Talking to the Taliban

By C Raja Mohan

Pakistan’s decision to free some members of the Taliban last week has been welcomed in Kabul and Washington as an important step towards a political reconciliation in Afghanistan and a major shift in Pakistan’s policy.

The move came during a visit to Pakistan by the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, headed by Salahuddin Rabbani. The council was set up by Kabul to reach out to the Taliban, but has not had much success so far.

Pakistan has promised to give safe passage to these leaders to engage in a dialogue with Kabul and Washington. The released leaders will then be free to take up residence in Afghanistan or a third country.

Until now, the Pakistan army has been reluctant to facilitate talks with the Taliban leaders based on its soil. In fact, the military leadership, based in Rawalpindi, detained anyone from the Taliban it suspected of establishing contact with Kabul or Washington.

Rawalpindi had seen itself as the principal channel of communication between the Taliban and the international community. Having invested in the Taliban for decades as the instrument to promote its interests in Afghanistan, the Pakistan army was naturally reluctant to allow the group to develop an independent engagement with either Kabul or Washington.

Relentless pressure from the US in the last two years appears to have compelled the Pakistan army to signal a measure of flexibility. The release of the Taliban captives is part of a renewed attempt by the US and Pakistan to rebuild bilateral relations after the turbulence of 2011-12.

Skeptics would say Pakistan’s move is a tactical one. They insist that Pakistan is playing a waiting game and its small gestures should not be seen as a fundamental policy shift.

They also argue that Pakistan has no real interest in losing control over the endgame in Afghanistan and is merely cashing in on the growing impatience in Kabul and Washington to sit down with the Taliban.

UN Sanctions

During the High Peace Council’s visit to Pakistan, the two sides agreed to press the international community to remove potential Taliban negotiators from the UN sanctions list. The sanctions include a travel ban, arms embargo, and assets freeze.

According to media reports, Washington, Kabul and Islamabad have already discussed a potential list of about 24 such names. Consultations are apparently on in New York to get the United Nations Security Council to act in the near future. In early 2010, some Taliban figures were removed from UN sanctions at the behest of the US, which decided to open a dialogue with the Taliban. The attempt faltered amidst differences on the release of some key Taliban prisoners from the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay.

Amidst expectations that President Barack Obama is determined to revive talks with the Taliban, Pakistan is asking Washington to show its good faith with an early gesture on the prisoners’ issue.

While the US is eager to send positive signals to the Taliban, it is continuing to mount pressure on the Haqqani network, which enjoys the patronage of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and army and is the main perpetrator of violence in Afghanistan.

Last September, the US designated the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organisation. Earlier this month, the UN followed through by adding it to the UN sanctions list. This approach is meant to clearly differentiate between potential reconcilable and irreconcilable elements among the Afghan militant groups.

Indian Policy

With both Washington and Kabul eager to engage the Taliban, the time has come for India to discard the old mantra that there is no such thing as “good Taliban”. Instead, India must formally signal its readiness to engage the Taliban.

To be sure, the Taliban has dismissed the latest Pakistani prisoner release as irrelevant. It refuses to recognise the Afghan government as legitimate and to negotiate with it. The Taliban says it is open to talks with Washington, but there is no betting they will succeed.

Any realistic assessment would suggest that the Taliban holds the key to the Afghan peace process. An Indian engagement with the Taliban does not mean a political endorsement of its ideology or worldview. Finding a way to talk to the Taliban must necessarily be a part of Delhi’s Afghan policy mix.

This article was originally published by The Indian Express

21 November 2012