The talks with the Taliban at Doha in Qatar seem to have taken on elements of reality after recent American diplomatic activity and Pakistan’s response to it. The parties that will take part in the talks will be the two major antagonists — the Hamid Karzai government and the Taliban of Mullah Umar — plus other stakeholders. From reports it is apparent that Pakistan’s concerns have been addressed by allowing it in plus the Afghan factions it thinks it controls. If reports about who will come to Doha to talk about post-withdrawal Afghanistan are accurate, then Pakistan has got what it wanted. India is absent while Pakistan is very much there. Pakistan has been backing the cause of the Afghan-Pakhtun side of the war and doesn’t enjoy any mutual level of confidence with the Northern Alliance containing Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek parties at present ruling Afghanistan in tandem with the government of President Karzai. The talks are being held in an atmosphere of implied reversal for the overall American war in Afghanistan and an undisclosed acknowledgement that America has to speak to the Taliban and Pakhtun factions from a position of weakness. This means that Pakistan gets the upper hand and will back its protégés — in so far it can control them — to achieve the objective of having a government in Kabul that will safeguard its strategic interests.
Washington’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman reportedly met Taliban leaders in Qatar as a sequel to his earlier talks with them in late January. The consistent stance of the Taliban led by Mullah Umar is that they will not talk unless the Americans leave Afghanistan, after which they will also not talk to President Karzai because “he is a puppet and nothing more” of the Americans. But there is obviously some movement on this front because the Taliban have agreed to open an office in Qatar, instead of Saudi Arabia which they preferred, and have been given satisfaction on how much leverage they will have during the talks. There is growing evidence that President Obama’s ‘surge’ has not yielded dividends in the shape of a tactical upper hand which would give America the chance to negotiate from a position of strength. Stories emanating from US military personnel back home after operations suggest that the US cannot rely on the Afghan police and military to fight the Taliban after the Americans leave.
A hitherto angry Pakistan now seems willing to talk about letting the Nato supply convoys resume and meetings that were made taboo have started to take place. Senior military officials from Pakistan, Nato and Afghanistan met for the first time in months this past week in what a post-meeting statement said was “an effort to improve border coordination”. An apology is finally being considered in Washington over the November 26 border attack that seriously damaged relations between the US and Pakistan. Although recent drone attacks have killed mostly al Qaeda fighters, and are supposed to taper off only after the US somehow reaches an understanding with Pakistan about al Qaeda and its Pakistani affiliates, the progress at Qatar is supposed to break new ground distinctly in line with the thinking of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s position — heavily blinkered by its perception of India as an encircling enemy interfering in Balochistan — is less studied about how far it can use the Taliban and the two Afghan factions that it is said to be fielding at Qatar. What kind of leverage will Pakistan exercise over them after the Taliban sense that the Americans want to quit in a hurry is still up in the air. The Taliban have never been reliable as partners in the past. It is not certain whether once ensconced in Kabul in place of the Karzai government they will help Pakistan fight its tough battles in Orakzai and Kurram against its own increasingly criminalised Taliban. Few in Pakistan realise that over the years Pakistan’s wrong policies have caused it to resemble Afghanistan in its internal landscape of a state with a weak writ and a heavy penetration of the enemy’s worldview — not India’s — among the general population.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelt 'what' as 'want'.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2012.
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