Geopolitical Diary: The Second Search for Moderate Taliban
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
In an interview that appeared on Wednesday in German magazine Der Spiegel, Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed willingness to negotiate with the Taliban and their Pashtun militant Islamist allies in order to quell the raging jihadist insurgency in his country. Karzai said, "I will embrace [Taliban chief] Mullah [Mohammad] Omar and [Hezb-i-Islami leader and former Prime Minister] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar for peace in Afghanistan, for stability in Afghanistan. But it is the Afghan people who should decide on the atrocities committed against the Afghan people." This statement raises a couple of questions: Why is Karzai extending an olive branch to the Taliban-led jihadists at a time when their resurgence would allow the Taliban to negotiate from a position of strength? Doesn't the Afghan leader know Mullah Omar is not interested in negotiating with Kabul, given that his alliance with al Qaeda is incompatible with Karzai's ties to the United States? Moreover, Karzai is not in a position to engage in such negotiations unless he has clearance from his NATO supporters. The Western military alliance has been quietly exploring alternative ways of undercutting the Taliban. It also has been advised to simultaneously push ahead with the military campaign to weaken the Pashtun jihadist movement by focusing on taking out the Mullah Omar-based leadership and exploring negotiations with more pragmatic elements within the Taliban leadership. This would partially explain Karzai's statement. The president's offer to engage Mullah Omar and Hekmatyar in negotiations can only be understood within the context of the Taliban landscape, which consists of at least three different factions:
1. Those engaged in ground combat inside the Pashtun-majority areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan. 2. Those connected to Pakistan. 3. Those with ties to al Qaeda.
Karzai is aware of this configuration and knows Mullah Omar will reject negotiations. Therefore, by offering to make peace with Mullah Omar and even to include the Taliban in his government, Karzai is attempting to drive a wedge between these various factions. Kabul has no interest in cutting deals with those Taliban who are close to al Qaeda. Instead, he is trying to extract the "moderate Taliban" by creating a schism within the Pashtun jihadists. By demonstrating he is ready to give the Taliban a piece of political pie, Karzai hopes to spur a significant number of the movement's members to move away from Mullah Omar and his cabal. The Afghan government also hopes to sideline Pakistan's Taliban proxies in order to prevent Islamabad from regaining influence in Kabul. This is not the first time Kabul has attempted such a move. During 2003-2004, then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (a Pashtun) tried to seek out the moderates among the Taliban. Those efforts led a handful of senior Taliban members to part ways with Mullah Omar. But it failed to put a dent in the fighting because the bulk of the Taliban fighters did not heed the call. This second search for moderate Taliban will meet a similar fate unless Karzai is willing to embrace those Taliban with connections to Pakistan. This is the only way he will be able to isolate the religious nationalists from the transnationalists and potentially isolate Mullah Omar. Therefore, it appears Karzai must work out a deal with Islamabad before he can negotiate with the Taliban.