Monday, August 20, 2007

Signs of another lost war

Taliban, US in new round of peace talks

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The few weeks between the visits to Pakistan of Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state who left last week, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who arrives on September 10, could prove crucial in determining the fate of Afghanistan.

This is the timeline for secret three-party talks to establish teega (a Pashtu word for a peace deal that resolves a conflict) between the Western coalition forces in Afghanistan (with Pakistan), the Afghan government, and the anti-coalition insurgents of Afghanistan. The first round of talks has already begun in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, Asia Times Online has learned.

The outcome of the talks will to a large extent decide the agenda of Negroponte's visit and the course of the US-led "war on terror" in the region.

The talks are based on previous Pakistan-inspired efforts to secure peace deals between the insurgents and the Western coalition in specific areas in Afghanistan with the longer-term goal of incorporating the Taliban into the political process both in Kabul and in provincial governments.

Similar deals were struck last year in the southwestern Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Urzgan, but they lapsed. In addition to reviving these, the talks aim to include the southeastern provinces of Kunar and Khost. The negotiators are Taliban commanders, Pakistani and American intelligence members, and Afghan authorities.

The Taliban, under the command of Mullah Mansoor (brother of the legendary Mullah Dadullah, who was killed in battle this year), are in Satellite town, Quetta, to talk of teega. The next rounds are scheduled for Peshawar, the provincial capital of North-West Frontier Province, and in the Waziristan tribal areas with Taliban commanders of the southeastern provinces.

Specifically, the deals aim to stop violence in selected areas and give the Taliban limited control of government pending the conclusion of a broader peace deal for the country and the Taliban's inclusion in some form of national administration.

The Taliban and coalition forces struck limited ceasefire deals last year in Kandahar and Helmand provinces (see the Asia Times Online series In the land of the Taliban of December 2006). These included the districts of Musa Qala, Baghran, Nawzad, Sangeen, Kajaki and Panjwai. However, to preempt the Taliban's planned massive uprising this year, coalition forces ended the ceasefires last December and engaged the Taliban in conflict.

As a result, the Taliban changed their plan and diverted to the northwestern areas of Farah and Badghis and also increased their activities in Ghazni, Kunar, Gardez, Khost and Nangarhar. Instead of face-to-face battles, as in the successful spring offensive of 2006, they refined their tactics in asymmetric warfare and carried out targeted actions, especially on development projects.

Rebuilding peace - and pipelines
Coalition efforts in Afghanistan include substantial development and reconstruction projects, but these have been hampered by the insurgency. A key project is a regional oil and gas pipeline project worth US$10 billion that will run from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan, the TAP, and possibly on to India, on which work is to be started in the near future.

A US company, International Oil Co (IOC), recently won the contract from Pakistan to construct the 2,200-kilometer pipeline over the next three years. In a statement, IOC said matters relating to security in Afghanistan and insurance guarantees had been finalized. The preferred route is the southern one, via Herat and restive Kandahar province.

Clearly, peace deals with the Taliban would help ensure the viability of such projects. But whether any deals struck will last is another matter. Taliban leader Mullah Omar is still not entirely behind them, and there is always the issue of al-Qaeda stirring trouble.

In the short term, though, the Taliban are likely to embrace the idea - provided they are given the realistic carrot of political gains - as they are in the process of refining a new command structure and need the breathing space.

However, many commanders based in the southeast are convinced that it would be a big blunder for the Taliban to slow down their activities for the sake of any deal. Instead, they want to seize this opportunity and drive for a bigger bargain, such as the withdrawal of all foreign forces.

The West's perception
Contrary to the Cold War era's Central Asian focus, Afghanistan is now seen in terms of the South Asian region, especially with regard to the struggle between Pakistan and India for strategic political and economic influence.

The ultimate goal now is to shut down this war theater, which has bred global militancy, so that initiatives such as the TAP can go ahead. TAP is the US alternative to a planned pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and India.

Similarly, Western intelligence is convinced that Taliban and al-Qaeda assets in Pakistan are the root cause of the Taliban's insurgency in Afghanistan, as confirmed in the United States' latest National Intelligence Estimate. Thus nothing could be gained by fighting a lone battle in Afghanistan's mountainous fastness.

So Pakistan was warned this year to eliminate the safe havens of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Islamabad was provided with a map of their assets and asked for an action plan. It was emphasized that coalition troops across the border in Afghanistan would be ready to take care of all "voids" Pakistan was not able to deal with in its own territory. But the Taliban have since left most of their known bases in Pakistan. (See Taliban a step ahead of US assault, Asia Times Online, August 11, 2007.)

The US now accepts that Pakistan still has access to and influence with the Taliban, unlike the government in Kabul. This realization eventually prompted Washington to sponsor the recent Pakistan-Afghanistan peace jirga (council) in Kabul to identify new players in the game before the "war on terror" enters a new phase in which the battlefield includes both Pakistan and Afghanistan, rather than Afghanistan alone.

The ongoing peace talks with the Taliban on Pakistani soil are a continuation of this process.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at

Original article posted here.

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