Will Pakistan Play the Spoiler to U.S.-Taliban Talks?

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That the U.S. has been talking to the Taliban has been known for some time now — Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged as much two weeks ago.  A political agreement with the Taliban remains the key to securing a U.S. departure from Afghanistan, because the idea that the Afghan security forces will be able to hold the line against a gathering insurgency once the U.S. completes its withdrawal in 2014 is clearly a pipe-dream.

But while Secretary Gates insisted that the conversations with the Taliban were at a “very, very preliminary” stage, Ahmed Rashid — the Pakistani journalist who is also the most knowledgeable source on all things Taliban — writing in the Financial Times provides the most detailed account yet of the process. And he warns that revealing the names of participants and the content of their discussions could jeopardize the process, by exposing them to the wrath of al-Qaeda and others with an incentive to sabotage a political settlement.

“The talks,” writes Rashid, “are premised on the essential realisation that neither a successful western withdrawal from Afghanistan nor a transition to Afghan forces can take place, without an end to the civil war and a political settlement that involves the Afghan government and the Taliban, but also Pakistan, the U.S. and the region.” The Pakistan element of that equation may not be going so well, right now.

Western officials have told Rashid that the first face-to-face meeting between U.S. and Taliban officials occurred in Germany in November of last year, mediated by German and Qatari officials. A second round occurred in Doha in February, and a third meeting in Germany was held last month. The same group of participants was involved in all three encounters, and their focus initially has been on confidence-building steps such as easing travel restrictions on Taliban officials. Western officials also hope to bring the Taliban in officially to meeting in Bonn in December of all stakeholders in Afghanistan’s future — although the Taliban have not yet agreed to this.

Apropos President Obama’s insistence, in his own Afghanistan policy speech, that the Afghan government take the lead in any negotiating process, Rashid writes, “[President Hamid] Karzai has been fully briefed after each round and has unstintingly supported the Taliban’s desire to hold separate talks with the Americans, even as his government continues their talks with the Taliban at several levels.”

More intriguing, though, is his observation that “Pakistani leaders have also been recently briefed about the talks, although they have expressed some reservations about them.” Indeed, Pakistani officials have complained noisily of their country’s exclusion from the negotiations in recent days.

The reason Pakistan has sheltered the Afghan Taliban despite years of U.S. pressure is that the movement was always viewed as the proxy through which Pakistani influence in Kabul would be maintained, at the expense of India’s. (India has always backed the Northern Alliance, which provided the military basis of the Karzai regime.) Having invested so much in supporting the Taliban, Pakistan clearly expects a place at the table when Afghanistan’s future is being shaped — and to that end, it seeks the role of gatekeeper and facilitator to any political settlement. Also, it doesn’t take kindly to the Taliban negotiating independently of Pakistani tutelage:  In 2010, it arrested a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar, who had been in talks with the Karzai government. Pakistani intelligence officials made clear the arrest was a signal that they would not tolerate the Taliban making an end run around their Pakistani sponsors in order to cut a deal.

What’s interesting about Rashid’s observation regarding Pakistan’s limited involvement in, and reservations about, the current U.S.-Taliban talks, is that NATO officials are blaming this week’s attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on the Haqqani network in conjunction with Taliban operatives. The Haqqanis are the Afghan insurgent group with the closest al-Qaeda ties, but also have a longstanding relationship with Pakistan’s ISI.

Al-Qaeda’s interests in scuppering any deal are obvious: A basic principle of any deal would be that the Taliban undertake to prevent their country being used as a base for transnational terror attacks. The Haqqanis would likely align themselves with the more militant younger commanders in the Taliban skeptical of negotiations. And, if Pakistan is feeling sidelined in the negotiation process, those elements in its security establishment who have long played proxy warfare games across the border might see an incentive to fire a warning shot across the bows of all those involved in any rapprochement from which Pakistan feels excluded.

That’s just speculation, of course. But there should be little doubt that, as Rashid notes, a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan will have to involve not only insurgent groups defined as “the enemy” for the past decade, but also the key regional power brokers that have long played out their geopolitical conflicts via Afghan proxies.