Dial 1 to speak to the Taliban

The Economist‘s Asia blog considers the prospects for peace in Afghanistan now that the Taliban has an official address — a political office in Qatar.

Peace with the Taliban has three main actors and a large unsupporting cast. The opening of a Taliban office in Qatar suggests a change of direction from one of the essential players, Pakistan. Previous attempts by senior Talibs to talk to the Americans and the Afghan government have been nixed by Pakistan, anxious to maintain a stranglehold over the Taliban movement and ensure that any peace process worked in Islamabad’s interests. Just last year when the media reported that Tayeb Agha, the former secretary to the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, had been holding secret talks with German and American diplomats, his entire family in Pakistan was promptly put under house arrest.

The latest round of talks that led to the Qatar breakthrough was once again led by Mr Agha. Western experts in Kabul think the plan would never have got this far without a degree of Pakistani involvement, which in turn implies a measure of support from Islamabad.

America, the second big player, hopes that by dangling the possibility of releasing senior Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo in exchange for a ceasefire, it can nurture a serious peace process. At the same time, American diplomats are talking tough, trying to convince the Taliban that they cannot win in the long-run, and have no chance of sweeping back to power and re-establishing their old regime.

For those Taliban who pay attention to geopolitics, the argument is convincing. First, a little background. The circumstances that saw the Taliban rise to power in 1996 are unlikely to be repeated. In those days America had withdrawn from Afghan affairs, whilst the Soviet Union no longer existed. Without the involvement of the two great superpowers, the field was left clear for Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s neighbour had long been anxious to see a weak, pliant regime in Kabul that would be hostile to India and not assert claims to territory ceded in 1893, under British pressure, to what is now Pakistan. Pakistan eventually got everything it wanted by throwing support behind an obscure bunch of pious former mujahideen led by Mr Omar, back when he was just a one-eyed mullah living in the rural outskirts of Kandahar. Pakistan’s infamous Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) helped put these religious “students”, or Taliban, in power by giving them military support, as well as paying-off power brokers who stood in their way.

Fast forward to today and things look far less congenial for the Taliban. Despite American weariness at the high cost in lives and treasure, it remains unlikely that Afghanistan will be abandoned again. Today’s insurgency remains a phenomenon restricted to just one ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Consequently it lacks the nationwide appeal that the mujahideen enjoyed in the 1980s. In military terms the insurgents have been clobbered in swathes of the south. They are only really vigorous in a relatively small number of districts. Also, despite the notorious short comings of the Karzai administration, the Afghan state continues to strengthen. In such circumstances it would make sense for the insurgents to make a deal sooner rather than later.

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