Pakistan's Conundrum With the Taliban Negotiations

4 MINS READAug 4, 2011 | 05:41 GMT
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.
On Wednesday, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman said a political settlement in Afghanistan was not possible without assistance from Pakistan. Separately, Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Javid Ludin said Kabul wanted Islamabad to bring the senior leadership of the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. Both statements were made in Islamabad on the sidelines of a meeting of the three countries. These remarks represent the first time that either Washington or Kabul has openly and directly sought Pakistani help in the efforts to negotiate with the Afghan jihadist movement. Thus far, the Americans and Afghans have only demanded that the Pakistanis crack down on Afghan Taliban operating in their territory. Pakistan has long awaited the time when the U.S. government would engage in this policy shift. Any American search for Pakistani involvement in the Afghan reconciliation efforts cannot be separated from this wider atmosphere of tensions. From Islamabad's point of view, it made no sense for the Americans to keep pressing Pakistan to use force against the Taliban when the Americans themselves would eventually have to seek a political settlement. The Pakistanis have questioned why they should have to fight the Afghan Taliban and lose their leverage over the Islamist insurgents, especially while Islamabad fights its own Taliban rebels. Therefore, Pakistan is likely pleased that the Americans have finally sought its involvement in efforts to talk to the Afghan Taliban. Islamabad, however, cannot be completely confident that things are moving in its preferred direction. The United States seeks Pakistani assistance in the reconciliation efforts toward the Taliban at a time when the American-Pakistani relationship is mired in unprecedented tensions. The U.S. drive toward unilateral military and intelligence capabilities in Pakistan has fostered mutual mistrust and animosity. Any American search for Pakistani involvement in the Afghan reconciliation efforts cannot be separated from this wider atmosphere of tensions. While Washington may have decided to involve Islamabad in the Afghan political settlement process, there remains a disagreement over the definition of who among the Taliban is capable of reconciliation. Though Kabul has asked Pakistan to encourage top Taliban leaders toward the bargaining table, it is unlikely that the likes of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar or the most prominent regional Taliban commander, Sirajuddin Haqqani (both have enjoyed complex relations with al Qaeda), will be acceptable to Washington as negotiating partners. Also, the degree of influence Pakistan holds over senior Afghan Taliban leaders is questionable. Over the past decade, the fragmentation and metamorphosis of the Taliban phenomenon on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border have led to a waning of Pakistani influence over the Pashtun jihadist landscape. The insurgency inside Pakistan has weakened Islamabad's position; it remains to be seen to what degree Islamabad can deliver vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban. This waning could explain why the Pakistanis have openly said that they do not seek a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan and Islamabad. Islamabad has been trying to diversify its sphere of influence in its western neighbor, working to improve its relationship with the regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. With relations with Kabul still uncertain and Pashtun influence perhaps softening, Pakistan may find it difficult to nudge the Taliban toward a power-sharing deal with the Karzai regime. The United States appears to have finally moved toward involving Pakistan in its talks with the Taliban. However, it will be awhile before the appropriate conditions (in which substantive talks could take place) can be created.

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