View Full Version : Tough negotiations by MOEED YUSUF - 8th March 2016

8th March 2016, 11:19 AM
IT has been an interesting two weeks for the Afghan reconciliation process. First, Pakistan stuck its neck out to publicly accept that it has potent levers to pressure the Afghan Taliban. Then, the latter poured cold water over the optimism this generated by declining to join formal talks.

Pakistan’s confession came courtesy Sartaj Aziz’s remarks to a Washington policy audience whereby he accepted that the Taliban leadership and their families live in Pakistan and receive medical treatment here. The formal communiqué of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, the reason for Aziz’s Washington sojourn, also contains a fairly direct commitment that Pakistan will no longer allow Taliban to operate from its soil.

Aziz’s statement reflects that Pakistan, perhaps for the first time, feels reasonably comfortable with the ongoing quadrilateral process aimed at promoting Afghan reconciliation.

For the longest period, Pakistan has wanted relatively evenhanded negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban. As insurgencies go, the balance of negotiations is a direct function of relative battlefield positions. Therefore, Pakistan’s preference has been a situation where outright military victory was unrealistic for both Kabul and the Taliban. While one could argue that such a stalemate has existed for some years, the Pakistan establishment did not believe that those who mattered in Kabul and Washington had accepted this.

The Afghan Taliban are giving Pakistan the runaround.
One, Pakistan never trusted president Karzai when it came to the reconciliation agenda. The establishment perceived Karzai as trying to use talks to weaken the Taliban from within before going for the kill on the battlefield. Therefore, Pakistan wasn’t too keen to play ball. This is why when others tried workarounds by talking to the Taliban sans Pakistan, the latter scuttled the efforts.

Two, the above given, Pakistan felt that accepting Taliban presence in Pakistan would make it tougher for it to evade international calls for kinetic action against them and for their forced expulsion from its territory. Pakistan’s stance allowed it plausible deniability and, in turn, an ability to deflect demands to ‘do more’.

Aziz’s acknowledgement implies that Pakistan feels its traditional concerns about the approach to reconciliation have been addressed. More specifically, Pakistan believes that President Ghani is sincere in wanting to strike a deal with the Taliban rather than using talks as a ruse to defeat them. It seems convinced that it has a central enough role in the quadrilateral process that it can either ensure this or put the dampers on. Finally, officials in the relevant capitals, including Islamabad, confirm that backchannel conversations are no longer about trying to get Pakistan to employ serious kinetic force against the Taliban per se.

In other words, Aziz’s acceptance isn’t as much about a change in Pakistan’s position as it is confirmation that others have moved closer to its preference. As a quid pro quo, Pakistan has shed its plausible deniability to prove its commitment to the cause.

This explains the optimism. Rightly or wrongly, the world has long believed that Pakistan is the single biggest obstacle to getting things moving on the reconciliation front. The conventional wisdom has been that if Pakistan really wanted to, it could force the Taliban into real negotiations. There now seems to be a consensus of sorts among the quadrilateral partners that Pakistan is finally on it.

But the Taliban’s decision to stay away from talks has exposed the basic problem with this approach.

While Pakistan has clout over the Taliban, it can’t dictate terms largely because one key aspect of its policy will remain unaltered. Under no circumstances does Pak*istan want the Taliban to turn against the Pakistani state. The Taliban know this. In a recent track-II dialogue in Doha where the Taliban’s entire political commission was present, it was jolting to realise just how confident they were of being able to give Pakistan the runaround. For this very reason.

Second, while Pakistan can do enough to force the Taliban to the table — it managed it at Murree last year — it can only ensure a forced appearance on their part. The history of comparable negotiations with insurgents confirms that talks under duress almost never work unless the insurgent is in danger of being decimated on the battlefield. Incidentally, the Taliban made it clear at Doha that while they know they’ll have to come to the talks if forced, they’ll only be going through the motions. It was also clear they detested the ISI for forcing them to go to Murree.

I suspect we’ll soon have a couple of inconsequential rounds of talks. Pakistan will feel it has done what it promised while the world will default to asking Pakistan to ‘do more’. As the bickering ensues, the Taliban will continue to sit pretty, to everyone’s detriment.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.