Dramatic news is filtering in from Qatar where the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and his delegation were huddled together with the representatives of the Taliban for four consecutive days since Monday. The duration of the talks unmistakably signifies that complex negotiations have taken place. Things are moving almost entirely in the direction I had indicated in my earlier blog US officials converge on Pakistan seeking peace.
What comes to mind for a longtime observer and interlocutor in Afghan affairs will be the lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets, “Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage we did not take, towards the door we never opened, into the rose garden.” The ‘foot falls in the memory’ go as far back as the forenoon of April 15, 1992 when the then Representative of Secretary-General on Settlement of Situation Relating to Afghanistan, Benon Sevan appeared in the compound of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad straight from a meeting of top Pakistani officials under way chaired by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to transmit a tantalizing idea to New Delhi as to whether Dr. Najibullah who was stepping down from the office of president of Afghanistan within a day could live in exile in India. (The positive reply from PM Narasimha Rao came on phone within two hours.)
Or, at the very least, the footfalls in memory would go back to a chance meeting circa end-2013 or early 1994 with late Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani, the great Pakistani archaeologist, historian and Sanskrit scholar (above all a humanist and a very dear friend (originally from India and a product of Banares Hindu University.) It was from Dani that I heard for the first time about the strange happenings going on in the Pakistani madrassahs, on the raising of an army of Talibs to be assigned in a near future to Afghanistan. Dani spoke with a profound sense of foreboding that momentous events were about to unfold in Afghanistan.
As it turned out, both in 1992 and in 1996, an orderly transition in Kabul enjoying international legitimacy was not possible to be attained. However, in this third attempt going on in Doha, prospects look distinctly good. The tidings from Doha suggest that two crucial areas of consensus have emerged between the US and the Taliban – a road map for the withdrawal of foreign troops in Afghanistan and a guarantee by the Taliban that Afghan soil will not be used to threaten international security.
The two templates are of course inter-linked. It is unclear whether there will be a total US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a shutting down of the American bases or whether the Taliban is agreeable to a reduced US presence in a near term. Considering the robust opposition of Russia and Iran to any US military presence in their border regions, it seems improbable that Pentagon can keep its bases and the CIA its listening posts in Afghanistan.
However, Taliban’s security assurance is important in as much as it also guarantees, from the Taliban perspective, continued involvement by the international community to assist in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Put differently, Taliban is ensuring that the international community (read Americans) will no longer ostracize it as a ruling elite. In retrospect, it was the dogged refusal of the US to recognize the Taliban regime in the late 1990s or provide it with any form of international assistance that finally prompted the latter for want of an alternative to accept the offer of financial help from Osama bin Laden.
According to the reports from Doha, a ceasefire is under discussion as well, followed by inter-Afghan talks. If so, the constitution of an interim government also becomes a real possibility. The crucial difference between 1992 and 1996 and now lies in the shift in the Pakistani position. The happenings of the past few days or weeks suggest three things:
One, Pakistan is not seeking a Taliban takeover by force in Afghanistan (even assuming that it has the capability to do so.) Two, Pakistan seems open to a broad-based government in Afghanistan (which includes Taliban or is led by Taliban.) And, three, Pakistan wants the US to remain engaged and committed to post-war Afghanistan.
However, the bottom line is that Pakistan realises that the US is making unprecedented concessions and an optimal point is at hand to close the deal. The US special representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad too cannot be unaware that President Trump would relish making a big announcement on Afghanistan as a crowning foreign policy success in his annual State of the Union address before the Congress in Washington.
Significantly, at the operational level, there are growing signs that Pakistan is marginalizing or eliminating the hardline elements within the Taliban. Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported last week somewhat cryptically that Mullah Yaghoub, son of Taliban’s founder late Mullah Omar and a member of the so-called Quetta Shura, has been killed in Peshawar following differences. Yaghoub is known to be a hardliner who even aspired to inherit his father’s mantle. The IRNA further reported, “Earlier, Afghan media reported that a number of Taliban leaders in Pakistan have been arrested after their meeting with Pakistan army commanders.”
The impression becomes unavoidable from various reports that some sort of “spring cleaning” is under way within the Taliban and, importantly, Pakistan is leveraging its influence to consolidate a Taliban leadership of “moderates”. All in all, Pakistan is helping the Taliban to prepare for “homecoming.” To be sure, Pakistan is acutely conscious that many spy agencies have established direct dealings with the Taliban and apprehends (and rightly so) that some of those countries may act as “spoilers” due to geopolitical considerations.
Without doubt, the elevation of Mullah Baradar in the leadership hierarchy can be seen in this light. It is useful to recall the speculation eight years ago that one of the things that apparently irked Islamabad and prompted it to crack down on Baradar in 2010 (while in Karachi) might have been his direct dealings with then Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
With his appointment as the head of the Qatar office of the Taliban and his new titular position as deputy to the Taliban head Mullah Akhundzada, Baradar has become the de facto point person for Khalilzad to engage with from the Taliban side. Conceivably, Baradar is the man to watch. He is poised to be a future political figure in the Kabul power structure. His credentials are impeccable having been a co-founder of the Taliban movement along with Mullah Omar who is not only trusted by Pakistan but also is a “moderate” who is acceptable to the Americans and is savvy enough to navigate the politics of intra-Afghan consensus.
Baradar was recently released after nearly 8 years of detention by the Pakistani security agencies at the behest of Khalilzad. By the way, it was not as if Pakistan had scores to settle with Baradar. Through his detention, Pakistan probably ensured greater control over any nascent peace process. Besides, it was important for Pakistan that he remained physically safe and “groomed” to take up a future leadership role when the time became ripe. In the Pakistani (and US) judgment, the time has come to end Baradar’s protective custody and to launch this experienced politician as the charioteer of the tumultuous journey ahead.