Originally Published 2003-11-27 08:47:11 Published on Nov 27, 2003
Like the proverbial phoenix of Greek mythology that rose from its ashes, the Taliban is resurrecting in Afghanistan. The good news is that the ¿rising Taliban¿, on the one hand, is supposed to be moderate, and on the other hand, seems to have severed its links with Al Qaeda. The bad news is that it is still the Taliban.
The Rise of 'Moderate Taliban'
Like the proverbial phoenix of Greek mythology that rose from its ashes, the Taliban is resurrecting in Afghanistan. The good news is that the 'rising Taliban', on the one hand, is supposed to be moderate, and on the other hand, seems to have severed its links with Al Qaeda. The bad news is that it is still the Taliban. It may be recalled that the US or Pakistan did not have any issues with Taliban till it hosted Al Qaeda in its territory. The rise of 'moderate Taliban' thus once more qualifies to be in the good books of the same old bosses, namely, the US and Pakistan. 'Moderate Taliban' may be understood as a group of former Taliban soldiers who have now operationally de-linked from Al Qaeda and are more or less committed to the ideological aspects of the Taliban.

Recent statements by Afghan government officials and others involved in Afghanistan testify to the regrouping of the Taliban. On October 24 this year, Masood Khalilli, Afghan ambassador to India, said that Taliban fighters were carrying out attacks in Afghanistan from their bases in Pakistan. On November 13, Afghan foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah claimed that Pakistan is helping the Taliban to reorganize and that Taliban fighters move around freely in Pakistan. According to him, Taliban has concentrated in the Pakistani city of Quetta where they regularly hold press conferences and cabinet-type meetings.

Back in 2002, former Taliban deputy interior minister Haji Abdul Samat Khaksar had confessed during interrogation that elements of the Taliban and Bin Laden's Al-Queda had regrouped in Peshawar under the name "Al-Farkhan". Afghan intelligence officials have repeatedly claimed to have traced back wireless directives to Pakistan which were given to Taliban attackers within Afghanistan by their commanders as in the incident in March this year when members of a Red Cross party was shot dead in Afghanistan.

With continuous backing from Pakistan and sustained attacks in various parts of Afghanistan, Taliban has managed to take control of places like Atghar, Naw Bahar, Shenki, and Shamasi. These views have been corroborated by an October 2003 briefing by UN Under Secretary General Jean Marie Gueheuno to the United Nations Security Council "in many border districts like Khandahar and Paktika Taliban has been able to establish de facto control over district administration". Reports indicate that Dawood Ibrahim and Al Qaeda are already sharing smuggling and Opium routes.

The promotion of 'moderate Taliban' by the Afghan government with US blessings has become blatant and has increased in recent months. After a long silence on the issue, President Karzai said in October this year that Taliban leaders are in touch with him and have offered to stop attacks on the government forces. President Karzai's Chief of Staff Mohammad Umer Dandzai has confirmed that the government has been talking to Taliban leaders so that they do not go back to religious extremism. The mediator between 'moderate Taliban' and Afghan government is former Taliban foreign minister Mullah Wakil Muttawakil. He has reportedly been offered a position in the Afghan government. In fact, this attempt to accommodate 'moderate Taliban' into the fold is an old one. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has aired this opinion many a times. Colin Powell had said while addressing a press conference in Pakistan with President Musharraff soon after Taliban was thrown out of power in Afghanistan that 'moderate Taliban' would be eventually welcome to be part of the government in Kabul.

The Pakistani establishment has an explicit interest in the promotion of Taliban in Afghanistan as this currently is the only avenue open to them for pursuing their goals in the country. While Al Qaeda has been seemingly abandoned by Pakistan due to US pressure, Taliban continues to be their favorite. It is no secret today that while the US forces slaughtered many Taliban foot soldiers during the Afghan military campaign in pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda, Pakistan had actually bailed out many top Taliban leaders along with Pak army officers and flew them into safety in Pakistan. Pakistan's traditional rivalry with the northern warlords and their closeness with India have contributed to the Pakistani desire to reclaim Afghanistan. Pakistan's key to Afghanistan is tactical use of Pashtuns who are not adequately represented in the Afghan government. Being religiously conservative, Pashtuns, Pakistan rightly believes, would be sympathetic to 'moderate Taliban'. Moreover, the relationship between Pakistani army and Taliban is too deep and strong to be over anytime soon. Pakistan also thinks that it is the reemergence of religious extremism in Afghanistan, which the Taliban stands for, that can bring about a strategic bonding between Afghanistan and Pakistan and sideline India and other regional players.

The US has its own share of reasons to hobnob with 'moderate Taliban'. On the one hand, the US spends over $10 billion every year for defense purposes alone in Afghanistan which is difficult to be sustained for a long time. On the other hand, Iraq and Afghanistan are proving to be too much for the US. President Bush also wants to come out with workable exit-strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan before the 2004 presidential elections as he can not go to the people with fresh blood from Iraq and Afghanistan on his hands.

Moreover, the US aim in Afghanistan is essentially to have military bases for which it is necessary to have relative peace. Initially, the US thought that Karzai would be able to bring stability to Afghanistan. Now the US has started realizing that Karzai alone is not in a position to accomplish that aim. The US therefore is ready to ally with 'moderate Taliban'. The US move would also keep Pakistan satisfied and would deter the increasing influence of strong regional actors like India and Iran.

President Karzai, however, is in a fix. On the one hand, he is pushed to the corner by the US to deliver by way of stabilizing Afghanistan, and on the other hand, he is accused by Pashtuns and Pakistan for keeping them out of Afghan politics. Karzai might sincerely want to curb violence in the country, but Pakistan is in no mood to let him do that. Karzai gets no answers from Pakistan when he asks them to extradite those he thinks carry out attacks in Afghanistan. Karzai understands that if he does not accommodate Pakistan's needs he won't be able to stem violence. And if he can't stem violence, he will be asked to leave by the US. The only way, therefore, left before him is to rope in those who can help him get out of the mess. The savior, unfortunately, turns out to be 'moderate Taliban'.

Will 'moderate Taliban' make or break Afghanistan? It is likely to have only adverse effects. One, it will certainly annoy the northern warlords who have increasingly been kept out of power of late, and accommodating 'moderate Taliban' can also bring about sharp divisions within the government; further destabilizing the already fragile country. Two, given a free hand in Afghanistan, Pakistan will try to vitiate the country by exporting more extremism in order to outsmart India in the region which would once again lead to all-round disorder in the country. Three, by accommodating 'moderate Taliban' the US is repeating the mistake it made when it brought Taliban into existence. The US may see some worth in doing so for the time being but such tactical plans can prove to be strategically unwise. Lastly, moderate form of religious or political extremism is just one step behind full-fledged extremism and thus concessions to 'moderate Taliban' will prove to be a repetition of history in Afghanistan.
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