Can US and Taliban cut a deal in Afghanistan?
Even before Osama bin Laden's killing, the Taliban were softening their image while the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan set the stage for talks. Now the US must decide if it's worth years of further military and diplomatic effort to hammer out an agreement.
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Feeling reassured, Pakistan's leadership has been tempering its diplomatic goals. Ambassador Sadiq says his government had settled on wanting a "peaceful, prosperous, and friendly Afghanistan" but has since swapped out "friendly" for "united."Skip to next paragraph
Others echo the shift. "We've dropped the word 'friendly' – it's only 'peaceful and stable' – because it's been misconstrued that Pakistan wants a government of its own [in Kabul]," says Gen. Athar Abbas, spokesman for Pakistan's military.
As Abbas tells it, the military wants to be sure that it won't have to guard the country's western border with Afghanistan in the event of another war with India. It also doesn't want agents of India to be able to cross into Pakistan through Afghanistan. "With a peaceful western border, then all those fears are addressed," he says.
While Abbas didn't mention "united," top civilian officials in Pakistan agree with the Afghan and US government aversion to dividing Afghanistan. Talk of partitions along ethnic lines has always been broadly unpopular. But some of the proposed configurations for a peace settlement had involved ceding control of certain provinces to various factions – peace through devolution.
No division of the country
US officials, however, are against handing over pieces of territory to the insurgency out of fear that it will embolden them to seek or seize more. That at least was the result of a 2006 cease-fire struck by the British in the Musa Qala district of Helmand Province. For this reason, the US doesn't want to hold talks in Afghanistan – as opposed to a place like Turkey – because it might justify creating a safe district for insurgents to come and talk, which could lead to them controlling the area.
With a division of the country ruled out, political balance must be restored through an inclusive government, say US, Pakistani, and Afghan officials. One analyst in the region argues that this is what some Taliban are seeking, too – perhaps with US help.
Insurgent leaders hoping to eventually return and resettle in Afghanistan are going to need a comprehensive peace settlement, but with a weak Afghan military and meddling neighbors, it's an open question who could safeguard such a deal. Instead, a US presence – perhaps with a UN mandate – may have to act as a guarantor for some period of time.
All this still sounds far off from Taliban rhetoric, which remains focused on removing the US and its allies. "This movement will definitely not be stopped or decreased until the foreign forces are defeated," says the Taliban commander from Wardak. "We don't believe in these shuras [councils] and these [peace] commissions – it's a political project from which these people can get money.
Also worrying is the talk coming from Pakistan's former chief of intelligence, Hamid Gul. Though retired, Mr. Gul maintains contacts with the Afghan insurgency and remains enough of a player that the High Peace Commission visited him in Islamabad.
"I don't see any chance for a coalition government," Gul said last month. "An inclusive government, yes, not a coalition." While an "inclusive" government would involve factions other than the Taliban, it would not be arrived at through Western political pluralism but by the Afghan tradition of the loya jirga, or grand council. And then – significantly – Gul added: "Mullah Omar [the Taliban's supreme leader] is the only man who can convene a jirga.”
However, the killing of bin Laden has put hard-line elements of the intelligence establishment like Gul on the defensive in Pakistan. In broadcast interviews Monday, Gul denied that the government harbored Bin Laden and suggested it was a "make-believe drama" designed to help Obama get reelected.