To gauge where the Afghan reconciliation presently stands has become a complex task. The process itself is quite confusing and there is no clear narrative on its various tangents. President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union focused more on the withdrawal timeline than the reconciliation itself. Similarly, at the recent meeting of NATO ministers of defense the emphasis was on how the alliance will support the Afghan mission post 2014. For all intents and purposes, the political solution part has mostly been relegated to the regional players, with other stakeholders assisting and facilitating.
In essence, there are three interconnected elements of the unfolding political settlement. One of them has to do with the American security and economic assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan after the withdrawal. The other components focus on the tense relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and how it impacts the talks with various factions of Taliban.
Different tracks of trilateral talks are underway to tackle the challenge of Afghanistan. The earlier attempts to sideline Pakistan have now been corrected. In the adjusted approach US, UK, Turkey and other NATO members are aiding talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan. For this purpose, recently a number of meetings have taken place in Paris, London and Ankara. Then there are the Gulf heavyweights of Qatar and Saudi Arabia that have also been facilitating talks with the Taliban with their own strategic interests in mind. Meanwhile, India and Iran are pushing their initiatives. However, Iran lacks Western backing, while in the case of India, Pakistan has been cautious.
Talking to Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan
As far as the talks with Taliban are concerned, Afghanistan is leading talks with the Afghan factions, while Pakistan is now gearing up politically to tackle the Taliban on its side. There is also the Afghan Taliban political office in Doha that has been a source of more confusion than clarity, when it comes to presenting Taliban position.
The Karzai government tasked the Afghan Ulema Council to spearhead dialogue with Afghan Taliban. However, the Council has an inherent challenge, the Afghan Taliban does not consider the Western backed Afghan government as legitimate. There are also reports that Afghan Taliban have adopted delaying tactics as it considers itself to have the upper hand on the ground. The dynamics of the upcoming Afghan elections and Karzai’s fate is also at play.
The delegation of the Afghan Ulema Council that visited Pakistan in early February immediately ran in to trouble with its counterpart in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Ulema, especially Maulana Tahirul Ashrafi and Sami-ul-Haq demanded the inclusion of Afghan Taliban in the upcoming joint conference of Pak-Afghan Ulemas. Furthermore, Pakistan’s Ulema were reluctant to criticize the Afghan Taliban or to issue any Fatwa concerning this. The joint Ulema conference scheduled for early March has now reportedly been delayed.
The arrest of TTP commander Maulvi Faqir on February 19 and the refusal of Afghan authorities to hand him over to Pakistan, has clearly established another thorny challenge between Pakistan and Afghanistan. His arrest from eastern Afghanistan validates the claim that TTP is operating against Pakistan from Afghan territory and the authorities there have now established a dangerous leverage against Pakistan. This tactics is not much different than how Pakistan has used Afghan Taliban.
“Islamabad says that there is no bilateral agreement on exchange of prisoners. Basing on this if you refuse to hand over Mulla Baradar (the Taliban deputy) then Maulvi Faqir should remain in Afghanistan”, commented Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Umer Daudzai after the reported arrest. This statement also negates the impression that Pakistan and Afghan authorities cooperated in apprehending Maulvi Faqir.
Pakistan’s Domestic Politics and Taliban
Since the initiation of the war on terror, Pakistan has floated between political and military solution to the problem of Taliban. To deal with the various factions of Taliban that operate across the loosely controlled Durand line, Pakistan remained under tremendous US pressure to act sternly against such groups, especially against Haqqani network that maneuvered from FATA. To deal with the issue, the country adopted a framework of good vs. bad Taliban.
Now that US and NATO have turned around to a political approach, Pakistan is going all out to deal politically with the bad Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). On the other hand, as noted by PoliTact in an earlier article, TTP recognizes the sea change in the political and security landscape of the region, which makes its prospects shaky. If Afghan Taliban reconcile and become part of the future political dispensation of the country, TTP will be isolated to face the military pressure. With the involvement of regional players in the Afghan political solution, TTP faces even more seclusion. This stark reality has perhaps pushed TTP to offer a peace gauntlet. The proposition offered by TTP requires Pakistan’s leading politicians to act as guarantors. Stakes are high for politicians in Pakistan as the TTP triggered violence can disrupt the upcoming elections
Thus, favorable global political atmosphere, including election prospects, are pushing leading Pakistani politicians and mainstream religious parties to move towards political reconciliation with TTP. War against terror has remained largely unpopular in Pakistan and has been conducted for the most part covertly far from public buy-in. Moreover, the politicians in the country, as in other places, are prone to voice popular voices during election times.
The Future of FATA
This, however, does not mean TTP is without options. In absence of political understanding, it may move closer to other sectarian and jihadi groups operating in Pakistan. In essence, the political reconciliation in Afghanistan provides an opportunity to prevent this from taking place. Tied to the TTP issue is the enduring challenge of how FATA constitutionally exists with in Pakistan. This may also have to be worked out in the larger frame of things, and good ties with Afghanistan and India may be a prerequisite to sort this out. On the other hand, surfacing of the comment made by none other than the new US secretary of defense has further validated Pakistan’s claims on Indian role in Afghanistan and FATA.
With Al Qaeda diminished in the region and compelled by its fiscal pressures, US appears to be extracting itself from the regional tussles for the time being, while moving more towards behind the scenes role. As it does this, it is increasingly clear that Pakistan has a central role, and a lot at stake, in making the Afghan reconciliation a success.