Is President Karzai trying to cut Pakistan out of the Taliban talks and isolate Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader? If so, the current initiative isn't likely to succeed. But the New York Times reports today that even though "Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group's leadership" have been ferried back and forth from Pakistan to Kabul, even flying on NATO aircraft, the talks "appear to be unfolding without the approval of Pakistan's leaders." Uh-oh.
Last February, Pakistan shut down an earlier round of Afghanistan-Taliban talks by arresting key participants, including the then–number-two Taliban official, Mullah Baradur.
The Times article suggests that this time, too, Pakistan's ISI intelligence service will halt the talks. And it includes this curious paragraph:
Cutting Mullah Omar out of the negotiations appears to represent an attempt by Afghan leaders to drive a wedge into the upper ranks of the Taliban leadership. Though there is some disagreement among Afghan officials, many regard Mullah Omar as essentially a prisoner of the Pakistani security establishment who would be unable to exercise any independence.
I'm not sure that the Afghan government, weak as it is, is in any position to drive wedges into the Taliban leadership, especially without Pakistan's full support. And Karzai hasn't seemed intent on alienating Pakista—quite the opposite. Over the summer, Karzai fired two top officials of his government, his intelligence chief and his interior minister, because they were anti-Pakistan (and too pro-India).
Of course, starting talks with the Taliban and succeeding are two different things, whether or not Pakistan wants to be helpful or not.
Marvin Weinbaum, a former US intelligence official who is now at the Middle East Institute, is a skeptic. He says that regardless of the current round of contacts, it's very unlikely that the Taliban wants a deal. "There really isn't the basis for a Grand Bargain," he told me. The Taliban leadership are zealots, he said, who won't succumb to offers of a share of power. "When you talk to the Taliban, all you are doing is testing their faith," he says. Even military pressure, of the kind the that United States and its special forces units are putting on the Taliban, won't cause its leaders to compromise, he says. "The military pressure isn't going to work with them.
Weinbaum says that inside Afghanistan the anti-Taliban, non-Pashtun forces in the north and west of the country, including the remnants of the old Northern Alliance (NA) that fought the Taliban in the 1990s, won't easily agree to a deal with the Taliban, either, which is a huge problem for Karzai. Fearing that the Taliban might make a comeback, the Northern Alliance and its allies are rearming, securing weapons from Central Asia and other allies, Weinbaum says, in preparation for a potential civil war. And the ANA, the Afghan army that is being built brick by brick by the United States and NATO, would fragment and fall apart if there's a deal with the Taliban, with many of the ANA troops joining the NA. "If there's a chance that [the Taliban] would return, the army would break up," he says.
Caroline Wadhams, who leads the Afghanistan-Pakistan work at the Center for American Progress, agrees that the non-Pashtun forces in the north are preparing for civil war, if it comes to that. "I've heard about rearming in the north," she told me. "Part of it stems from the fear that if everything collapses, regardless of the peace talks, there'd be a return to civil war." Karzai, she says, is taking a great risk that people in Afghanistan's north and west would oppose the reconciliation with the Taliban that Karzai is trying to bring about. Both Wadhams and Weinbaum said that Karzai was at pains to name people to the High Peace Council (HPC), including former President Rabbani, who could help persuade northerners that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan isn't in the cards. Rabbani's job, says Weinbaum, is "to say to the north 'there's not going to be a deal that you can't subscribe to.' "
"By putting Rabbani at the HPC, Karzai's trying to get these people within the process," she says. But many, such as Abdullah Abdullah—who challenged Karzai in the fraud-marred election last summer—are refusing to participate, she says.
Some, such as Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of Afghan intelligence, are actively campaigning against Karzai and his talks with the Taliban.
That's why it's critical for the United States and NATO to involve India in the talks as soon as possible. India isn't opposed to talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban, but they'd go ballistic if Pakistan gets the inside track. So if Obama is serious about jump-starting diplomacy to end the war in advance of the July, 2011, deadline he's set for the start of a US drawdown, he'd better concentrate on getting both India and Pakistan on board.
Another key player, Iran, seems to be getting on board. For the first time, Iran took part in talks this week involving more than forty countries involved in Afghanistan. Iran has a lot of influence with Hazara Afghans in the west. Iran's participation in the latest round of discussions over Afghanistan was orchestrated by Michael Steiner, the German ambassador for Afghanistan and Pakistan. More and more, it appears that the Europeans just want out. The upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, will focus almost exclusively on what NATO calls "transition," that is, the transfer of security responsibility from NATO to the Afghans themselves (which is German for "we're gettin' outta here"). Or, as Steiner put it more diplomatically, "What we expect from Lisbon is a kickstart for next year starting this transition process." The rough timetable for NATO is not too different from Obama's: start withdrawing foreign forces in 2011 and finish by 2014, leaving behind a far smaller number of trainers and advisers.