Over the last year, relations between Pakistan and the United States have been driven to ever-lower depths. The leaderships of both countries are struggling to rebuild the semblance of a working relationship, especially regarding Afghanistan. Pakistan has long been convinced that the United States and its allies were bound to fail in Afghanistan and that the American war on terrorism is responsible for the threats Pakistan faces from its own extremists. Meanwhile, the United States regularly complains that Pakistan plays a double game, providing logistical and intelligence assistance while also protecting and sometimes facilitating the Taliban insurgency.
While the strategic interests of Washington and Islamabad have so often clashed over Afghanistan, their interests have lately converged on an endgame for that embattled country. Their common strategic approach aims to negotiate a grand bargain with senior Taliban leaders. But it faces heavy odds and as presently conceived threatens to exclude other important stakeholders in Afghanistan—including the Karzai regime itself.
The Push for Negotiations
As U.S. and allied troops depart, there is a growing lack of confidence in the transition to Afghan security forces, resulting in a desperate diplomatic push by Washington to find a political solution to the conflict. A coalition government would provide a soft landing for a post-2014 Afghanistan and allowing the orderly exit of foreign forces. And a negotiated settlement of the conflict would ensure that the country’s constitutional and political framework was left intact and hard-won human-rights gains protected.
Pakistan is similarly anxious for a power-sharing agreement. Without one, Afghanistan could easily slip into a proxy civil war that draws in Iran, Russia and India on one side and Pakistan on the other. Pakistan’s military has held the Afghan Taliban in reserve as a force to secure Pakistan’s interests in the wake of a failed NATO counterinsurgency and a collapsing Afghanistan. But Pakistan’s generals are realists: they recognize that once in power, the Taliban will resist their manipulation. An outright Taliban victory might be undesirable and even dangerous for a Pakistan battling its own Taliban insurgency. The preferred outcome for Pakistan is instead rule by a coalition in Kabul. The Taliban’s presence would serve to blunt Indian influence while its governing partners curb any contagion of radical Islamist adventurism in Pakistan and the region.
Flawed Talks in Qatar
A previously reluctant Taliban has opened an office in Qatar. Both the United States and Pakistan see the decision as a significant breakthrough. American diplomats are convinced that conditions are ripe for talks and that pragmatists will prevail over dogmatists in the leadership circles around Mullah Muhammad Omar’s Taliban and his major allies, the Haqqani network and Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami. With the right confidence building, insurgents can presumably be induced to sever their ties to international terrorist groups—including, above all, al-Qaeda.
Fearing being left out, Pakistan had previously scuttled direct contact between Taliban leaders and potential American interlocutors. Deep suspicions exist between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence services (ISI), as was confirmed by a recent NATO report based on interrogations of captured insurgents. Yet the ISI now feels confident, having helped to bring the Taliban to Qatar, that it can ensure that Pakistan’s interests will be represented in any negotiations.
The door should always be left open for talks with an adversary. But negotiations have the greatest likelihood of making progress when there is either a serious stalemate or one of the combatants—convinced it cannot prevail—seeks the best peace terms it can get. Neither of these conditions is present in the current Afghan conflict. There seem few incentives for the Taliban to have to compromise, given their goal of imposing sharia rule in Afghanistan. With NATO military operations scheduled to end in 2014, if not earlier, the Taliban has more reason than ever to believe that it has time and God on its side. Meanwhile, although Afghans and the international community may have doubts whether there can be a strictly military solution to the conflict, they are not willing to accede to the Taliban’s basic designs for an Afghan state.
The looming talks in Qatar threaten to set back the counterinsurgency being waged by Afghan and international forces and increase chances for a new civil war. An exhausted Afghan people approve of serious negotiations for peace. But the prospect that an unreconstructed Taliban may again wield domestic power drives most Afghans to hedge their loyalties toward the Kabul regime and cooperation with foreign forces. A coalition of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras will fight rather than submit to any significant concessions to the Taliban.
Recognition of the Taliban in Qatar effectively accords the insurgency unearned legitimacy. More seriously, by taking the lead role in bringing the Taliban to the table, the United States and Pakistan have made it possible for the Taliban to exclude the Afghan government from participation in negotiations. Any peace process that fails to be inclusive of the Karzai government and all of Afghanistan’s major political stakeholders can never succeed. It will instead divide Afghans and set the stage for a protracted civil war.