Saturday, March 20, 2010

Back-Channel Peace Talks Shut Down - Why?

Anyone following events in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan has by now heard the news about a recent Pakistani arrest of Taliban leaders including the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The incident was touched on in a Pakistani newspaper article, which ended thusly:

But one issue that got immediate attention emerged from a statement earlier on Friday by Kai Eide, the former UN special representative to Afghanistan. In an interview to BBC, he said that the arrest of key Taliban leaders in Pakistan blocked a secret channel of communications between the United Nations and the militant Afghan group.

"We are extremely gratified that Pakistan apprehended the number two (Taliban leader) and others," said Mr Holbrooke when asked if the US supported the move. He said the arrests brought "more pressure" on the Taliban than before and the move was "good for the military operation" in Afghanistan.

Mr Holbrooke's statement differs sharply from Mr Eide's who claimed that the detentions had a "negative" effect on attempts to find a political solution to the eight-year-old Afghan war.

You can hear a BBC interview with Mr. Eide, or you can read transcripts of key parts of the interview, or read about the revelation from Mr. Eide about this secret communication channel.

There is a great deal to be had in this situation. One of the key things I find interesting is the process that was interrupted, and who interrupted it.

Mr. Eide, a Norwegian, was pursuing an avenue favored by the UK, whose government favors more engagement with the Taliban in the hope of separating them from Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban, though allies, are two different organizations with two different goals; where those goals overlap, they can cooperate, and nothing will bring them together more than a fight with a common enemy. However, if one of the two could get some of what it wants through negotiation, as opposed to getting nothing through a military stalemate, then why not abandon the other, who has essentially been nothing but problems?

There is a disagreement between this approach and the approach favored by the American government. Specifically,

The diplomat also took issue with senior US military and political officials, including General David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, who argue that peace talks are premature and that the Taliban will only begin to negotiate in good faith once they have felt the full force of the US-led military surge.

Could it be that they negotiate now in good faith, but might feel that negotiations after having lost a major battle would be seen as a loss of face? Or, does this impression that the Taliban are winning need to be changed in order to get them to see that they won't win just by biding their time?

Regardless, the process was shut down. But, why?

From Taliban second-in-command captured in Pakistan, dated February 16:

That [Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar's] capture appears to have occurred in Karachi underlines the degree to which senior Afghan militants have used Pakistan as a secure base for their operations, but may also signal a very significant change in attitude on the part of the Pakistani army towards the hardline Afghan Islamist militant movement.

The Pakistani security establishment's ambivalent attitude towards the Taliban has been repeatedly cited as a major cause of the problems that have beset the western intervention in Afghanistan since then fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001.

Yet, Mr. Eide has questions about this:

Baradar's seizure was reported as a breakthrough in co-operation between the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, but a key figure in back-channel talks involving Saudi Arabia described his arrest as "a huge blow" to the fledgling peace initiative.

Eide was highly critical of Pakistan and questioned its motives. "If your question had been, 'do I believe that Pakistan plays the role it should in promoting a political dialogue that is so necessary for ending the conflict in Afghanistan?' – then my answer would be no, the Pakistanis did not play the role that they should have played. They must have known about this; I don't believe that these people were arrested by coincidence. They must have known who they were, what kind of role they were playing; and you see the result today."

Perhaps this helps clarify things some:

LAHORE: Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif on Thurday said that terrorism is the worst form of crisis faced by the country, and if not solved, it will serve as a death warrant for the entire nation.

Sharif said that foreign dictation is tampering Pakistan's progress and is causing a negative effect on its policies.

Sharif blamed former president Pervaiz Musharraf's policy for being the root cause of the rise of terrorism in the country.

He applauded the sacrifices made by the people of NWFP in the war against terrorism, but warned that a lack of uniformity among the political parties of the country will cause a lot of problems in fighting terrorism.

He, however, said that the signing of the NFC awards is a big step forward towards uniformity as it develops mutual respect among the provinces.

Like any national government, Pakistan has different political factions vying for power.

One faction has an ideology dating back to the days of World War II: use Islam as a rallying cry in South Asia to polarize the Muslims (Pakistan) against Hindu India. India is larger, so strategic depth needs to be sought. This can be achieved by spreading more extreme versions of Islam into Afghanistan. Furthermore, the militants, who are trained in Pakistan, are used for a proxy war against India. However, this militant extremism has gotten mixed in with a broader, global rejuvenation of Islamic jihadism, and its Pakistani handlers now have a tiger by the tail.

Mixed into this are the other problems that go along with the lawlessness and chaos in the region, namely illicit drug production, trafficking and use: these are exacting a toll on Pakistani society, as well. This jihadism is profitable, as it nicely sets the stage for heroin trafficking.

So, there is a counterfaction that wants these related problems to end, before these problems put an end to Pakistan, either directly or indirectly.

By the way, don't think that it is only corrupt elements of Pakistan's government and Islamic extremists who profit by drug trafficking. That money travels from the street, where the drugs are bought, to the fields of Afghanistan, where poppies are grown -- and most of it stops somewhere in between, or gets diverted elsewhere.

And those damned peacetalks with the Taliban were going to ruin all this.

Funny how, after decades supporting militant Islamic extremists and supporting the Taliban, Pakistan's security forces all of a sudden got on-board, coming up with the Taliban's No. 2 guy.

Minister Sharif is exactly right, but good luck getting sincere cooperation out of all parts of Pakistan's officialdom.

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