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Should Western and Asian powers talk to the Taliban?

"Whether any effective communication has been possible with significant Taliban figures remains unknown," the author Salman Haider wrote. He details India's stance on the topics and explains that "India has been reserved about the prospect of talks with apparently amenable Taliban, being sceptical of the credentials of the various groups;"

There following article was written by Salman Haider, originally published in The Statesman on February 24, 2011 and reproduced on the website of the Ministry of External Affairs of India.

We are now well into 2011, which was to be a year of decision in Afghanistan. A surge in US troops was to permit more forceful action against the Taliban, which in turn would enable a drawing down of foreign forces from around the middle of the year, with local Afghan forces progressively able to take over prime responsibility for security and order. The increasingly unpopular engagement in Afghanistan impelled the US leadership to indicate that theirs' was not an open-ended commitment and that an end to the US presence in Afghanistan would soon commence. But even so there has been no conclusion to the debate on how best to proceed, and, according to some reports, influential US advisers are not yet convinced that a military solution is not attainable. In Kabul, President Karzai has called for extending the withdrawal date to 2014, and has pressed for dialogue with the opposition as part of the effort for a long-term solution. At the same time, the battle on the ground continues, adding to the uncertainty about what is going on and where events could be leading.

In the midst of these developments, it has been revealed that over the last several months contact has been taking place between the Taliban and Kabul, with tacit support from the USA. These dealings imply recognition that there can be no purely military solution to the problem, nor can the Afghan authorities be expected to conclude the task of subduing the Taliban that the USA and its partners have failed to do. Although a new model Afghan army is being created, without support it may be hard pressed to resist concerted pressure from rebel groups. This is in contrast to the situation in the time of the late King Zahir Shah, whose family came to the throne with the help of tribal militias but went on to raise a modern army, trained with foreign assistance, that was intended to keep Kabul secure against any tribal combination ~ it is another matter that it failed the test in 1973 when Sardar Daoud staged a coup.

The point is that if the centre is to maintain itself it has to have adequate military capacity, for defence and also to make it a credible pivot for a political settlement. In the long process of war that has afflicted Afghanistan, first against the Russians, followed by intense civil strife, and then invasion by the USA and the West, that capacity has been largely lost. Regaining it is problematical, for authority remains fragmented, and well-equipped local militias under powerful local chiefs are difficult to curb: they may pursue their own goals even if their allegiance to the Taliban ideology is shaky.

There is thus a complex web of groups opposed to centralized authority, with shifting and uncertain alliances between them. Their shared purpose may not extend much beyond opposing the foreign presence, which in turn has done all it can to bring such rebel groups to heel. The rebels are strong in some parts of the country, like Kandahar, where the current military campaign is focused, and their ability to use Pakistan as a safe haven has greatly complicated the military task. So intractable is the situation that counsels of despair have been heard from some quarters, proposing that the southern parts where the Taliban and their sympathizers are so strongly lodged should be left to their own devices and the international pacification and rehabilitation effort confined to the less affected northern parts. These may be no more than isolated voices on the margins but they are not to be wholly ignored.

As quiet, barely acknowledged dialogue takes shape, certain limits have already been placed, especially by US spokespersons. Thus it is made plain that there can be no truck with Al Qaida or with those accused of criminal activities ~ they remain beyond the pale, and what is up for discussion, also whether any effective communication has been possible with significant Taliban figures, remains unknown. Some observers are of the view that the Taliban may have little interest in a compromise solution because they are local people who will remain when the invaders have gone, as their forbears did, so they feel time is on their side. Nor has their ideological fervour been blunted. But such views may at this stage be premature for they are yet to be tested in negotiations.

Also to be taken into consideration is the complication of Pakistan’s role. Some major Taliban leaders and their supporters are located in the tribal areas of Pakistan from where they have easy access to Afghan tribal territory. They are believed to enjoy the active support of various Pakistani agencies which thus can come to have a hand in any attempt to bring matters to a negotiated conclusion. Some Pakistan-based Taliban groups, like for example the so-called ‘Quetta shura’, have been mentioned in this connection. Whatever may be the reality behind the quiet contacts that have already taken place, it is only to be expected that Pakistan will be an active party in the unfolding events. For many years now, they have been actively involved in the military struggle, as a crucial US ally and also, more controversially, as an unacknowledged source of support for the Taliban. As matters head into what could be the opening of the final phase, it is hardly to be supposed that Pakistan will now become aloof from events. On the contrary, it is likely to become more closely engaged, which can add to the difficulties of an already highly complex situation.

Hitherto, India has been reserved about the prospect of talks with apparently amenable Taliban, being sceptical of the credentials of the various groups and apprehensive of any accretion to their standing through dialogue with Kabul. India has a substantial assistance programme in Afghanistan which is acknowledged as being effective and helpful to the intended beneficiaries, and should not become a target for extremist forces. Nevertheless, the probing effort to seek dialogue continues even while drone attacks on Taliban strongholds in Pakistan’s frontier areas carry on. No forum has yet been established in which India and other regional countries, Iran prominent among them, could come together in the effort to re-establish durable peace. Nor is there any letup in Pakistani suspicions of India’s actions, which they tend to regard as being aimed at Pakistani interests.

In these circumstances, new policy challenges are looming ahead for India. A regional effort for peace has been discussed in the past and as the foreign presence begins to be reduced, it will become more important to move in that direction. India could certainly expect to play its full part in any such regional initiative.

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