Saturday 20 February 2010

Pakistan policy change opens up new possibilities

In the three weeks since the London conference on Afghanistan, events have moved at a breakneck pace. The joint offensive in Helmand, involving up to 15,000 soldiers, is now into its second week. In Pakistan, a whole raft of senior Taliban officials have been captured; in the badlands of North Waziristan drone strikes have continued apace, in the process killing a scion of the Haqqani clan, while it has also been revealed that in early January elements of the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami met with Afghan government officials in the Maldives to discuss the possibility of peace.
Some, if not all, of these events may be related. What is beginning to emerge is that there is a possible consensus about a way forward through negotiations. The Western powers, the Afghan government, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, even Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah accept that it is possible to talk to the 'good' Taliban, providing the 'bad' Taliban - namely, those Talibs who continue to ally themselves with al-Qaeda and other Islamist fanatics - can be excluded.
The most important change - which should be seen as seismic in its importance - seems to be amongst the Pakistani military, which until now has been unremittingly opposed to a negotiated agreement between the Karzai government and the Taliban. From a Pakistani perspective, such an agreement threatened to bolster the position of India in Afghanistan, without leading to an agreement over Kashmir.
Pakistan's military and civilian leadership has always maintained (in private) that control over the mujahideen guaranteed it a place at the negotiating table over any final settlement in Afghanistan. If it was not happy, then the tribal fighters would be used to make Afghanistan ungovernable.
Several things have happened to make Pakistan rethink. The first and most important is that India was effectively isolated at the London conference. Despite having provided £1.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan, India's opposition to any talks with the Taliban was brushed aside. According to The Times of India: "The Afghanistan conference in London last week was a shocker for Indian mandarins who had hoped to muscle in and get a larger say in Afghan policy given the money and effort New Delhi has put into the reconstruction efforts. But what happened was that India got blindsided by the British swallowing the Pakistani line that Islamabad could deliver peace by negotiating with the Taliban." India continues to believe that a deal with the Taliban will mean a Taliban takeover in Kabul.
The second thing that happened is that the Pakistan military has realised that it can no longer protect its proteges in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, particularly in North and South Waziristan.
While it reluctantly agreed to launch the offensive in South Waziristan last October, it put little pressure on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and killed very few of its fighters. But that did not stop the Americans killing most of the TTP leadership in a drone strike in mid-January. The organisation is now decapitated and on the road to disintegration.
When the American Defence Secretary Robert Gates suggested in Islamabad a week later that the Pakistani military should mount an attack on safe havens in North Waziristan sheltering the ISI-backed Haqqani network, the very next day the official spokesman of the Pakistan Army, Maj Gen Athar Abbas, haughtily stated that Pakistan’s “over-stretched” armed forces had no plans for undertaking any fresh anti-militant operations in 2010.
This was seen as a snub to the Obama administration which decided to mount its own attacks, firing dozens of rockets from drones over the next few days. So far this year there have been more than 20 drone attacks in the Tribal areas. The pace of attacks moved up a gear after the killing of seven CIA officers in Khost at the end of December by a Jordanian suicide bomber who had been trained in Pakistan.
Faced with missile strikes that were increasingly targetted on important mujahideen leaders (and whose effectiveness was confirmed this week with the death in a drone strike of one of Jalaluddin Haqqani's sons), it is clear that Pakistan can no longer protect its 'assets' in the region and it therefore makes more sense to get the best possible negotiated deal.
Whether or not the arrest of Taliban military commander Mullah Barodar in Karachi is part of this new thinking by Pakistan is unclear, but the fact that more than a dozen top Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda figures - including two shadow provincial governors - have been arrested in the last two weeks makes it is hard not to conclude that a change of direction is underway.
Perhaps we can now begin to understand the optimism exhibited by US and British military commanders at the beginning of this year. Despite what appeared to be a dire situation, McChrystal et al were all very upbeat. They would have known about the events taking place in the background - the planned negotiations, the fact that both Hekmatyar and sections of the Taliban were willing to negotiate, the engagement of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the OIC.
Fighting is still very intense in Helmand around the strategically important town of Marjah, where ISAF has already gone to great lengths to explain it is only interested in killing foreigners and die-hards. Will the momentum towards negotiations continue? My guess is that it will. The main issue now will be sorting out how the Taliban's main demand - for the withdrawal of foreign troops - can be finessed or renegotiated.
Update: Afghanistan's TolAfghan website is reporting that another senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Kabir, head of its political committee, has also been captured in recent days.

No comments: