By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
War on terror in Afghanistan has entered the tenth year and still the end doesn’t seem in sight. The tenth year has however brought a significant change in the thinking of USA, which has now started talking of options other than use of force and is apparently keen to end the war. One of the reasons of this change in thinking is the failure of coalition forces to defeat Al-Qaeda and Taliban.
Having pre-supposed that bulk of Al-Qaeda fighters along with their leaders have migrated to Pakistan, two-pronged efforts are in progress to isolate hardcore Taliban led by Mullah Omar. One prong is led by Karzai and the other by US led ISAF. Both prongs are offering inducements to moderate elements in form of share in power and other material benefits in case they ditch their leaders and agree with Karzai-US settlement terms to end the war.
Efforts to drive a wedge between Taliban and Al-Qaeda, to divide the Taliban and to win over moderate Taliban have been secretly going on since 2007 by USA, Karzai regime, the UN and Saudi Arabia. Two former Mujahideen non-Pashtun Afghan leaders Sibghatullah Mojadedi and Burhanuddin Rabbani who had fought the Soviet forces in 1980s and had served as presidents during the internecine war are also playing their part in reconciling with the Taliban.
These efforts assumed urgency from January 2010 in the wake of Obama’s decision to start withdrawing forces from mid July 2011. Karzai had become quite optimistic for an early breakthrough in view of his contacts with some members of Taliban Shura including Mullah Omar’s number-two man Mullah Baradar. In September 2009, CIA had reported presence of bulk of Omar’s Shura members in Quetta. After the arrest of some of Shura members including Baradar by Pakistani agencies in January-February, perceptions about Pakistan changed.
Both USA and Karzai started wooing Pakistan and stating that it was a key country towards solution of Afghan tangle. After some hiccups Karzai finally hosted a peace Jirga in Kabul in June to seek an end to the war. It was attended by over 22 notables belonging to different tribes and was termed as a success but no headway could be achieved as far as the main stakeholders Taliban were concerned. Smelling victory, the Taliban continued to insist upon withdrawal of occupation forces as a prerequisite to talks. Successes of Taliban and reverses of coalition forces made the job of harassed Karzai that much difficult.
In continuation to his desperate efforts to push forward the peace process and to arrive at a workable agreement acceptable to all stakeholders, he formed High Council for Peace (HCP) in early October under Burhanuddin. HCP comprising 70 members and its strength likely to further swell up in coming months is being projected as a high point towards reconciliatory efforts and also a sign of weakening of popularity base of Taliban. One of the reasons for some of the lower tiered Taliban leaders and fighters moving into Karzai camp is absence of direct contacts with Omar and his Shura members who are constantly being hounded and compelled to remain scattered and underground.
While the US has ruled out negotiation with Omar, Karzai has kept his doors open for him. However, Taliban leadership has little faith in Karzai since he is seen as an American stooge. Taliban have no confidence in Burhanuddin and Sibghatullah since both were part of Northern Alliance and had remained anti-Taliban. They view the three anti-Afghan since they are aligned with alien foreign forces.
Simultaneous to Karzai’s efforts, NATO commanders helped by CIA and other intelligence agencies, Blackwater affiliated with Afghan warlords and in contact with some Taliban leaders, drug mafias headed by Karzai’s half-brother are collectively offering lucrative packages to the 2nd and 3rd tier field commanders of Taliban and convincing them to defect and join Karzai’s peace initiative. Only those fighters are welcomed who agree to surrender arms.
High intensity drone strikes in North Waziristan (NW) and siege of Kandahar are meant to terrorize militant forces both sides of the divide and to make the fence sitters jump the fence. Besides excessive use of drones, propaganda war against Al-Qaeda and Pakistan and brandishing of decisive operations in NW and Kandahar are part of the overall scheme to pulverize Haqqani network and Taliban.
While two pronged efforts were going on in Afghanistan it was also propagated that both Gen Kayani and Lt Gen Pasha were not only trying to break the nexus between al-Qaeda and Taliban at the behest of US but were also busy brokering a peace agreement between Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani. A news item was circulated that the two top generals had arranged a meeting between Karzai and Sirajuddin in Kabul. Kayani’s denial has still not killed the story. This was yet another ruse to establish linkage of irreconcilable groups in Afghanistan with Pak Army and ISI.
Pakistan never had influence over Taliban even in hey days when both enjoyed very close ties. This is evident from the fact that former Interior Minister Lt Gen Moeen Haider and DGISI Lt Gen Mahmood had failed to convince Mullah Omar led Shura in September 2001 to hand over Osama bin Laden to Americans. How is it possible that they would listen to Pakistan which betrayed them and is continuously fighting US dictated war on terror against Taliban? On what grounds the Taliban should trust Pakistan that it will not betray them again? Hence tacit understanding and moderate influence should not be misconstrued with Pakistan having a sway over Taliban.
None can deny that Afghan issue has been complicated by Israel and India. Both are unhappy over the prospects of war on terror coming to an end and that too without comprehensively defeating Al-Qaeda and Taliban. While Israel view Al-Qaeda as the biggest danger to its existence, India feels that all its gains made in Afghanistan would be lost if Taliban return to power. Hence the ongoing hectic efforts of the duo to keep USA embroiled in Afghanistan for as long as possible. The two have already succeeded in persuading Obama to revise exit date of troops from Afghanistan from July 2011 to 2014. Based on the advice of Israel, Washington too is desperate to defeat Al-Qaeda. It is this wish which has complicated matters. This wish gives space to the conspirators to keep the pot boiling.
The US wants the Taliban to team up and help in defeating Al-Qaeda, forgetting that its senior leaders had declared in 2009 that not more than 100 Al-Qaeda operatives are operating in Afghanistan. The US had also confirmed that bulk of Al-Qaeda fighters are in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. This is not to forget that Al-Qaeda is very much active in Iraq and in Pakistan. If so, with its scanty presence, Al-Qaeda is not a threat to occupation forces or even to Afghan Army operating independently. In fact, since 2008, Al-Qaeda is playing insignificant role in Afghanistan since Taliban led by Mullah Omar in Afghanistan have become a formidable force to reckon with. Next in line are Haqqani network in Khost region and Salafin Taliban in Kunar-Nuristan, followed by Gulbadin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. Therefore, breaking of Taliban-Al-Qaeda nexus will make no difference to Taliban power.
While all these facts have become part of record, the US having realized that overplaying of Al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan didn’t click; it is now claiming that main base of Al-Qaeda as well as Osama bin Laden and other senior leaders have all bunched up in NW where drones are playing hell. If drones are accurately hitting white skinned militants in NW, one wonders why can’t they hit Osama and Al-Zawahiri living comfortably in two adjacent houses and other senior Al-Qaeda leaders or at least destroy their sanctuaries?
The US is also continuing to allege that Afghan Taliban Shura led by Mullah Omar is based in Quetta and that Omar moves between Quetta and Karachi. Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba are also being portrayed as deadly. These are ill-intentioned tricks to maximize pressure on Pakistan and are far from reality. While keeping Pakistan under pressure, the US is continuing with its efforts to divide Taliban, isolate the hardliners and weaken them to an extent that they submit to their demands.
In case the US is genuinely interested in finding an amicable solution to Afghan tangle, it will have to make peace with Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbadin Hikmatyar without imposing unreasonable conditions. Trying to divide and weaken them at this belated stage will prove ineffectual. Among all the regional players, Pakistan is the only one that can help in creating conducive conditions and promoting understanding and paving the way for a negotiated settlement. What is required now is prudence, wise and mature handling and replacing policy of brutality, intrigue and haughtiness with affability, sincerity and modesty. Acceptance of Iran role in peace talks by USA is a sensible step since its influence over western Afghanistan cannot be overlooked.
If Mullah Omar agrees for reconciliation, Haqqani network would certainly follow suit to end bloodshed. As far as Al-Qaeda is concerned, it has already made its main base of operation in Arabian Peninsula since its real fight is against Israel illegally occupying Palestinian lands, against kingship in Arab world and against American imperialism. It would like to shift lock stock and barrel from this region once a settlement to the satisfaction of Taliban is reached.
Brig Asif Haroon Raja, a Member Board of Advisors Opinion Maker is Staff College and Armed Forces War Coursequalified, holds MSc war studies degree; a second generation officer, he fought epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war, in which Maj M. Akram received Nishan-e-Haider posthumously. He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is lingual and speaks English, Pashto and Punjabi fluently. He is author of books titled ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, Roots of 1971 Tragedy’; has written number of motivational pamphlets. Draft of his next book ‘Tangled Knot of Kashmir’ is ready. He is a defence analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defence and political matters for numerous international/national newspapers/websites.