regional powers Turkey, India and Russia plus international players such as the United States, and other lead NATO members.
Al Qaeda, a state-less entity riding a vague pan-Islamist and anti American ideology, of course, is the other actor in this arena, pitched against most of the regional and international powers – the common enemy, so to say, operating out of the Af-Pak region. This essentially means Afghanistan will remain hostage to the whims and wishes of all these actors – every one of them proposing its own solutions. But let us set these apprehensions aside for a while, and try to decipher the positive messages that emanated from the London conference.
The first message revolved around the realization that the over-bearing reliance in the past years has only further fueled the insurgency. The second flowed from the first message i.e. it was about time to deescalate the military campaign in favor of talks. The third message was embedded in the creation of the reintegration fund aimed at wooing “good Taliban” away from the battlefield. Here, once again, the western mind went wrong; it is up against a fighter who is acting and reacting out of commitment and not for money. And if the past is any indicator, all those who walked out of the Taliban ranks as “good Taliban”, they lost their relevance altogether. So, the approach of buying off “good Taliban” is as good as nothing. This, nevertheless, should not demean the intention of creating some space for negotiations.
Secondly, and interestingly, the post-London vibes that one gets from Moscow through diplomatic channels is one of welcome to Pakistan’s potential role in creating the space for dialogue with the Afghan Taliban.
Thirdly, January 31, the Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna indicated his country was willing to back efforts to seek peace with Taliban to stabilise Afghanistan. “If the Taliban meets the three conditions put forward — acceptance of the Afghan constitution, severing connections with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and renunciation of violence, and are accepted in the mainstream of Afghan politics and society, we could do business,” Krishna told the Times of India.
Fourthly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the lead immediately after the London conference in underscoring Pakistan’s importance by saying it should be more closely involved in solving the Afghan conflict.
“There will be no peace in this region unless Pakistan carries its share of responsibility.” For a comprehensive solution, “we need a much greater involvement of Afghan authorities and the inclusion of neighboring countries, in particular Pakistan,” Merkel told German weekly Welt am Sonntag.(Jan 31st).
“[It] is an endeavour in which there could indeed be constructive involvement by members of Pakistani institutions that are familiar with those individuals, or in some cases have dealt with them in the past,” General David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief told media on Feb 3rd.
Russian diplomats, on the other hand, also sound encouraging. Why should Pakistan not use its influence and act as ground-leveler, if not broker, if the international community so desires, said one senior official in Islamabad. Both Islamabad and Moscow agree on preserving Afghanistan’s sovereignty. They also support the regional approach ( six plus two).
Abdul Basit, the spokesman for the Pakistani ministry of foreign affairs, insists the contacts with Moscow regarding Afghanistan have been unusually good and forward moving in the past couple of years. He speaks of much better coordination and warmth in relations with Russia.
This synergy of approaches emanating from different capitals augurs well for all the regional players but only if they can divorce their bilateral or multi-lateral misgivings rooted in the past. This applies to both – the Russo-Pak relations as well as the complicated Indo-Pak relationship.
Diplomats from lead European nations including those from Great Britain, Germany, and Netherlands also acknowledge that given Pakistan’s
a) Geographical advantage i.e. common 2560 km border with Afghanistan
b) Leverage with various factions of the Taliban and Mullah Omer in particular
c) Lead position within the 57-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), and
d) Good working relations with China and the United States, and
e) Exceptionally good political rapport with Saudi Arabia (which has been hosting Afghan mujahideen, Taliban and other leaders including its proxy Professor Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf, an ethnic Pashtoon and the torch-bearer of the Saudi Salafi school of thought in Afghanistan), and
f) Friendly connections with another lead Muslim country Turkey.
Islamabad could at least try – if tasked by the international community – to reach out to the core of the Taliban i.e. to the mobile Shura led by Mullah Omar. Gulbadin Hekmetyar, Jalaluddin and Sarajuddin Haqqani are of course important but those familiar with the Afghan power dynamics know that Mullah Omar holds the real key to de-escalating the insurgency.
Suspicions, however, will accompany any role that Pakistan plays on the way to deescalating the conflict through opening of space for talks.
While Pakistan needs to build upon the goodwill the London Conference generated for it indirectly, well-meaning members of the international community also need to watch out that the dynamics created by the London conference is not scuttled by one or the other county; Afghanistan’s medium to long term interests must not fall victim to bilateral or multi-lateral state rivalries. In this context resumption of the Indo-Pakistan dialogue will also be very important because this may help the intelligence establishments of both countries to address allegations of interference through proxies (Balochistan and Kashmir are cases in point).
During the Pak-Afghan-Iran foreign ministerial conference in Islamabad middle of January, the Afghan foreign minister Ragneen Dadfar Spanta issued a passionate appeal when he said his request to all the neighbours would be to “please keep Afghanistan out of your bilateral problems. We have already suffered a lot and do not add to those sufferings by fighting your proxy wars on the Afghan soil, was Spanta’s message.
Spanta’s reference obviously centered on the Indo-Pak and the US-Iran rivalries that keep casting ominous shadows on the stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.
A British top government functionary also conceded recently that point and urged caution as Pakistan may embark on the path of talks. Balancing Pakistan’s own national security interests with the need to play an active role in reconciliation with the Taliban, without being seen as imposing its own agenda on the country, amounts to a daunting challenge.
International players also expect of Pakistan to “demonstrate its intent of helping in stabilizing Afghanistan.” In this regard, Pakistan military establishment probably did precisely that by first moving against militants in Swat and then South Waziristan in October last year. This context, and some forceful arguments by the army chief Gen.Ashfaq Kayani as well as foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi probably also helped Pakistan regain a lot of political space it had lost under General Pervez Musharraf.
During his recent Brussels visit, and also before that, General Kayani, kept telling his visitors including those from the United States, as well as members of the Pakistani intelligentsia, that the army would continue cooperating with the US-ISAF troops but only in a calculated and measured way. The scale and timing of any military campaign into North Waziristan would be of our choice and not of outsiders, sounds the message from the military high command. The army also keeps cautioning “ any military adventure into the tribal areas requires extreme caution and consideration for the future.” The bulk of the foreign troops will most probably be gone in a few years, leaving to fend for it and also to co-exist with the very tribes that will be hurt when the army moves against the militants nestled among them.
What Kayani and foreign minister Qureshi have tried to convey to the western alliance is to underscore the need for a balance between US-NATO short term objectives i.e. containing and eliminating the insurgency, and Pakistan’s long-term objectives i.e. securing the western border lands without offending the tribes that straddle this region, is of utmost importance for any durable success against non-state actors. This also means the language from Washington and other important capitals have to change. The constant demands of action against the militant networks operating from north Waziristan must give way to careful consideration of Pakistan’s constraints and long term concerns that are directly linked to the tribes divided along the 2560 km long Durand Line. Kayani and his colleagues believe that at least the US military establishment understands Pakistan’s constraints and concerns much better than in the past. The trust deficit seems to have been bridged, they believe. This will, they think, most likely help the Pakistani army in staying motivated in action against the non-state actors who are common enemies to Pakistan and the US-NATO alliance, they maintain.