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US-Taliban talks

Shamil Shams
June 20, 2013

After twelve years of war in Afghanistan, the US and the Taliban have finally agreed to engage in direct talks in Qatar. Experts say that Pakistan has played a key role in making this possible.

A general view of the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha June 18, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous)
Image: Reuters

In 2011, the US made serious efforts to negotiate with the Taliban to find a solution to the decade-long Afghan conflict which began after the terrorist attacks against America on September 11, 2001. Pakistan was not pleased with the US-Taliban secret negotiations, and some analysts say it was successful in sabotaging the talks. Islamabad wanted Washington make use of its services to engage in talks with the Taliban, who have been historically close to the powerful Pakistani military and its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Islamabad has always maintained that peace in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without its support, and that any future setup in Afghanistan after the departure of NATO troops in 2014 must not ignore its interests. By its interests Pakistan means a bigger share for the Taliban in the future Afghan government as it considers the Islamists the "legitimate representatives" of Afghanistan's majority ethnic Pashtuns.

Muhammad Naeem (R), a spokesman for the Office of the Taliban of Afghanistan speaks during the opening of the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha June 18, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous)
Experts doubt the Taliban will aim for peaceImage: Reuters

The 2011 talks couldn't really take off. Simultaneously, both Afghanistan and Pakistan had their own meetings with the militants, who are responsible for killing thousands of people during the past decade in terrorist attacks.

The US announced recently that its officials would meet with Taliban leaders in Doha, the capital of the Middle-Eastern state of Qatar. The Taliban, too, confirmed that they were willing to hold talks with the Americans, who they accuse of overthrowing their government and occupying Afghanistan in 2001.

But this time around, it is Afghanistan which is irked. Islamabad has welcomed the US initiative of talks with some reservations. The Pakistani government said on Thursday, June 20, it would release more Afghan Taliban prisoners to boost the Doha initiative.

Afghanistan's unhappiness

President Hamid Karzai's administration suspects that the US has agreed to Islamabad's pre-conditions for talks and has bypassed the Afghan government's authority. Since the Taliban leadership - including its fugitive leader Mullah Omar - are considered closer to Pakistan than Afghanistan, the Taliban's approval for direct negotiations with the US has raised eyebrows in Kabul.

"The latest developments show that foreign hands are behind the Taliban's Qatar office (main picture) and, unless they are purely Afghan-led, the High Peace Council will not participate in talks," President Karzai said in a statement in an indirect reference to Pakistan.

For the Afghan officials, who have long blamed Pakistan for creating unrest in their country by aiding the Taliban militants, the Islamists' willingness to work with the US means only one thing: Islamabad has given green light to the Taliban to engage with the Americans.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Photo: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)
Karza said he would not join US peace talks with the Taliban until they were led by AfghansImage: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The situation deteriorated to an extent that the US Secretary of the State, John Kerry, had to call President Karzai on Wednesday to defuse tensions between the US and Afghanistan and to convince him that the US had no intention to undermine Afghanistan's interests. Kerry has reportedly requested the Afghan President to reconsider his boycott.

Islamabad's involvement

Karachi-based defense and security analyst Ali K. Chishti told DW in an interview that Pakistan had played a major role in convincing the Taliban to talk with the US. He said that the current ISI chief Zahir-ul-Islam had a better working relation with the US than his predecessor Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who was against the talks in 2011.

"The US, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been working on this for more than three years," Chishti said. "But the Afghan government now feels left out. Kabul has its concerns, but I think it should show more maturity because Afghanistan is at a crucial juncture right now."

Chishti said that Pakistan was merely pursuing its own interests in Afghanistan and that nobody should expect anything else from it. He pointed out that Islamabad made the Taliban takeover of Kabul possible in 1996 and even after 9/11 it remained close to some Taliban leaders.

"But Pakistan is not the only country which has stakes in Afghanistan. Iran, India and China have their interests too. Karzai's government should also criticize other countries for interfering in Afghanistan."

The defense and security analyst said that despite the fact that newly-elected Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif has good relations with the Taliban, he will have very little say in the upcoming talks. "These matters are decided by the Pakistani military. Sharif will have to do what the army tells him to do."

A risky partnership

But some experts are of the opinion that things are unlikely to go smooth in the future and that the Taliban are not interested in peace. Even if the Taliban reach an agreement with the US, peace in Afghanistan cannot be guaranteed, they say, arguing that the Taliban are pursuing absolute power in Afghanistan.

For this reason, the West does not trust the Pakistani establishment completely and is in a quandary on how to deal with it. It needs Pakistan's support in stabilizing Afghanistan yet at the same time it does not have full faith in its cooperation.

ISI chief Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam (Photo: Shakil Adil/AP/dapd)
The US-Pakistani relations are getting better againImage: AP

"Firstly, the West's investment in relation to Afghanistan is hugely influenced by what happens in Pakistan and what it does in Afghanistan," Emrys Schoemaker, a communications analyst and researcher at the London School of Economics, told DW. "So I think there is a huge desire to try and shape what happens in Afghanistan through the relationship with Pakistan. Secondly, there is still a very strong perception that the security of the West is influenced by the possibility of terrorism emerging from secret training camps in Pakistan. There are also concerns about Pakistan's nuclear weapons."

Certain Pakistani observers are of the view that no government in Kabul can function smoothly without Islamabad's support, and this leaves the US and other western countries in a dilemma.

Pakistani journalist Nasir Tufail is among them. "As we saw in the past, Pakistan can support insurgency in Afghanistan if its interests are not fulfilled. That doesn't augur well for Afghanistan."

Experts say that the future of Afghanistan largely depends on how the US manages to appease both Kabul and Islamabad. Pakistan has a better bargaining chip in the shape of the Taliban, they say, and that's why the US will need its continued cooperation despite the risks of a further Islamization of Afghanistan and the region.