What is behind the Taliban’s new flexibility? Has the fundamentalist Afghan group (and its backer, Pakistan) really performed a strategic somersault with its professed new willingness to share power in post-2014 Afghanistan? Is the Islamist group really willing to engage in electoral politics? Why did it show up last week for talks in Paris even though victory for its dogged anti-occupation resistance was just two years away? This is the Taliban that has taunted America with: you have the clocks, but we have the time!
So what made Shahabuddin Delawar and Muhammad Naim, the Taliban’s emissaries in Paris, offer to co-exist with their Afghan blood enemies, the Northern Alliance and the Afghan National Security Force? Is the Taliban really willing, as The New York Times reports, to allow girls to go to school in “an Islamic way”? Or is this all just tactical, a soothing smokescreen to facilitate, even hasten, the 2014 pull-out?
From New Delhi’s wary viewpoint, the Taliban’s new reasonableness is just Pakistani trickery, aimed at recreating leverage on an Afghan playfield where Islamabad’s stock had hit rock bottom. Civilian deaths caused by cross-border shelling from Pakistani posts on the Durand Line had fanned bitter anger in Afghanistan. A livid President Hamid Karzai, frustrated at Islamabad’s bullying, was poised to negotiate with the US a Bilateral Security Agreement — the framework under which a residual American “train, advise and assist” mission would remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
India’s mandarins also believe that Pakistan was worried by the growing non-Pashtun consensus within Afghanistan against a possible repeat of the post-Soviet power play of the 1990s — i.e. a Taliban whirlwind fanned, financed and armed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). They believe that Islamabad is assuaging these fears and redressing its own meddlesome image by appearing to support reconciliation within Afghanistan. In fact, by choosing who speaks for the Taliban and what they can say, Pakistan would tightly control the dialogue.
In sum, New Delhi is convinced that Islamabad is currying favour simultaneously with Washington, Kabul, and the non-Pashtun Afghan groups by appearing to bring to the dialogue table a tamed and conciliatory Taliban. For America this is a badly needed face-saver, as it is for Mr Karzai’s High Peace Council, which the Taliban has contemptuously dismissed so far. But any talk of Pakistani “flexibility” or a “strategic shift” is fanciful. Islamabad’s real aim is to divide the Afghans — since it wants an unstable Afghanistan, preoccupied with internecine fighting rather than with cohesively confronting Islamabad on long-standing Pakistan-Afghanistan disputes like border demarcation and Pashtun identity along the disputed Durand Line. Many non-Pashtun groups share this scepticism, particularly the influential Panjshiris, who held out against the Taliban in the 1990s and are readying for an encore.
Indian cynicism is understandable, given its stakes in Afghanistan and the need to prepare for setbacks that might even involve evacuating Indian workers from areas that fall to the Taliban. But assuming the worst can be self-fulfilling. While it would be naïve to believe that the Rawalpindi beast has suddenly turned benign, New Delhi policy makers must carefully consider whether the Taliban’s presence at the dialogue table could be stemming from seismic shifts within Pakistan, where factors invisible to outsiders might have become compelling to the security establishment.
For example, the Pakistan army might now be hearing from the ISI what Taliban watchers have long known: that the Quetta Shura, i.e. Mullah Omar and the senior Taliban leaders who defer to him, is increasingly at loggerheads with the ISI. Relations may now be so vitiated that the very foundation of Pakistan’s strategy – to control Afghanistan by controlling the Pashtun leadership – may no longer hold good. Even when the Taliban was a fledgling organisation dependent on Pakistan for arms, money and political direction, the strong-willed Mullah Omar resisted the ISI’s diktat. Today, a greatly strengthened Mr Omar would be far less willing to take orders from Pakistan.
Also important is how the Taliban sees its position in the power grab that will follow the 2014 Nato withdrawal (and the Afghanistan elections that would precede it). If the Quetta Shura assesses that it is too worn out by a decade-long high-tempo insurgency to win power in the bitter civil war that could follow the Nato withdrawal, that would explain its overtures in Paris to the other Afghan players. It is one thing to keep the insurgency going against foreign occupation, and that too one that has laid down a time frame for withdrawal. But it is quite another matter to take on an elected government and an array of armed Afghan groups that will fight tooth and nail to retain influence over their respective areas.
Not that Pakistan’s options are limited to the Quetta Shura. There is also the ISI’s more reliable proxy, the Haqqani network, whose writ runs across the eastern provinces of Khost, Paktia and Paktika. And there is Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pakistan army’s old friend, who would not be averse to working for Rawalpindi again. But rather than trying to manipulate disparate groups that are engaged in a full-blown civil war, the ISI would probably see merit in brokering a ceasefire and then playing one off against the other. In that case too, Pakistan would deliver the Quetta Shura to the dialogue table and then shape the playground to its satisfaction.
But New Delhi can only guess at all this, simply because it has no dialogue with the Taliban. Devoid of any clear idea of what is happening, South Block operates on worst-case assessments that cause us to overreact simply because the consequences of under-reacting would be unacceptable. It is time to shed the old shibboleths and develop a window into the Taliban.