A private meeting recently between a Taliban figure with ties to the militant Haqqani network and Afghan President Hamid Karzai may indicate a new willingness to engage with groups previously thought of as "too extreme," ultimately allowing Pakistan more room to influence events in Afghanistan as the US prepares to leave next year.
Maulvi Abdul Kabir, an ex-Taliban governor close to the Haqqani network, which is widely believed to be the US-led coalition’s most fierce enemy, met with President Hamid Karzai just over two weeks ago, the Associated Press reported, citing an unidentified former Afghan official. The meeting was a precursor to ongoing talks with a 70-member council tasked with bringing a close to the Afghanistan insurgency.
According to Brigadier (ret.) Mehmood Shah, a former security chief of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Kabir, who was arrested by Pakistani authorities in February, was likely flown into Kabul with Pakistan’s approval and backing.
The United States has publicly insisted that the Haqqani network based in Afghanistan and Pakistan and led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, should be excluded from talks. In July, US Gen. David Petraeus, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, suggested the group should be blacklisted, a move backed by Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate Arms Services Committee.
The purported meeting with Mr. Kabir, would appear to suggest Afghanistan's desire to take a different direction.
Rifaat Hussain, a militancy expert at the Quaid-i-Azam University, says there now appears to be “an effort to co-opt all those elements who are willing to play ball with Karzai, which include the core Haqqani group and even those who hold a position of influence.”
Such an outcome would be favored by Pakistan, he says, which has long resisted calls to tackle the Al Qaeda affiliated group in its North Waziristan base, partly out of fear of a backlash and partly so it may continue to exert influence by proxy in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government has called for groups such as the Haqqani network and the forces of warlorld Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to be included in peace talks, and as such may view the move by the US to talk to Kabir as a vindication of its own long-time policy.
“There is a certain duality in the American approach: on the one hand they are talking to Haqqani and on the other they are also asking Pakistan to take them on, which Islamabad finds baffling,” Mr. Hussain says.
“Pakistan favors the government of Afghanistan to talk to the Taliban, and it would like to facilitate that as much as it can. Maulvi Kabir is in custody, so the government of Pakistan would have allowed [the Afghan government] to talk to him,” Brigadier Shah says.
So far, the Pakistan Army has resisted calls to carry out a full blown attack in North Waziristan, an area where the Pakistan Army currently has 34,000 troops.
“What we have to do, we have to stabilize the whole area. I have a very large area in my command. So I must stabilize the other areas, and then maybe look at North Waziristan” Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, the main military commander in the area, told reporters last week.
What rooting out the Haqqanis will do for Pakistan
Operations against the Taliban are still ongoing in three of the seven Tribal areas, Bajaur, Mohmand, and South Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban are waging a campaign of terror in Pakistan’s cities. “Committing to fight the Haqqanis at this stage could create a serious internal threat for Pakistan,” says Dr. Hussain, the analyst.
Ultimately, however, it may be the so-called Quetta Shura, which consists of the Taliban leaders who fled from Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in 2001, and not the Haqqani network or other Pakistan-backed warlords who will be crucial to achieving a settlement, according to Hussain.
The Monitor reported a number of the leadership council were arrested in February including the Taliban number two, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, though Pakistan is limiting US and Afghan access to them, according to Ahmed Rashid, author of “Descent into Chaos.”
“They have the legitimacy of leading the Jihad against the foreign occupation,” as opposed to the Haqqani network which is politically weak and unpopular within Afghanistan. “The Quetta Shura is more independent and wants to assert itself. It does not [want] to appear as a stooge for the Pakistanis,” he says.