In the beginning is the end

The Friday Times

July 9-15, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 21

Ejaz Haider

Regardless of the manner and phases of American troop withdrawal, the surge itself, ironically, denotes the end, though it will likely get bloodier before the bugler plays the retreat.

Not without reasons this, two rather obvious. Afghanistan has always resisted being modernised along western lines. As things stand, attempts at modernisation have now become a function of the occupation and hence are doomed to fail.

Second, the war has proven unwinnable because while the US-Nato-ISAF troops have the punch, they can’t find the cheek to wallop. Eight years of mostly shadow-boxing, leading to more civilian casualties than hurting an adversary that doesn’t mind losing men, has been a frustrating experience.

In walks another bugler, playing reveille. President Hamid Karzai’s intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, considered efficient and tough, has lost his job. Gone also is Karzai’s interior minister, Hanif Atmar. Saleh, a Tajik, was rabidly anti-Taliban; Atmar, an ethnic Pashtun, was former Khad, closely linked to the Soviet KGB and fought against the “mujahideen” until Kabul fell to them in 1992.

Neither man liked Pakistan. Both were close to India. The round goes to Pakistan. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lt-Gen Shuja Pasha, has been shuttling between Islamabad and Kabul. Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, has been to Kabul more than once in recent months. Karzai has visited Pakistan, as recently as March. The Americans, for the most part, do not know the exact contours of Kabul-Islamabad deal.

It is now fairly clear, though the fine print is still largely a matter of conjecture, that Karzai, having despaired of the American effort to give him or themselves a victory, has come round to reaching out to Pakistan. Just days ago, Kabul has decided to send some officers for training to Pakistan. On June 28, Al-Jazeera reported a meeting between Karzai and Sirajuddin Haqqani. According to the channel, the meeting took place on June 27 when the Pakistani army and intelligence chiefs were in Kabul. Both governments have refuted the story, but Al Jazeera has stuck to its version.

Be that as it may, it is no secret that Karzai, for some time, has been stressing the need to open talks with those Taliban who might be amenable to demobilising and joining the government. A couple of rounds of such talks were hosted by Saudi Arabia but nothing much seems to have come out of them.

Toast victory should we in Pakistan? Not so fast. While Pakistan may have advanced tactically in some areas, by indicating that it can deliver the Taliban, or at least some of them, Islamabad could be skating on thin ice. One, the Taliban fighting force is not a single, cohesive entity. There are at least three broader groups – Quetta Shura, Hizb-e Islami and Haqqani network – and multiple smaller ones that are quite often only loosely linked to the bigger three.

Two, the younger field commanders do not have much patience for older leaders who have generally stayed away from the heat and din of battle. They are also, generally, wary of Pakistan and its intelligence agencies.

Three, so far the Taliban leadership has not given any indication that it would settle for anything less than unconditional withdrawal of foreign troops. Even Hekmatyar, who came close to talking to the Karzai government with his 15-point peace plan, and was described by General Michael Flynn, head of the US intelligence in Afghanistan, as “absolutely salvageable” wants foreign troops to withdraw before further negotiations. Four, it is not clear what settlement can be had with the Taliban vis-a-vis Al Qaeda, though there is some indication that if talks can be firmed up, Al Qaeda may have to find another place for itself. Most of its cadres have already begun relocating to Yemen.

The diffused command lines within the Taliban groups are a matter of concern. Investigations by this writer in the killing of Khalid Khawaja show that senior Taliban commanders, including from the Haqqani network, had sent word to the group holding Khawaja that he may be let off. Those messages were not only ignored, Khawaja was killed in cold blood. One of his two other companions, Colonel Imam, nom de guerre of Brig Amir Sultan Tarrar, is still held by the group even though Imam is highly respected by older Taliban commanders including Mullah Omar.

Taliban groups are far more fluid than is assumed. Smaller fighting units are led by younger commanders who are both brazen and contemptuous of traditional lines of command. This is a landscape fraught with danger.

The only possibility is to pit those groups that are amenable against the hardliners. This means that much before any other confrontation, in theory, the Taliban would probably have to fight intra-Taliban battles for a relatively unified command to emerge. That scenario offers its own multiple dangers. If the hardliners cannot be put down, the phenomenon could spill over into Pakistan. That contingency must be factored into any such policy thrust.

Finally, much is reportedly made of Pakistan’s control of the Haqqani network and Quetta Shura. The current speculation also revolves around the possible role of the Haqqani clan. It remains to be seen how effective the network actually is, or can be. A good way of testing that would be to get it to take out the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan which has relocated to the Mir Ali and Datta Khel areas in North Waziristan. That would be the acid test of where matters stand and how effective Pakistan can be in the next round in Afghanistan.

The writer is National Affairs Editor, Newsweek Pakistan. The views are his own.

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