Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the recently announced opening of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, is that it never could have happened if there hadn’t been an agreement with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. The Taliban tied the announcement of its new office specifically to talks with the United States and its allies. ISI controls the Afghan Taliban’s existence in Pakistan and therefore the Pakistanis must now be back in full operational liaison with the U.S. It would appear that the breakdown in intelligence relations after the accidental killing by NATO air attacks of 24 Pakistan soldiers has now been “evolved.”
Something else that seems to have been overtaken by events is the highly controversial report that five major Taliban leaders would be released from their detention in Guantanamo as the price for peace talks with the Taliban. This release undoubtedly will be part of the negotiations that supposedly will happen through the opening of the new office in Doha. In fact, the terms of the negotiations have already been laid out.
The real issue is the future objective of the American side. The Taliban’s motivation is clear and steadfast. It is prepared to fight on indefinitely to remove foreign influence in the governance of Afghanistan. The Americans are pulling out in two years if the Obama-designated timetable is adhered to, but no one seems to know what Washington expects after that.
It has been written by some observers that the U.S. State Department is behind the push to negotiate, while the Pentagon and CIA want to keep the pressure on by fighting “until the last U.S. soldier leaves Afghanistan.” (Ahmed Rashid, Financial Times, 12/5/11.) This surprisingly simplistic analysis by a veteran writer shows the type of confusion that has been sown by an Obama administration that repeatedly leaks information that it believes aids its reelection prospects.
It had become accepted that Washington always could rely on President Hamid Karzai to say or do something that would be counter to American interests or at the very least be an impediment to current diplomatic or political initiatives He fooled them on the establishment of the Taliban office in Qatar by taking only one day to issue a public statement approving the office opening and beginning direct peace talks. In any case, Karzai — if he stays alive — always will have to be part of a peace settlement, whether as president or as simply one of the leading tribal personalities of the Pashtun. If the argument against Karzai is that he runs a corrupt government, someone is going to have to figure out some way to govern Afghanistan without payoffs to tribal leaders and local warlords. It hasn’t happened yet.
Among the issues involved in negotiating with the Taliban is that there are several components to the system of command established under Mullah Mohammad Omar’s leadership. According to a declassified SECRET State Dept. cable: “The Taliban have created four major institutional structures that technically maintain the ability to weigh in on policy issues and policy implementation.” These four shura with various counseling roles have existed since the late ’90s. Although the relative influence of these councils has changed, Mullah Omar seems only to have grown in stature and power.
That there is to be established a Taliban representative office in Qatar actually is less important than the fact that Mullah Omar himself would have had to approve the action. This makes far more serious the officially stated willingness on the part of the Taliban to hold negotiations with the U.S. and its allies. Equally important, however, is the total lack of reference to the current Afghan government, which presumably is to have no formal part in the discussions.
There are many sensitive aspects of Afghan political affairs with which the American negotiators have to deal. While the U.S. and its allies still have to handle Hamid Karzai with great care, clearly Mullah Omar wants to have nothing to do with the Afghan president. The ISI of Pakistan undoubtedly will maintain their usual close contact with Mullah Omar and the principals in the Taliban leadership. To add to the difficult factors at play in any negotiation with Mullah Omar’s representatives, the reality is that the Haqqani amalgam of forces is always capable on either a political or military basis of choosing a path of self-interest as it has in the past.
The Taliban has not been militarily defeated even though it may have suffered tactical reverses and may have been weakened by the loss of key field leadership cadre. But it senses — or rather Mullah Omar senses — that President Obama’s reelection campaign is a propitious time for talking with the Americans already bent on beginning withdrawal of their military from Afghanistan in two years. Once again the Taliban has gained the initiative.