Americans are talking to the Taliban, at last

What had so long been kept tightly under wraps is out in the open, at last. The cat is proverbially out of the bag to the surprise of nobody in the world interested in Afghanistan and its suffering under the heels of the Americans and their NATO allies the past 9 years. The Americans have started talking to the Taliban-indirectly, though, through their main Afghan proxy Hamid Karzai.

Talks between representatives of the US-proxy regime of Hamid Karzai and those of the Taliban have reportedly begun inside Afghanistan, as officially conveyed to the world by the Kabul government. Those representing Karzai are said to be his close confidants. Their interlocutors on the opposite side are presumed to be from the Taliban’s ‘Quetta Shura.’ This is the hard core of the Taliban leadership that has been ensconced in the Pakistani city of Quetta since they fled Afghanistan in the wake of the US- led invasion of their country. Some of the talks are believed to have been held in Kabul itself. NATO troops have reportedly ensured proper logistics to transport these Taliban leaders safely from the Pakistan border to Kabul.

It’s no secret or puzzle why the Obama administration has given Karzai the green light to conduct talks with his nemeses, the Taliban, with so much fanfare and openness, something that it had resisted up until lately.
The western world’s war in Afghanistan is going nowhere.

Despite all the bravado of the Pentagon top brass and President Obama’s enthusiasm to own this war as very much his own, all the action on ground, and in the air, is at best grinding to a stalemate. Obama’s infusion of 30,000 additional US boots on the Afghan soil-which according to Bob Woodward, in his Obama’s Wars, was a decision taken in awe of the Pentagon brass-and all the spin engineered to boost the morale of the American people in the context of this hard-to-justify buildup, isn’t producing a Taliban run- for- cover, as initially hoped for.

For purely tactical reasons, the Taliban seem to have adopted the classical guerrilla strategy of wearing down the enemy. That’s exactly what that ace guerrilla leader and quintessential revolutionary Mao Tse Tung advised: hunker down when the enemy has superiority of numbers and fire-power, grind him to a standstill, and strike only when you’ve the upper hand. So the Taliban may just be biding time to wait for the western forces to reach the end of their tether. They know they’ve the advantage of home- turf.: you fight best when your back is secure, and it seems the Taliban back is pretty secure among their own people. It may not be entirely boastful on their part to claim that despite more than 150,000 US and European soldiers on their land for almost a decade they-the Taliban-are in control of 80 percent of the country.

None should have a better sense of the stakes seeping from this stalemate than Hamid Karzai because he’s the man on the spot. Karzai is also a western invention and knows that in the event of a western debacle on the battle field he’d be the proverbial fall-guy; it would be his neck on the chopping block before any body else’s. Little surprise, therefore, that he has been so keen for a settlement with the Taliban and a negotiated end to the festering episode of a war with no end in sight.

It seems that the Americans worked diligently to choreograph the talks between the Taliban and Hamid Karzai.

The curtain-raiser for the talks was Karzai’s interview with CNN’s Larry King, aired on October 11 with prominent advance billing. It wasn’t just another interview on the mini screen by one of its most celebrated and prized talk-show hosts. It’d all the trappings of a major media event pointing to a close timing and sync with the establishment. It proved its worth when Karzai loaded off his chest the ‘secret’ that had been widely known for so long to the knowledgeable but hadn’t been made public because of a plethora of reasons.

Karzai let the world know that he will be entering into regular and formal negotiations with the Taliban, something that he conceded to King had been going on informally for some time between the two adversaries with the help of the Saudis acting as facilitators. This process will be conducted by his hand-picked 28-men council of elders, headed by the respectable Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Why Karzai is so keen to hold a formal dialogue for peace with the Taliban is the most convincing evidence of the combat in the field not making the kind of headway that he and his western mentors may have hoped when they ventured into it. Given the nature of his ‘equation,’ if it could be described as such between a client and a master, with the Americans it’s unthinkable that he would’ve thought of putting an official cachet on his overtures to the Taliban without Washington’s nod. Unveiling these plans on the Larry King Show makes it so much obvious for any cynic still insisting to see a smoking gun.

There is no mystery either why Washington has elected to fall right behind Karzai’s defensive political move.

No matter how thick a spin the votaries of war in US and elsewhere in the western world may put on the battle- front in Afghanistan they can’t obviate the sense gaining ground in the minds of people in all the western capitals that the war-which made no sense at all to so many to begin with-is petering out as a campaign without an end and with no smart score card to display.

The war lobby is still desperately tilting at the windmills to paint a picture of great heroics being rendered by their soldiers on the ground; even their ordinary and routine exploits against the Taliban are blown to Hollywood proportions. Bodies of dead soldiers are being given funerals befitting war heroes. But all this can’t stamp out the feeling that too much is being sacrificed on a war that doesn’t deserve the price tag US economy in particular has been saddled with, not to mention the human toll paid in what is now the longest war America has ever fought.

President Obama, notwithstanding his bravado that his forces are still capable of destroying and decimating the Taliban must, deep down, have convinced himself that this Afghan war is as unwinnable as was the one in Iraq which he so much decried and disowned as Bush’s monumental blunder. So what choices is he left with other than opting, even though reluctantly, to sue for peace, albeit indirectly, through his Kabul client, for whom his lack of fondness has been so well-known? Larry King rubbed that point in with Karzai when he asked his interviewee’s take on his personal rapport-or lack of it-with Obama. But whatever the personal equation between the two men this new opening could still be welcome as a straw in the wind for the beleaguered man in the White House to latch on.

With the mid-term congressional elections breathing down his neck, and things not expected to go down well for the Democrats on D-Day November 2, Obama may have grudgingly consented to Karzai spilling the beans on peace overtures to the much-maligned and derided Taliban. What’s the harm in throwing the dice in desperation when the chips are so much down and the stakes so high for Obama?

But despite all the hoopla animating the talks between Karzai and his adversaries, there’s an elephant in the conference room that the Afghan leader and his mentors seem pretend to ignore. It’s Pakistan, which has cast a consistently looming shadow over Afghanistan for decades-even long before the Russian invaders set foot on the Afghan soil in 1979.

For the moment there’s no indication of a formal role for Pakistan in the dialogue begun with so much enthusiasm. Some media outlets always sympathetic to the American war lobby are glibly talking in terms of keeping Pakistan out of the process because, in the words of Obama-as portrayed by Bob Woodward-’Pakistan is the cancer.’

The Obama White House hasn’t treated Pakistan much differently, or kindly, on the struggle going on in Afghanistan than the Bush White House. In fact, Pakistan is being treated worse under Obama than under Bush. Pakistan is expected to do more than its fair share on the battle-front but still being regarded as part of the problem rather than of solution. In short, Pakistan is not in the loop because Washington doesn’t trust it enough. The American media pundits are more than eager and ready to blow beyond all proportions Pakistan’s portrayal of a double-dealer.

Frustration is writ large on whatever treatment is being accorded to Pakistan. As the American war machine grinds down to an agonizing road-block in Afghanistan, Pakistan is being made to suffer at the hands of the drones raining down hell-fire from the air on its villages in the north. September saw more than 20 such visitations; nearly 1500 people in the tribal area of Pakistan have been killed in these drone ‘visitations’ since Obama has entered the White House.

There is overwhelming evidence of the Obama presidency suffering from diffidence and confusion on the crucial question of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and how it should be involved, or not, in an Afghan settlement.

Pakistan’s key role in the US military offensive in Afghanistan has always been beyond any disputation or argument. If there were any doubts in anybody’s mind as to Pakistan’s pivotal position in the imbroglio those should have been removed by Pakistan’s unabashed assertion of this role when it sealed its border with Afghanistan at Torkham-in the Khyber Pass-last month in anger at NATO’s violation of its territory; three Pakistani soldiers were killed as a result of NATO helicopter gunships intruding several miles into the Pakistan territory. Both Washington and NATO had to apologise to Pakistan, publicly, before Islamabad agreed to re-open the border crossing for vital logistics for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan after a hiatus of 10 days.

The Obama administration’s ambivalence on the crux issue of what role should Pakistan be assigned in any peace accord in Afghanistan found another expression in the high media exposure and visibility accorded to yet another round of Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan in Washington D.C. The dialogue is now a regular feature between the two allies and is held every six months. This latest round in Washington took place at precisely the same time as the news of Karzai’s face-to-face talks with the Taliban was broken to the world.

President Obama and his principal policy advisers reiterated at the Washington dialogue with a high level Pakistani delegation, which included several key Cabinet ministers as well as General Kyani, the head of Pakistan’s overly influential Pakistan army that the Americans are so well aware dictates the policy on Afghanistan, that Washington is determined to work for a long-term partnership with Pakistan. If that’s what Obama sincerely seeks then Pakistan can’t be kept out of any peace moves or deals in Afghanistan. No other country shares so much with Afghanistan as Pakistan. The Taliban, after all, owed so much for their genesis and evolution to Pakistan and it still retains considerable influence over them in more ways than one.

Another elephant in the room is Mullah Omar, whose pre-eminence as the spiritual head of the Taliban the Americans and, at their behest, Karzai may so desperately want to belittle or undercut.

It may be true that long years of exile in Pakistan have quite possibly sapped that old discipline and regimentation in the Taliban rank and file which was the key to their chokehold over Afghanistan and its people in their halcyon days. But the American inspired, colonial-era, tactic of dividing the Taliban -cherry-picking the good Taliban and talking to them while trashing and discarding the bad guys among them-could easily implode in the faces of Karzai and Washington. Mullah Omar may have been weakened but it’s hard to say if his authority has been so much compromised as to render him totally ineffective.

In any case, Afghanistan’s long term security-and peace in the region for all its close neighbours-demands that any settlement with the Taliban takes as many of them on board as possible. Trying to take advantage of the Taliban may give only short-lived gains to the Americans and their proxies in Afghanistan but could be devastating in the long run.

Equally pertinent and crucial in the context of the American inability to inflict a crushing defeat on the Taliban-and as a consequence of it leaving them still fairly robust and powerful-is the question why should Taliban feel compelled to provide a face-saving exit to the Americans and their allies from Afghanistan? Suing for a negotiated end to a festering episode clearly betrays the western allies’ appalling weaknesses on the battle-field. The Taliban should, logically, be averse to playing the diplomatic chess when aware that the opponent is wearing out and looking for the quickest exit. The end-game may still produce more surprises than any pundit could predict at this stage.