Domestic politics frequently dictates war aims. This is particularly so when the front line is as far off as Afghanistan is from the United States and Europe and the enemy as elusive as the Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This axiom played out in the London international conference on Afghanistan on 28 January where amongst a number of important decisions the one on reconciliation with the “good” Taliban will remain one of the most controversial.
India which suffered the fallout of the Taliban rule during their brief control of Kabul from 1996 to 2001- when the country had become a base for training and arming militants for Jammu & Kashmir - as a responsible regional player has decided to go along with the international community though the IC 814 hijack to Kandahar remains fresh in public memory.
The National Peace and Reintegration Programme as proposed in the London Conference will be initiated through a Grand Peace Jirga before the Kabul Conference later during the year to bring Taliban leaders and soldiers willing to join the government on board. A Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund to finance the Afghan-led Peace and Reintegration Programme has also been formed. An initial commitment of $140 million has been made which is expected to go up to $500 million.
There were sufficient indications that a plan for reconciliation with the Taliban was being made. There have been possibly a number of meetings with the Taliban and the level of penetration of the organisation and the leadership is not very clear at present. In consonance with this strategy, the Security Council's al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee approved de-listing of the names of Mutawakil, Faiz Mohammad Faizan, Maulvi Abdul Hakim Monib, Shamsus Safa Aminzai and Muhammad Musa Hotak, all senior government functionaries during the Taliban regime. The reaction of the Taliban Shura to the proposal has been ambivalent even as report of a meeting with the UN Chief Kai Eide was denied thus, "The Leadership Council considers this mere futile and baseless rumours, being a machination against jihad and the Mujahideen."
Special advisor to President Hamid Karzai, Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta and a former Foreign Minister gave an impression that the scheme to reintegrate moderate Taliban into the national mainstream was not aimed at sharing power with the insurgents. If that be so why the top Taliban leadership should join the government remains a moot question. The main problem would remain therefore the leadership who will not be satisfied with ministerial or other portfolios which do not match their current or past stature. This is the problem being faced by Hamid Karzai even today when he has to juggle posts with leaders such as the Uzbek chief, Dostum to keep them on the right side of the government.
Thus the plan may well succeed in getting a number of foot soldiers and minor leaders over, but their integration may be extremely challenging and an institutional mechanism for the same would have to be established. The “$25 a day Taliban” – as they are being called in some quarters would keep their options open to switch sides unless there is an effective plan to integrate them into civil society.
Peace and reconciliation is a good strategy when a militant force is defeated and is on the retreat, but will be difficult to implement when there are no signs of the Taliban having lost their capability to launch attacks at will. Under the circumstances it would seem to be an abject surrender. What is also relevant is collection of funds for buying out the Taliban. Such a policy is likely to discredit the peace parleys and reconciliation when ever held. So there are dangerous days ahead.
On examination of all facets it is evident that talks with the Taliban or those who have left their ilk and want to play a larger role in national reconstruction have been taking place at multiple levels. Firstly the meeting said to be have been held between UNAMA chief Kai Eide and some Taliban representatives has been denied by both sides. What ever be the truth, some negotiations with UN representatives may have taken place which has led to the five former members of the Taliban cabinet being delisted from UN sanctions.
At the second level a meeting between the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar faction of the Taliban and representatives of the government including some MPs has reportedly taken place in Maldives, and may lead to a rapprochement between the Hekmatyar faction and the Karzai government.
At a third level there is engagement between the Afghan government and splinter groups who masquerade as the Taliban but who are reasonably autonomous led by prominent tribal chiefs or criminal groups. This reconciliation will happen through the tribal jirga being held before the Kabul Conference.
At a fourth level it is not clear if any negotiations are on with hard core Taliban – either the Quetta shura or the Haqqani faction – which will invariably happen through the Pakistani ISI as these groups are beholden to it. These negotiations if any will be calibrated by the Establishment in Rawalpindi for they remain its, “strategic assets”.
Past experience of such reconciliation and peace deals in the Af-Pak region particularly with the Pakistani Taliban of North and South Waziristan show that these have simply ended up with both sides taking a breather from fighting, gaining time to recoup and resume their ideological as well as armed struggle. Therefore the reintegration plan may be used by the Taliban to see exit of the ISAF/NATO and then proceed with the plan to establish the so called Islamic Caliphate in the country.
Thus a scenario of the Taliban using this opportunity to see tapering down of the NATO presence in Afghanistan to restart their campaign of violence would have to be guarded against. This is the ‘honey-trap’ that Western governments may well fall for.
India can supplement its current contribution by providing expertise and experience in the integration council being created by the Afghan government though this would be vehemently opposed by Pakistan, our experience in successfully concluding such negotiations in the North East and integrating a large number of militants in the main stream would be invaluable in Kabul.
On the whole a major review of India’s Afghan policy may be on the cards factoring in a reconciled Taliban for which it would have to reactivate its Pashtun linkages, one of whom remains the Afghan President himself.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies).