Talking with Taliban
03 June, 2013
By Imran Malik
The AfPak Region (APR) is anticipating massive change. All regional players, to include the allies (US, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Taliban (al-Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, TTP and other affiliates), are trying to mould the emerging strategic environment to suit their respective interests. The contours of the belligerents' strategies are gradually becoming discernible. The allies apparently want to "determine, dictate and control the pace and direction of the emerging change in the APR come December 2014."
The Taliban, on the other hand, are likely to persist with their primary aim of carving out an Islamic Emirate from within the APR, as a prelude to the ultimate aim of recreating a universal Khilafat. In the run up to the US/Nato/Isaf egress, they are likely to view Afghanistan and Pakistan as two separate fronts and deal with them piecemeal; that is, to 'hold' one front, while 'dealing' with the other conclusively and then reversing the process. It would translate into 'holding' the Pakistan front first by embroiling it in long interminable negotiations, while they consolidate power in the post-US/Nato/Isaf Afghanistan. That done they are likely to turn back to the real prize in the region - nuclear Pakistan - and go for its jugular. Negotiations at this stage could be a ploy. However, before we embark on the treacherous road to negotiating the Taliban some dimensions need consideration.
The Talks: (If held) between myriad terrorist groups and the allies individually could create confusing sets and sub-sets and an endless merry-go-round. The most practical course of action would be for the US-led allies to announce a 'combined' team to meet a similar Afghan Taliban-led 'combined' team comprising 'all' groups. All dissenting terrorist groups would need to be isolated, 'fixed' and reduced piecemeal by the allied forces, later. The Taliban too would have to ostracise such mavericks. The belligerents will first need to decide upon a minimum acceptable agenda and the methodology of the negotiations. Will these be direct talks or will credible and mutually acceptable arbitrators and guarantors be required? Most critically, will the two sides meet and discuss issues as equals, or with one side or the other having an imposing ascendancy over the other? The allies will have to find, create and exploit subtle but effective leverages. Iran, China and Russia should get involved at a later stage to make it a credible regional exercise. The Global Dimension: As a prelude to creating the right strategic environment, the APR and the Taliban must be isolated from the rest of the world.
An impenetrable ring must be thrown around the APR through which no funds, no terrorists, no arms and munitions, and no information, intelligence or communications be allowed. The Regional Dimension: Tackling the Taliban cannot be seen in isolation as a US, Afghanistan or Pakistan specific problem. It is a regional issue with global dimensions and the allies must approach it collectively with a comprehensive regional counter-terrorism (CT) policy with unified objectives. Counter-terrorism streams of their respective national security policies should converge and constitute the building blocks of the said regional CT policy. Such a united and collective approach alone will give them stronger leverages and superior bargaining positions.The Governance Dimension: There are basic differences in the interpretations of some fundamental Islamic injunctions between the two belligerents; in particular on governance, suicide bombings, sedition et al.
So what form of governance will the two sides finally agree to? Will the Taliban give up their beliefs in the Islamic form of government that is Khilafat and submit to the "decadent exploitative Western democratic system?" Were they to readily agree to such a basic paradigm shift in their beliefs that would tantamount to their entire struggle having been in vain! Is that likely?
The Legal Dimension: The Taliban are likely to push for a universal amnesty and a condoning of all their treacheries, atrocities, murders and, above all, their unforgivable crime of sedition. Will they agree to a trade-off between amnesty and a submission to the constitution and the laws of Pakistan? Will they accept a man-made constitution and give up their strong beliefs in divine canons, laws, justice and governance; quite unlikely. Unless the negotiations can bring about such a fundamental paradigm shift in their belief calculus, it will remain an exercise in futility. Furthermore, there will be the sticking point of their incarcerated colleagues and the foreign fighters. All need to be brought to justice. Will the Taliban agree to that?
The Leverage Dimension: The Taliban will want the souls of Afghanistan and Pakistan in return for practically nothing. They are unlikely to give up their ambitious plans for a universal Khilafat. And anything short of that should be of no interest to the allies because unless the terrorists' strategic direction undergoes a basic paradigm change, the overall effect will be next to nothing. At the moment, neither side has any imposing or dominant leverage with which it can force its will onto the other. Religious, economical, financial, military and political leverages will have to be found or created. It is imperative that the allies negotiate 'only' from a distinctly advantageous position.
The Taliban offer for talks was quite intriguing in the first place. It did not seem logical. It goes against their grain, their basic beliefs and their ultimate aim of recreating a universal Khilafat. These parleys, if successful, would require one side to give in; either the Taliban would give up their struggle or the allies would condone their atrocities and cede territory to them. Neither is likely. It will be an obvious stalemate; towards what end then? Could it be that the Taliban are seeking an operational pause; buying time for rest, regrouping, rearming and repositioning for the manoeuvre into the anticipated power vacuum in Afghanistan? The allies strength will lie in the regional approach to negotiations. Regardless of Taliban's intentions, they must make a genuine collective effort for talks and peace - without lowering their guard. In the final analysis, the allies might end up negotiating the Taliban, rather than negotiating with them.
The writer is a retired brigadier and a former defence attaché to Australia and New Zealand. Currently, he is on the faculty of NUST (NIPCONS).