Co-opting Taliban: Pakistan’s New Deal for Afghanistan
Weekly Pulse
September 15-21, 2006
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11/2001, Pakistan did take a U-turn on Taliban. But it had done so reluctantly. For weeks after terrorist attacks on the United States, Islamabad tried to influence moderate elements in the Taliban leadership to make a realistic compromise on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement in a bid to avert the likely downfall of the Taliban regime in Kabul at the hands of a US-led military attack on Afghanistan.

It was only after Taliban hardliners, led by Emir-ul-Momineen Mulla Umar, refused to compromise to hand over al-Qaeda leadership to the United States for terrorist trial that Pakistan was left with no choice but to assist the US-led military coalition and its traditionally anti-Pakistan Northern Alliance partners in the eventual toppling of the Taliban regime.

Now five years after the Taliban demise, Pakistan’s Afghan strategy has reverted to floating the same idea of co-opting moderate Taliban in the governance of Afghanistan—where the fragile rule of President Hamid Karzai assisted by thousands of US and international troops is facing unprecedented resistance from Taliban and other militant Afghan factions.

The recent deal between the Frontier Government and North Waziristan tribal Jirga—whereby the former have essentially agreed to stop the security operation and provide material and humanitarian compensation to affected tribesmen, and the latter agreed not to host unwanted foreign elements and stop infiltration of terrorists into Afghanistan—is a model that Pakistan has in mind for Afghanistan. When President Musharraf visited Kabul last week, he urged President Karzai and Afghan parliamentarians to cut similar deals with Taliban insurgents in southern and southeastern regions of Afghanistan for the simple reason that the renewed insurgency in these areas, in his words, has “roots among the people.”

US Mediation

During his forthcoming meeting with US President George W Bush at the White House, where the American leader is also throwing an Iftar Party for Pakistani, Afghan and other Muslim leaders, President Musharraf is likely to stress the significance of “cutting similar deals” and making “harsh but realistic compromises” with the insurgent Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

On the eve of President Bush’s visit to the region in March, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan had worsened due to accusations and counter-accusations between Musharraf and Karzai, and it is most probably under American pressure that the two leaders had to come together recently in an apparent bid to remove personal “misunderstandings.”

While their interaction at the White House will be part of the same US-led initiative to keep them on board together insofar as the war on terrorism in Afghanistan is concerned and remove further “misunderstandings” between them, the Pakistani leadership seems to have taken an upper hand this time by floating an idea that suits Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and also makes sense in the wake of growing insurgency in Afghanistan.

As for President Karzai, despite so much international security and economic input that his administration has received in the last five years, his governing writ remains largely confined to Kabul and parts of northern and western Afghanistan. With towns after towns falling in the hands of insurgent Taliban in southern and southeastern regions of the country, the Afghan leader goes to Washington with an increasingly weakening position.

Scale of Insurgency

In the last year alone, at least some 140 people have been killed in suicide bombings. Last eek, the Afghan capital suffered its worst suicide attack since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001. Sixteen people died, including two US soldiers, when the driver of a car packed with explosives rammed an American Humvee near the US Embassy in Kabul. This was followed by the killing of Abdul Hakim Taniwal, the Governor of southern Paktia province. Even his funeral met with suicide bombing sponsored by Taliban, claiming the lives of six more Afghans, mainly security personnel.

For the last two years, some 20,000 NATO soldiers and a similar number of US forces in Afghanistan have faced an emboldened Taliban insurgency, with NATO commander Gen. James Jones acknowledging recently that the alliance had been taken aback by the scale of violence. After Friday attack in the Afghan capital, the U.S. military warned that a cell of suicide bombers in the capital Kabul was targeting coalition troops.

During the same period, on Pakistani side of the Afghan border in North Waziristan agency, some 80,000 troops of the Pakistan Army have lost hundreds of soldiers trying to combat the resurgent “local” Taliban who have been allegedly assisting their Afghan compatriots in cross-Duran Line infiltration and militancy targeting the coalition forces and Afghan security apparatus.

The reason Pakistan has opted for a political deal with the North Waziristan tribes is because of the growing perception, and fear, among Pakistani security circles that the use of military option in the tribal region was proving counter-productive and could become unaffordable especially in the wake of the worsening security situation in Balochistan after the murder of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti.

US Policy

The fundamental aim of the United States in Afghanistan was to eliminate the terrorist infrastructure of al-Qaeda, an aim that has been largely realized with most al-Qaeda leaders arrested with primarily Pakistani help and the remaining few, especially Osama bin Laden and his number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, essentially “on the run”, to use the popular Bush administration phrase, or hiding in the rugged mountainous region straddling the Pak-Afghan border.

The Taliban may have allowed the al-Qaeda leadership to use Afghanistan as a safe heaven for launching a terrorist assault on the United States in September 2001. The Taliban decision not to hand over bin Laden to the US and abandon his al-Qaeda movement, despite Pakistan’s best efforts to this effect for weeks after 9/11, may have led to their demise in November 2001. But this is an old story.

The reason the United States and its coalition partners, especially the ones that constitute the 39-nation, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan had helped establish a predominantly non-Pushtun Northern Alliance-led government under pliable Pashtun figures such as Karzai was their expectation that such an arrangement would eventually create a stable and secure environment in the country. With that not happening, and, instead, the situation turning to the opposite direction in a dangerous way, it should not be surprising that the US leadership starts to see a reason in reaching out to the forces of insurgency, especially if Pakistan guarantees to use its past influence to assure a corresponding response from Taliban insurgents if the Afghan authorities agree to Miran-Shah-style compromise deals.

After all, as Greg Mills argued in an op-ed piece in The International herald Tribune on Tuesday, “If the past five years of increasingly violent fighting in Afghanistan has proved anything, it is this: The Taliban and their allies cannot be beaten by military means alone. Yet it’s not solely about “winning hearts and minds,” either. Countering an insurgency requires a mix of military pressure, institution-building, reconstruction and development and international aid. But ultimately, the key to defeating it is political accommodation. In Afghanistan, that means talking to the Taliban.”

Even though such opinions are still rare to find in Western media, which remains critical of the Miramshah deal, terming it as a living proof of Pakistan’s state connivance with Afghan infiltrators and terrorists, the very fact that they have started to appear in the mainstream Western media indicates that there may be potential customers in the Western leadership of the sort of compromise strategy Pakistani leadership has started to float, or will predictably stress before the US leadership later this month.

“In power, the Taliban came to be loathed by most non-Pashtuns. But initially their efforts to restore security after the chaotic collapse of Communist rule in the mid-1990s were applauded,” argues Mills, adding: “With the recent upsurge in violence in Afghanistan, it is not the time to be going soft on the Taliban. But equally, the time has come for the West to take heed of one of the first principles of counterinsurgency: Know your enemy. They (Taliban), too, have hopes, fears and aspirations - perhaps not all in conflict with our own, or, more importantly, the Afghan government’s. Where common ground can be identified, political accommodation - and an end to the violence - may just be achievable

Nothing New

So, if after President Musharraf’s meeting with President Bush in Washington, DC and his second meeting with Karzai this month, the Afghan authorities on the asking of the United States start making their own deals with the forces of insurgency “rooted among the people,” to use President Musharraf’s words again, it won’t be surprising.

Back in 2003 as well, the United States appeared be willing to test the Pakistani idea of reaching out to the moderate Taliban as a counter-poise to growing Afghan insurgency. The US authorities did reportedly explore political avenues that ultimately could pave the way for them to withdraw from Afghanistan. Asia Times, a web-based publication, had then reported US official talks at the Pakistan Air Force base in Quetta with “moderate” elements of the Taliban, which had failed due to the US insistence on the sidelining of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Then came the formation of Jaishul Muslim, a formal grouping of lesser Taliban lights and moves to pry some of the more powerful mujahideen commanders from the anti-US resistance movement.

During the same year, former Taliban foreign minister Mullah Abdul Wakeel Mutawakil was released from US custody in Kandahar, where he had been in detention since handing himself over to the US in February 2002. Mutawakil has often been described in the Western media as a more “respectable” face of the Taliban. Shortly before the US sent troops to Afghanistan in late 2001, he reportedly had a major disagreement with Mulla Omar over sheltering Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

In October 2001, before the US-led war to topple the Taliban regime began, President Musharraf had publicly proposed that ‘moderate Taliban’ should be part of any coalition government in Afghanistan. During the time, Mullah Muttawakil had reportedly made a secret visit to Islamabad and offered to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial in a country other than the US without seeing evidence first. Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s frontier regions minister, had also accompanied Mullah Muttawakil to Islamabad. However, it was Mulla Omar’s will that prevailed in the end, causing the Taliban collapse.

The Bottom-Line

The reason why Pakistan’s proposal to cut compromise deals with the resurgent Taliban makes political sense is the fact that over time al-Qaeda or hardcore Taliban-led Islamist dimension of Taliban insurgency may have taken an essentially an ethnic colour. Radical Islamism may have given way to Pashtun nationalism. In other words, the reason for insurgency is not the popular appeal of a radical religious ideology, but a renewed spirit of ethno-nationalism among the Pashtun who inhabit the insurgency-prone southern and southeastern parts of Afghanistan.

Whether it was Afghan resistance against British colonialism or Mujahideen battle against Russian occupation of the country, the fact is that in each case it is the Pashtun, the majority of Afghan population, who have resisted foreign occupants or potential colonizers. The same factor may have been largely determining the Afghan resistance or insurgency against current foreign forces assisting essentially a non-Pashtun regime in the country.

The key rationale behind Pakistan’s proposal to the US and Afghan leadership to pursue a realistic and compromising political option in Afghanistan—just because the military option is not working at all and instead proving to be counter-productive to Afghan peace and security—seems to be predicated on time-tested notions such as the above.

It is difficult to foresee whether or when Washington will accept Pakistan’s New Deal for Afghanistan. If it did, then the chances of Afghanistan seeing a real peace may be brighter than ever. For that, however, the US and its international partners have to find a formula that could co-opt not just the insurgent Taliban or Pashtun nationalist but also elements from non-Pashtun sections of the Afghan population. Afghanistan’s future prosperity rests upon giving its ethnically divisive population due share in the country’s governance. Just as keeping Pashtun out is playing havoc with Afghan lives, keeping the rest out will start another round of ethno-centric warfare.