For quite some time now, conscious of the lack of success in its approach to the war on terrorism, the US had been mulling its options. The lame duck Afghan President Karzai, in deference to his ancestry, has been proposing that the Afghan Taliban could be approached to initiate negotiations, including on a political power sharing formula, to re-absorb them into mainstream political Afghanistan. Thus perhaps ending the prevalent stalemate — the least critical adjective for the American failure to conquer the intractable Afghan — and moving towards peace in this land ravaged by war for almost three decades.
The British were in favour of any approach that might end their agonising experiences in Afghanistan and seem to have convinced the American establishment to give it a try. Given that the ‘strategic thinking’ (sic) that was the hallmark of the Bush era is about to conclude, the outcome of this new approach is likely to be critically important for the new administration to reshape its policies with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The fresh approach under consideration appears to be intended to separate the Taliban from Al Qaeda: while opening channels to the Taliban, drive a wedge in their coalition with Al Qaeda and, in return for amnesty and a share in political power, ask them to identify known locations of Al Qaeda leadership that can then be targeted successfully — the centuries old formula of divide and conquer, not at all a bad idea if it can succeed.
There has recently been a meeting between senior representatives of the Karzai government and the Taliban leadership in Saudi Arabia to discuss options. Obviously, it could not have occurred without US permission.
There are however a number of difficulties along this path. Foremost among them is the matter of trust — the experiences of the common Afghan with the American establishment do not engender trust. The Americans broke their promises of reconstructing Afghanistan, and left them high and dry after the Soviet withdrawal. From the Afghan point of view, the US has violated them and their customs at will, post-2001, and has again failed to fulfil its promises of restructuring and reconstructing Afghanistan as a viable independent state.
On the other hand, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda have stood their friend through their trials. They have provided arms, munitions of war, and funds without expectation of returns. Al Qaeda has even proven beyond a shadow of doubt that the Americans were paying them a pittance for the poppy they produced, while Al Qaeda willingly shared its profits.
Why should they betray a proven friend for one with an established dubious reputation? What is more, most Pashtuns in Afghanistan and on Pakistan’s border belt believe that the Americans intend to wipe out their entire race.
Let us assume, then, that there will be duplicity on the part of the Taliban entering into negotiations with the Karzai government, which is, obviously, viewed as an American puppet. The Americans are no fools and will be fully conscious of this likelihood.
Consequently, information provided by the Taliban on the identity and location of Al Qaeda leadership will be treated with scepticism. It is equally certain that the Taliban will be conscious of the fact that they will be treated with suspicion, until their credibility is proven.
We can further assume that, conscious of these nuances, the Taliban and Al Qaeda will have decided upon individuals considered expendable and that the identities and locations of these individuals initially provided by the Taliban leadership to the Americans will be accurate, so as to establish their credibility.
Neither side will be certain on how far they can trust their own partners or how far they can trust their newfound allies. Assuming that American forces act on information received to successfully target those Al Qaeda leaders selected for betrayal, other mid-level leaders of Al Qaeda may lose confidence in their leadership and wish to change sides — the Americans will not know whether these are to be trusted or whether they are double-agents again. We now have the age-old classic diplomatic-intelligence paradigm of double- and triple-agents, not knowing who is which.
The problem with this game is that it is totally dependant on reliable intelligence. What the US fails to comprehend is that its total reliance on electronic intelligence is virtually useless in a region where human intelligence is essential to guide electronic intelligence for success. And that penetration into the ranks of Al Qaeda and the Taliban will take a long time indeed — the infiltrators will have to establish their credentials, which they can only do by committing acts of terrorism alongside their targets-to-be. It is a dirty game indeed.
In this process, it is very possible that the US might emerge as the initial gainer, and be able to target some of the Al Qaeda leadership and, by sowing seeds of dissent and mistrust, might even send Al Qaeda underground.
However, from the Pakistani perspective, the long-term threat is likely to increase. A return of the Taliban with a political power sharing formula in Afghanistan will make it impossible for Pakistan to eliminate them from its own tribal belt.
It is obvious that the world is unlikely to see the return of the pre-Soviet invasion Afghanistan. A future Afghanistan is more likely to be a confederation with a relatively weak centre and a number of centres of political power other than Kabul. If some of these become exclusively Taliban areas, and the Americans continue to maintain a presence in Afghanistan, the region is likely to continue to see the very turmoil that this fresh approach seeks to eliminate.
This is a modified version of an article originally written for the daily National
Source: Daily Times, 18/10/2008