Syed Saleem Shahzad
With Afghanistan daily slipping into more anarchy and chaos, United States authorities, aware that they are unlikely to ever bring stability to the country by military means, continue to explore political avenues that ultimately could pave the way for them to withdraw from the country.
First there were the talks at the Pakistan Air Force base in Quetta with “moderate” elements of the Taliban (which immediately failed due to the US insistence on the sidelining of Taliban leader Mullah Omar). Then came the formation of Jaishul Muslim, a formal grouping of lesser Taliban lights (which failed even to enter into Afghanistan), and moves to pry some of the more powerful mujahideen commanders from the anti-US resistance movement.
And last week, former Taliban foreign minister Mullah Abdul Wakeel Mutawakil was released from US custody in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, where he had been in detention since handing himself over to the US in February last year.
Mutawakil has often been described in the Western media as a more “respectable” face of the Taliban. Shortly before the US sent troops to Afghanistan in late 2001, he reportedly had a major disagreement with Mullah Omar over sheltering Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. It was reported that Mutawakil led a group of Taliban who wanted bin Laden to leave Afghanistan to avoid US reprisals against the regime for sheltering al-Qaeda. Before becoming the Taliban foreign minister, Mutawakil is believed to have served as a spokesman and personal secretary to Mullah Omar.
The US has been forced to pursue different tactics in Afghanistan as a result of the failure of their hand-picked man, interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, to significantly establish his writ (ie, the US writ) over the country, let alone the capital, Kabul. Similarly, the carefully chosen (ie, compliant) governors in the southern provinces have proved incapable of stamping their authority in their regions, which have now become hotbeds of resistance.
The real power pillars of the Kabul regime, including the Northern Alliance and General Abdul Rasheed Dostum, have now clearly marked the boundaries of their interests, and they are at complete odds with those of the US. Pakistan, too, has shown leanings toward those who are not favoured by the US right now.
The Current Role of Pakistan
A few weeks ago, a top US diplomat visited the Pakistani port city of Karachi, and in an informal meeting told this correspondent that the US was very satisfied with Pakistan’s role in cracking down on al-Qaeda. “Pakistan really helped us in arresting them,” the envoy said. However, with regard to the Taliban, Pakistan’s role was altogether another matter, and it could not be fully trusted, the diplomat said.
Over the past months, Pakistan has supported select Afghan commanders with whom it had forged links during the former USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. These were covert operations, but now Islamabad is openly telling the US that it will “tame” these mujahideen if the US considers them important enough in Afghanistan’s power structure.
Well before the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in early 2002, Pakistan did its level best to create an alternative force to fill the looming power vacuum, but unfortunately its choices, including the Hizb-i-Islami, Afghanistan of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were not acceptable to the US. As a result, Pakistan had to digest the bitter pill of a pro-India, Iran and Russia Northern Alliance being given the dominant slice of power in Kabul.
But now, with the US’s first choice proving so poor, US authorities are keen on soliciting Pakistan’s assistance in sorting out the mess in Afghanistan, which includes the “moderate” Taliban concept, which initially the US found repugnant.
This initiative has increased with the release of Mutawakil, who is now expected, with help from the Pakistanis, to be given a senior position in the local government in Kandahar, the former spiritual headquarters of the Taliban.
At the same time, options are being explored to recruit other powerful former Taliban ministers into the central cabinet in key positions, including that of defence. On the one hand, they would then be in a position to cool the anti-US resistance, and also serve as a counterweight to the Northern Alliance, which the US is now finding somewhat recalcitrant.
The main problem would remain, though: the big names among the field commanders who have a large and loyal following among the masses. This is where Pakistan comes in, and it is working on behalf of the US to “convert”, for example, the legendary mujahideen Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Soon after September 11, 2001, Pakistan authorities invited Haqqani to Islamabad, where he was offered inducements by US authorities to change sides. He refused, and gave up his high position in the Taliban regime to take up arms as a guerrilla against the US-led invading army.
He currently commands a large force in the Paktia, Paktika and Khost regions where the resistance is at its fiercest. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, according to Asia Times Online sources, has assured the US that sooner or later Haqqani will be on their side. Close aides of Haqqani, though, dismiss out of hand such talk.
Which leaves the US no closer to breaking the deadlock in the country.
Some well placed sources have confirmed to Asia Times Online that contact between the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan, Dostum and two powerful hard-line Islamic parties of the Northern Alliance - the Jamiat-i-Islami Afghanistan led by Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani and the Ittahad-i-Islami Afghanistan, led by Professor Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf.
Apparently, recent anti-US skirmishes in Sarobi, Logar and Imam Sahab were the result of this new nexus. Such an alliance would further undermine US interests.
Many supporters of former monarch Zahir Shah, who initially backed Karzai in the hopes of royalists being allowed back into government, have become disillusioned as they believe that Karzai wants to become the unequivocal, and long-term leader of Afghanistan.
Karzai did have some support in Kandahar, but the latest mass escape of Taliban prisoners there illustrates that the network in the local administration has deep roots. Ever so slowly, events continue to turn against the US.
But even as the US attempts new approaches to counter these developments, such as talking to moderate Taliban, there is a growing awareness that the Taliban are not the real issue. They became US targets after September 11 for the simple reason that they were providing bin Laden and al-Qaeda sanctuary. The Taliban, therefore, were one of the first real casualties of the “war on terror”.
Now, al-Qaeda’s network in Afghanistan has effectively been broken, and it poses no threat to the US in that country. Thus, a growing argument runs, since there is no threat, should the US really care who rules the wasteland that is Afghanistan, be it the Taliban or the Northern Alliance or a combination thereof? Better that the US pull out its troops and leave the Afghanis to themselves.
Taking this reasoning a few steps further, one can only speculate how long it will be before the US begins dialogue with Mullah Omar.
Syed Saleem Shahzad