The choreography of the diplomatic ballet that today characterises the negotiations with the many arms of the Taliban is complex. A common mistake is to view the Taliban as homogenous, but they are far from it. There are many ‘Taliban’, some discrete like the Haqqani group, which until recently, operated almost exclusively in Afghanistan and others such as the Punjabi Taliban that have some distinct cultural differences with the Pashtun Taliban of the tribal areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa generally. Mullah Baradar is ‘old school’ Taliban, with links back to the founding fathers of the movement. The decision in principle to release him into Pakistan rather than back into Afghanistan is possibly a reflection of his disconnect with the new generation of the Taliban and in turn, their disconnect with their forefathers in terms of strategy and vision. The hope on all sides is that the release will help to kick-start the peace process that has been dead in the water since the fiasco around the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar, which was a textbook example of how not to conduct a public relations exercise.
Given that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is yesterday’s man and increasingly an irrelevance and his administration in its dying months, there is a real urgency attached to managing the negotiating space between now and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. A key question is going to be whether those working in the background to broker talks between assorted Taliban groups and the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are talking to the right people inside the Taliban movement. Mullah Baradar and the Quetta shura of which he was reportedly second-in-command were the right people three or four years ago — but are they as relevant today as they were then? The Taliban are a dynamic entity and currently undergoing something of a churn. There are internal rifts on both sides of the border that have degenerated into bloody fighting in the last month on, at least, one occasion. The release of Mullah Baradar may be a damp squib rather than a catalyst, appeasement rather than rapprochement.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2013.
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