If we support an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process of reconciliation and if we are part of the solution and not part of the problem, then it is logical for the Afghans to expect us to use our influence with the Taliban to persuade them not only to negotiate, but also to adopt a stance in the negotiations that would lead to peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Who should we talk to? To date we have denied, or at least been ambivalent about, the existence of a Taliban shura on our soil but the fact remains that the Taliban presence in Balochistan — be it in the refugee camps along the border, in Chaman or the Kharotabad and Pashtunabad areas of Quetta — is well-established. (That this presence has contributed to the sectarian and ethnic strife and to upsetting the demographic balance in Balochistan is also indubitable). These are the people we have to address.
I think we should be clear in our own mind about the degree of influence we do have. I recall that a Taliban movement in power in Kandahar and Kabul, but largely beholden to us, refused to listen to our advice on the Bamiyan status and refused point-blank to hand over the Pakistani sectarian extremists — like Riaz Basra — who had taken or been given shelter in Afghanistan. There are allegations that this happened because the Taliban felt that those who made the demand were not those who determined Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan or on relations with the Taliban.
Whatever be the truth, now we must be clear about what levers we have and what levers all centres of power in Pakistan are agreed should be used. Bearing these caveats in mind, what should we tell such of the Taliban as we are able to influence?
First, we should be clear that we cannot and must not maintain that we have a right to determine the nature or composition of the government or administrative structure that emerges from the reconciliation process. We may suggest an interest in seeing an ethnically balanced structure, not because we believe this is owed to the much larger number of Pushtuns living on the Pakistan side of the border but because all parties are aware that it was the exclusion of the Pashtuns from the Bonn Conference that fuelled the insurgency and the resurrection of the Taliban.
By the same token, we must counsel the Taliban that demanding more than this would be detrimental to the goal we support — a stable and united Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbours. This is so not only because it is just but also because bitter experience has taught us that if the ethnic balance is not maintained, other ethnic groups will look for and find support from Afghanistan’s other neighbours and near neighbours. The result then would be continuing strife, the fallout of which Pakistan can no longer sustain.
Second, we are sympathetic to the insurgent demand for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and for renouncing any agreements on granting bases. For the moment, however, it appears that the Karzai administration is intent on concluding such an agreement to prolong the stay of the Americans after 2014 when all other Nato forces will withdraw. It would seem that such demands would be more easily met in the present condition when reconciliation has been achieved. The insurgents can make it a condition for reconciliation that withdrawal will be completed and bases vacated within a specified period after reconciliation.
Third, we must convince the Taliban that while renouncing al Qaeda may serve as a negotiating point, they should know that this is what Pakistan, in the interest of its own security, also desires. Pakistan, as it fights extremism within its own borders, would not want al Qaeda to have a safe haven in a reconciled Afghanistan.
We must make it clear that willingly, or unwillingly, Pakistan has been the external sanctuary and conduit of support without which no insurgency has survived in recent times. Pakistan has paid a heavy price. Day after day, suicide bomber attacks on civilian and military targets continue at a rate which rivals and many times exceeds the number of such attacks in Afghanistan. These are attributable to the Afghan situation as Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said on July 28. The realisation has now grown that the consequences for Pakistan’s internal security have been extremely adverse and can no longer be sustained. While it is for the insurgents to work out solutions with their Afghan partners, they cannot expect indefinite sanctuary.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2011.