By Brig Samson S Sharaf

The much publicised negotiations between Afghan Taliban and United States of America have suddenly run into a series of expected firewalls. Given the years it took to build such an initiative is not a comforting omen for many actors in the region. The apparent flurry of high diplomacy is but a miniscule tip of the iceberg that lies submerged with heavy baggage. The Afghan imbroglio loaded with competing and diverse interests, many years of confrontation, mistrust and memory leaves a much larger mass of discords and underlying motives submerged and invisible to the media. Speculations, time needed in determining policy shifts and disinformation would test the nerves of negotiators in a game of wits, leverage, concessions and invisible hands. It would be a disaster if these negotiations meet a dead end. But let us believe for once what Sir Winston Churchill said: “The Americans will always do the right thing…after they have exhausted all the alternatives.” The question is are all alternatives yet exhausted? It appears that this is the best amongst the unexhausted options for Afghanistan. What happens to Pakistan could be another story.

Apparently, the Afghan Taliban in assertion of their claim of legitimacy opened the Doha office with the name and flag. This was an embarrassment for Doha, regional NATO and US officials. This symbolism was aptly removed having made a bold statement that the present Karzai regime and foreign forces are illegitimate.

Secondly, the ever insecure and erratic Afghan President Hamid Karzai perceived the symbolism for what it reflected. Sooner or later, both sides of the conflict would be cajoled and some settlements could emerge giving way to more speculations and analysis. Within these negotiations will rest the future of Afghan Federation, Afghan National Army and the Karzai Regime completing its tenure in 2014. In likelihood, the negotiations will also involve the participation of Afghan Taliban in the elections, power sharing and role of Mullah Omar. This would leave little space for Hamid Karzai and throw up the advantage in favour of Northern Alliance and its leader Abdullah Abdullah.

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Thirdly, John Kerry’s postponement of a visit to Pakistan leaves many question unanswered. Is Pakistan actually in the loop is the logical question. Though the White House has clarified the issue, to sceptics, it appears a diplomatic nicety.  They argue that a country lumped in AFPAK Coinage has been ignored in the run up to such an important event with a token of acknowledgement inasmuch as the Obama Statement after the Abbottabad raid. Yet, in view of the US retrograde from Afghanistan and the crucial stability USA needs before, during and after the exit, isolation of Pakistan would be regressive. It appears that policy planners in Washington need time to evaluate policy shifts and be convinced that Doha presents the best alternative.

If the reportage on the Afghan Taliban in Doha is to be believed, they appear as simple, straightforward and well-meaning people ready to accommodate the interests of all factions within Afghanistan. They look forward to an Afghanistan at peace within itself and all its neighbours. They wish a prisoners swap, conditionally agree to presence of US forces and reiterate their firmness in not allowing the use of its soil by any force against its neighbours meaning Iran and Pakistan.

As reported by Guardian, Matt Waldman, a former key UN official in Kabul involved in promoting dialogue and reconciliation said: “It would be a grave mistake to assume the Taliban would settle for nothing less than absolute power.” In the same report, Anatol Lieven, Theo Farrell and Rudra Chaudhuri painted a picture of a pragmatic Taliban leadership around Mullah Omar. It appears that the chatter about Good Taliban emanating from Britain and its think tanks takes a neutral view of the subject but to remain non-committal, there are ifs and buts.

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Wahid Monawar, a former Afghan diplomat who has acted as an interlocutor told Guardian that though the Doha group was in some ways forward-thinking, they were also unworldly and simplistic “They need help, they need coaching by someone who can help them articulate their issues”. He remains sceptic if negotiations could succeed with serious hurdles of Haqqani Group, conciliation of Taliban foot soldiers and influence of Pakistan. In his road map to stability, Monawar opines that in case a settlement is reached, Afghan Taliban would not be averse to foreign presence in Afghanistan. Emergence of this ‘Good Boy’ image after two decades of brandishing them as blood thirsty mongers is a reflection of a mind-set.

This is exactly what Benazir Bhutto said in 1996 when no country was ready to listen. Taliban negotiators at Doha are reasserting the outlines of the draft on Afghan reconciliation they had conceded during negotiations led by the Late General Naseer Ullah Babar, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Najam ud Din Sheikh and Matt Waldman; then a junior UN negotiator. The Americans had walked away.

As negotiations mature, it will also be revealed that Afghan Taliban had no connection with Al Qaeeda and that Osama Bin Laden was shifted to Kabul from Sudan on the invitation of President Rabbani. Mullah Omar was ready to hand over Laden to a Muslim neutral country (Turkey) but the Americans refused. It was only after the raining fire of ‘gods from outer space’ with cruise missiles and daisy cutters that Afghan Taliban let go Laden in a battle of their own survival. If the clock was to ultimately come back to Benazir’s Plan of 1996, the question that arises is that had the world understood then, so much of mayhem and blood could have been avoided and so much money diverted to this impoverished region.

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Doha definitely belongs to Afghanistan and its Taliban. What of Pakistan that has endured years of self-crafted and internationally imposed misery? To many, the most dangerous variant is reverse fronts of AFPAK like the switching North Pole. As winter approaches and conflict in Afghanistan hibernates in frigid weather, lawlessness in Balochistan and Karachi could peak to engage Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies on yet another internal front. Many feel that this along with Pakistan’s economic plight could restrict Pakistan’s options on the negotiating table. Perhaps this is why General Kayani is pressing to bring a swift end to TTP operations in Pakistan?

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