The vibes after the London Afghanistan Conference on January 28 are getting clearer by the day. The international community wants to pursue dialogue with the Afghan Taliban to break the cycle of spiraling violence . A multi-million dollar Trust proposed by British Premier Gordon Brown envisages ‘reintegration’ of the reconcilable Taliban militants. The presumption therein is that some 80 per cent of Taliban fighters are doing so out of economic need and that only 20 per cent constitute the hardcore of insurgency.
The same day, General David Petraeus of the US Central Command said in an interview it was too soon to hope for reconciliation with the likes of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar but said you “cannot rule out” that other organisations and mid-level leaders, potentially some in eastern Afghanistan, might want to end the fight. This strategy also aims at separating al Qaida, a stateless entity riding a vague pan-Islamist and anti-American ideology, from its Afghan hosts.
Essentially, amid the continuing coalition surge – troop strength’s likely to reach 150,000 by August – the London conference’s hope is that monetary incentives for ‘good’ and reconcilable Taliban will help isolate al Qaida, which currently uses the Af-Pak region as shelter and for planning and training for its anti-American agenda.
Will this work? The answer is both yes and no.
It might work as far as separating al Qaida from the Afghan Taliban is concerned. The loss of over 28 leading figures to the CIAoperated drones since early 2009 and the military operation in south Waziristan have gradually squeezed the space on foreign elements , predominantly Arabs and Uzbeks. Most of them had been hiding in the Mehsud region of south Waziristan under the protection first of Baitullah Mehsud and then his successor Hakimullah Mehsud.
On August 5 last year, a Hellfire missile brought an end to the terrorist career of Baitullah Mehsud, while in October the army recaptured vintage valleys in the region that both TTP and al Qaida had been using for terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani military operation coupled with continued drone strikes have caused huge disruption to the activities of these terror networks and the space continues to shrink on them. The CIA intensified its drone attacks after TTP’s Hakimullah Mehsud appeared in a video early January, sitting by the Jordanian doctor al Balavi who blew himself up and killed seven CIA officials at a base in eastern Afghanistan on Dec 30. The video basically illustrated the nexus between al Qaida and the TTP, and turned the latter also into an instant target for the Americans.
But as far the Mulla Omar-led Afghan Taliban are concerned, one has to bear in mind that even two earlier ‘disarmament and reintegration’ campaigns made no dent in the insurgency. The reason : unlike the British minister’s estimate, the majority of Taliban fighters, a rag-tag army of a few thousand, take up arms out of commitment and not for economic considerations. The ‘reintegration trust’ therefore may not work the way its advocates would wish it to.
On the other hand, reconciliation through talks may stand some chance of success – given the realization that the over-riding reliance on the military option since October 2001 has only escalated the conflict. In this context, attention has once again moved to Pakistan, with General Petraeus and German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggesting that Islamabad should have a more active and “constructive involvement” in reaching out to the Afghan Taliban to encourage reconciliation , saying its past ties to militants could prove helpful. “[ 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,” Petraeus said. As for Merkel, she told a German weekly, “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 neighbouring countries, in particular Pakistan.”
Russian diplomats in Islamabad also supported these propositions. Why should Pakistan not use its influence and act as ground-leveler , if not broker, said one senior official in Islamabad. The same day, Indian foreign minister SM Krishna indicated India was willing to back efforts to seek peace with Taliban to stabilise Afghanistan. “If the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution , sever connections with al Qaida and other terrorist groups and renounce violence, and are accepted in the mainstream of Afghan politics and society, we could do business,” Krishna told The Times of India. In this context, Islamabad could at least try – if backed by the international community – to reach out to the core of the Taliban i.e. to the mobile shura led by Mulla Omar. Gulbudin Hekmetyar , Jalaluddin Haqqani and Sirajuddin Haqqani are important but, those familiar with the Afghan power dynamics know that Mulla Omar holds the real key to de-escalating the insurgency, which provides a raison d’etre for Pakistani Taliban groups as well.
In the post-London scenario, caution becomes even more necessary; if the international community wants to try out the dialogue option, it shall have to lower temperatures by scaling down combat operations. Only then would the potential peace-broker be in a position to encourage the Afghan Taliban into talks.
One will also need to watch out that the dynamics created by the London conference are not scuttled by one or the other county, an apprehension expressed by the Afghan foreign minister Ragneen Dadfar Spanta. “I would request all neighbours to please keep Afghanistan out of your bilateral problems,” Spanta said. Spanta’s reference obviously centred on the Indo-Pak and the US-Iran rivalries that keep casting ominous shadows on stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.
During his January 9-10 visit to Pakistan, British foreign minister David Milliband also conceded that 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.