Originally Published 2013-06-29 00:00:00 Published on Jun 29, 2013
Pakistan has not given up its dream of controlling Afghanistan. It gives Rawalpindi an incredible reach and influence in the region and a legitimacy at home which has been under severe strain since the Abbottabad raid. The Taliban office in Doha is the first step towards such a goal. In that sense, the Doha office is a breakthrough for Rawalpindi more than any one else.
Talking to the Taliban
Early this week, there was a sudden flurry of activity in Washington, Doha and Kabul, and Rawalpindi over a swanky new office for the Taliban, an insurgent group tied to al-Qaida and scores of terrorist attacks and the death of several thousand since 2001.

Doha is not entirely new to the Taliban though. Twenty-odd Taliban representatives have been living in Doha, Qatar, for over a year now, waiting for the Americans to show up. In the meantime, they have been talking to every one who came with promises and presents - be it Turkey or the British or the Germans. They didn’t want to talk to Karzai. The Americans stayed behind the scenes. Talks with Pakistanis remained hush-hush.

All this while, the Taliban continued to target the NATO forces in Afghanistan, infiltrate the Afghan forces and kill American soldiers. There was no let-up inviolence - in the first four months of 2013, the Taliban carried out 2,331 attacks, much higher than in the previous year. About 2,240 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

The Doha office for the Taliban was not a surprise. Negotiations for such a facility have been going on for several months. The justification for such an office was that it would facilitate negotiations between various stake holders, principally the US, the Taliban and

the Afghanistan government led by President Hamid Karzai. Karzai was very much on board with the business of setting up the Doha office. He had his conditions which he made quite clear when he visited Qatar twice and during a recent visit to Washington to address a dinner gathering hosted by a think tank, Brookings Institution. He wanted the negotiations to be Afghan-led, the venue subsequently shifted to Afghanistan, and cessation of violence as one of the end goals. He, therefore, welcomed the decision to open the Doha office, like others in Washington, Islamabad and elsewhere. But the

inauguration ceremony riled him to no end. The Taliban raised their own flag, put up a board declaring it to be an office of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" and declared that they will use it as an office to negotiate with the international community, making it a quasi embassy of the erstwhile "Emirate" which they ruled from 1996 to 2001.

Karzai called off meetings with the US on the strategic partnership and said he will not participate in any negotiations with the Taliban. The Americans were quick to realise their mistake and Secretary John Kerry spoke thrice to Karzai to placate him. Kerry then told the Qataris to remove the Emirate board and the flag. Karzai’s stems from another major irritant he has had to live with - Pakistan. Many in Afghanistan believe that the Taliban action in raising the flag and putting up the board was inspired by Rawalpindi.

The Pakistan Army, headquartered in Rawalpindi, has for long been leading the reconciliation process - simultaneously engaging with the US, the Taliban and the High Peace Council set up by President Karzai. The Obama administration had outsourced the job to Pakistan after the May 2011 Abbottabad raid. The Doha office was a culmination of long parleys between Pakistan Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani and US Secretary of State John Kerry. For Rawalpindi, the Doha office has been the first milestone in achieving its short and long-term objectives in a post-US Afghanistan. It is another matter that Rawalpindi’s role and intent has been one of the two fatal flaws in the entire reconciliation process. The other is - the paralysis of decision making on Afghanistan which has been plaguing Washington since 2003.

Let us examine the US strategy a bit closely. It is quite clear that the Americans are today desperate to talk to the insurgent group which once harboured their biggest enemy, Osama bin Laden, for years and caused the death of over 2000 American soldiers since 2001. This is because the US has failed to defeat the Taliban despite a 12-year war and now want a quick exit. They believe that persuading the Taliban for a negotiated political settlement will make their exit a bit more palatable than an ignominious retreat. So, in their wisdom, they want the Taliban to settle for a negotiated political settlement before the exit concludes in December 2014. The US had effectively defeated the Taliban in 2001 when the insurgent leaders and cadre escaped to Pakistan. But then the Bush

administration chose to draw General Pervez Musharraf as a "non-NATO" ally into the "war on terrorism" and ignored Pakistan’s complicity in sheltering the Taliban and al-Qaida in the initial years. With Rawalpindi’s aid and assistance, the Taliban regrouped and regained control of eastern and southern areas in Afghanistan. President Bush then went to Iraq in 2003, chasing non-existent weapons of mass destruction, leaving Pakistan and the Taliban to return to Afghanistan. His successor, President Barack Obama spent agonising long months to decide on the troop surge in 2009 and when it came, it was too late and too little. By then the Taliban had consolidated its position with the help of Pakistan Army and the Haqqani Network.

The next two years were spent swinging between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, winning hearts and minds to launching Drone attacks. After the initial dip in violence, there was a significant spike in insurgent attacks and activities, signalling a clear failure to stem the tide of Taliban influence and violence. This forced a re-think in Washington - the fault lay with the corrupt and inefficient Karzai government; for a brief shining moment, fingers were pointed at Rawalpindi. Reconciliation with the Taliban became the new ’mantra’ in Washington, echoed in different other capitals.

There was only one big problem here. The term "reconciliation" meant different things to different actors in the parlour. The US wanted the safe retrieval of their men and material through Pakistan before December 2014. For Karzai it meant the Taliban giving up violence and participating in the elections. The Taliban dreamt of returning to Kabul and re-establish its Islamic Emirate. Pakistan wanted the Taliban to be in Kabul but under its control.

What complicated this web of conflicting objectives was a bunch of pre-conditions set by different parties to the talks. The US wanted the Taliban to give up the arms and give up its alliance with al Qaida. The Afghan government insisted that the Taliban give up violence and accept the Afghan Constitution. The Taliban, which refused to accept any of the conditions, set its own conditions - exit of the foreign troops and the revocation of the 2004 Constitution. Neither the Afghan government nor the US can accept abandoning the Constitution. It was against this backdrop that the Doha office was seen as a "breakthrough" from the logjam. Two things, however, marred the jubilation in Washington and Rawalpindi. Karzai hit back publicly at the Taliban deception in Doha. The Taliban fired at the US-controlled Bagram Airbase, killing four American soldiers.

What does these two events-the firing and the Doha deception-mean? The Taliban is not an entity which can be trusted. More treacherous is its patron in Rawalpindi. Both have forced the US to concede a lot without getting anything in return. Their collective objective is to ensure that Afghanistan steps back from the moderate political process in progress since 2001 and transform into another Sunni stronghold.

This is where the role and intent of Pakistan becomes important. Pakistan has not given up its dream of controlling Afghanistan - it gives Rawalpindi an incredible reach and influence in the region and a legitimacy at home which has been under severe strain since the Abbottabad raid. The Taliban in Kabul gives Rawalpindi the foothold. The Taliban office in Doha is the first step towards such a goal. In that sense, the Doha office is a breakthrough for Rawalpindi more than any one else.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy : The Pioneer, June 29, 2013

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