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US-Taliban talks will usher in a new phase of civil war

June 24, 2013 17:52 IST

Washington is now set to begin formal negotiation with Mullah Omar's Taliban in Doha.

More than a year ago, after Barack Obama announced that American troops would leave Afghanistan by 2014, his move was criticised as being "all exit, no strategy". That is a fairly accurate characterisation of the Obama administration's approach in its second term towards Afghanistan.

The tyranny of a fixed withdrawal date is not only compelling Washington to act with undue haste and artificial desperation, it is also making the administration oblivious to even medium-term consequences of its own geopolitical interests.

Washington is now set to begin formal negotiation with Mullah Omar's Taliban in Doha. Things got off to a rocky start after the Taliban put up signboards and flew flags as if they were legitimate state entities, which drove Hamid Karzai, the legitimate president of Afghanistan, apoplectic with rage.

The United States is clearly indulging the Taliban, who see no reason to concede anything given that the Americans have declared their withdrawal date. The negotiations in Doha are only likely to increase the legitimacy of Mullah Omar's group in the eyes of the international community.

More importantly, instead of bringing the war to an end, the Doha negotiations will just rearrange the pieces for the start of a new phase of the civil war. In a couple of years, the US and its Western allies will have washed their hands of Afghanistan.

The Afghan government will be abandoned -- the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is unwilling to even adequately fund the Afghan security forces beyond 2014 -- and the Afghan people will be left at the mercy of the Taliban, tribal warlords and interfering neighbours.

Beyond 2014, many Western analysts see an Afghan government in control of the towns while the Taliban control the countryside. This is actually a pretty picture.

The Taliban are unlikely to be satisfied with the countryside and will try to take the towns. At the same time, they will suffer dissensions in their ranks and perhaps even see factional splits. Ethnic and tribal warlords, neither affiliated to the Taliban nor loyal to the Kabul government, are likely to gain strength especially in the western and northern regions of the country. All this means a whole lot of fighting, devastation and human suffering.

It is this picture India must prepare for.

The generals in the Pakistani military establishment will certainly be stroking their moustaches in satisfaction if not outright triumph.

Their investment paid off. Despite severe pressure from the US, the Pakistanis deceitfully protected the Taliban leadership from harm for more than a decade, and now have a card to play in negotiations over Afghanistan's future. This was the day Rawalpindi was waiting for.

Mullah Omar's Taliban will certainly be favourably inclined towards Pakistan, at least in the short term. This could be useful to Rawalpindi in, for instance, putting down the insurgency in Balochistan. However, in the Pashtun tribal areas, Hakimullah Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistan Taliban) is at war with the Pakistani state and swears allegiance to Mullah Omar. The Pakistan Taliban bears considerable animosity towards the Pakistani army and it is unclear if Mullah Omar will be able to persuade Hakimullah Mehsud to stop his campaign. Rawalpindi will not have it easy.

Pakistan's options will be further constrained by two factors: first, the extent of the residual US presence in the region (special forces and drones); and second, its dependence on international financial institutions to hold its economy together.India's concern has been that an unfavourable dispensation across the Hindu Kush risks adversely impacting India's national security. We saw this in the 1990s, when the alumni of the anti-Soviet jihad constituted surplus militant manpower that Pakistan could divert towards Jammu and Kashmir, raising the intensity of its proxy war against India.

This could happen again. Organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami continue to exist and receive patronage in Pakistan. India's principal security risk is the existence of radicalised, experienced and motivated militants who have no alternative career options. Pakistan treats them as "strategic assets" and does not hesitate to use them as instruments of its foreign policy.

True, both the strategic and tactical environments have changed since the 1990s and it is a lot more difficult for Pakistan today to infiltrate militants into Indian territory. Even so, it is in India's interests that the militants are engaged in fights far from our borders. For that reason, at the very least, New Delhi must engage a variety of players in Afghanistan and Pakistan. India must continue to support the Afghan National Security Forces, thereby bolstering their ability to fight the Taliban.

At the same time, New Delhi must support political organisations and militia that are anti-Taliban. More than two decades ago, New Delhi ensured that the Northern Alliance presented a meaningful challenge to Pakistan's proxies. It's time to do something similar. Old relationships can be rekindled and new ones forged. And yes, there's no harm in talking to the Taliban contingent in Doha, like the Iranians already did last month.

There's a lot of buzkashi that will be played in our northwestern neighbourhood in the next few years. Let the buzkashi be played in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not on our borders.

The writer is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think tank

Image: A general view of the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha

Photograph: Reuters

Nitin Pai
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