Understanding the Taliban - Rustam Shah Mehmood - 1st March 2013

The departure of most coalition forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 has generated a debate on the possible outcome for Pakistan, and in particular for its border areas. There are some analysts who believe that a complete withdrawal would plunge Afghanistan into another spiral of sustained violence, triggering the arrival of a new wave of refugees into Pakistan.

Many other writers are of the view that such an event would reinvigorate the Pakistani Taliban who would become more assertive in their demand for the introduction of an Islamic system in the country. Some also hold the view that a complete withdrawal of coalition forces would halt the inflow of western capital into war-ravaged Afghanistan, creating an economic chaos that would have repercussions beyond the borders of that country.

These assumptions, however sincerely perceived, betray a lack of awareness of the objective realities of Afghanistan. First, the United States is not planning to end its military presence in Afghanistan by the end of next year. It will leave behind a substantial combat and non-combat forces equipped with the most lethal and sophisticated weaponry, coupled with a significant number of helicopters, fighter jets, bombers etc.

Many combat troops will be staying on as trainers. A large number of intelligence operatives drawn from the 16 different intelligence outfits would also be spread across the country. The private military contractors’ security forces – which currently number more than 50,000 – would depart but there will be a few thousands left behind for ‘security’ duties for convoys and military bases.

Four main military bases will continue to remain firmly under US control: Shindand, Mazar, Bagram and Kandahar. A huge military base is being constructed over hundreds of acres of land northwest of Jalalabad in the Laghman province in the Ghambiri area, and will be nearly equal in size to the sprawling, and expanding, military base at Mazar-e-Sharif.

The Taliban in Afghanistan have declared in unequivocal terms that neither the ‘strategic partnership’ agreement that was signed last year between the Afghan government and the US, nor the proposed ‘status of forces’ agreement would be acceptable or binding because they refuse to recognise the legitimacy of a regime that is propped up by the presence of foreign military forces in the country. In other words, the presence of the US military even in much less strength would not help bring the conflict to an end. The Taliban will continue their opposition and the fighting will not stop.

The continuation of military presence in Afghanistan is dictated by considerations beyond the borders of Afghanistan – namely containment of China, influence and hegemony over Central Asia, maintaining a close watch over Pakistani nuclear development. Be that as it may, the departure of most foreign forces would not mean an end to fighting or insurgency in Afghanistan.

A chaotic situation could only be avoided if an agreement is reached with the (Afghan) Taliban which is premised on the complete withdrawal of all external forces. Such an agreement would ensure that there are no foreign militants in Afghanistan and that Afghan soil is not allowed to be used against any other country. The accord will be underwritten by regional countries including China, Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, Turkey and the Central Asian republics.

The agreement will also stipulate that there is a broad-based, multiethnic government in Afghanistan. For a variety of reasons, Pakistan will be a key player in helping to organise a series of meetings that will culminate in an agreement that would also pave the way for a complete withdrawal of all external forces from Afghanistan.

But there will not be any possibility – whether in a situation following an agreement that leads to the US pulling out all its military forces or with the insurgency continuing if the Americans insist on keeping about 15-20,000 forces in the country – of the Pakistani Taliban becoming stronger in resolve or resources that could cause worries to the Pakistani establishment.

One fact that is lost on many people is that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan – Pakistani Taliban – and the Afghan Taliban are two completely different entities. The Afghan Taliban movement appeared on Afghanistan’s landscape in October 1994; the Pakistani Taliban emerged in the tribal areas in 2003 only after the military moved into these areas in 2002. There was no Taliban movement or activity of any kind in the tribal areas between 1996 and 2001 when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban are spearheading a struggle to end the occupation of their country; the Pakistani Taliban have no clearly defined goal or objective. The Afghan Taliban have a consultative council, or ‘shura,’ and have shadow governors and advisers for each province; the Pakistani Taliban are a motley crowd, riven by intense rivalries.

The Taliban in Afghanistan have many times disowned any links with the Pakistani Taliban. The latter’s declaration of allegiance to Mullah Omar is only a crafty move to gain the support of likeminded people or to enhance the TTP’s credentials. Thus, when the Afghan Taliban sent two delegations to plead with the Pakistani Taliban not to execute Col Imam, the plea was rejected. The execution ended up driving a permanent wedge between the two organisations.

Even in the unlikely event of the US reaching an accord with the Taliban in Afghanistan, there will be no possibility of that becoming a morale booster to the Pakistani Taliban. This is so because Pakistan will have played a key role in peacemaking in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban will not encourage any move that would result in destabilising Pakistan’s government or systems. They have not – not even in adversity – lent support to any endeavour that could cause instability in Pakistan.

One must also bear in mind the dwindling level of support for the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas. This places grave limitations on the group’s strength, and its capability and influence. An organisation thus handicapped will not be in a position to challenge the writ of the state in the manner feared by some in Pakistan.

The road to peace in the tribal areas lies in restoring the institutions, taking the various tribes on board, providing support to the tribes to confront the militants, pulling out of the farce called the war on terror, withdrawing the military, creating conditions for the return of displaced people and undertaking a programme for rehabilitation of the war-torn area.

Unless we make an effort to understand the reasons behind the conflict in Afghanistan or in our own tribal areas, we will continue to be misled into treating the symptoms rather than eradicating the disease.

The writer is a former chief secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and a former ambassador.