There is noticeable concern on whether the Taliban will participate in talks after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her intent to declare the Haqqani Network as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) to the US Congress within the deadline set. The impact of this declaration on the ongoing efforts for engaging the Taliban for reconciliation is likely to be negative. Given close links between the Taliban and the Haqqani’s these fears may be justified. A survey of the progress on negotiations so far would indicate that there may be a temporary setback to the talks with the Taliban.
To begin with the Eid message is one of the important political statements where a strictly religious occasion is used for sending signals to the people at large as well as to opponents. Thus both the Taliban and the government have used this occasion to send the signals to each other as well as the people.
President Hamid Karzai vehemently blamed the rebels for violent attacks on civilian population. The Taliban have used congregation during Ramadan especially after dark when the food and festivities are partaken to strike. The attacks in Nimroz and Kunduz in particular were in busy markets as people were shopping for Eid in the evening. Condemnation of these attacks and denial by the Taliban has become standard practice. The call by the Hizb Islami Chief to the cadres not to attack government officials is on the other hand most encouraging for increasingly the Taliban were targeting mayors and police chiefs with the aim of disrupting the administration and put pressure on the government.
The signals coming on negotiations with the Taliban remain mixed. In his Eid message, Taliban’s reclusive leader Mullah Omar attempted to convey to the rebels that talks were a victory of Taliban strategy and an interim phase before capture of power. Thus he said, talks with the United States “had not meant submission or abandoning our goals,” but were aimed at an exchange of prisoners, opening apolitical office and to “reach our goals.” He attempted to color the transition as a sign of victory. “The Afghan people will wage jihad (holy war) against the foreign invasion until complete independence of the country, though the invasion may ensconce itself in the garb of peace-keeping forces or strategic cooperation,” he said. Opening of office in Qatar is seen to be an important step as it is likely to be heralded as that of a government in exile.
The Taliban leader also sent a reassuring message to the masses of respect for human rights particularly women and also permission to pursue modern education. This has been obviously done seeing the upsurge of support for learning and strong voice that the Afghan women have got in the society today at least at the level of the elites. The Afghan government led by the President also used this occasion to seek reconciliation even offering the Taliban to be absolved of blame if it names others including the Pakistani intelligence agency’s hands in various incidents.
In an effort to revive peace parleys, the United States is reportedly willing to transfer Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba to Qatar in return for an American soldier in Taliban captivity. The Taliban leaders in Guantanamo Bay may provide the way ahead to kick start negotiations which have been stalled so far. While it is well established that there is likely to be some fallout from the same in the US in a Presidential election year, this is the bullet that the American President will have to bite to engage with the rebels
Another development in this area was the meeting between Afghan emissaries and Taliban former deputy Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who is in Pakistan’s custody since his apprehension in Pakistani city of Karachi in 2010. The high position that Baradar had in the Taliban hierarchy second only to Mullah Omar raises hopes of his ability to pursue fellow comrades to join the mainstream. Mullah Baradar’s importance is also evident as he is the highest-ranking Taliban commander to hail from the Popalzai, the same Pashtun sub-group as Karzai.
However having been outside the Taliban command circuit for some time now, how much he would be able to influence the hard liners remains to be seen, even though he would certainly be able to persuade the moderates to join the reconciliation process. The meeting with Afghan officials presumably of the High Peace Council was only possible with Pakistan’s active intervention thereby indicating a change of mood in Islamabad. "We are fully cooperating with Afghanistan in whatever they are asking for the peace process. For developing peace in Afghanistan, we are giving every kind of help. We have given access." Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in a recent interview. 30 or so Afghan Taliban leaders are in the custody of Pakistani establishment. This is also one of the sore points between Taliban leadership and Pakistan restricting influence of Islamabad on the rebels.
The true test of Pakistan’s commitment to Afghan peace process would be the release of Mullah Baradar. "Releasing Mullah Baradar would encourage other Taliban leaders to embrace reconciliation," Ismail Qasemyar, an adviser to Afghanistan's High Peace Council, was quoted by Reuters. "It would be a huge symbolic step." However others are more cautious. "It's not enough just to bring former Taliban commanders to Kabul," said Haji Mangal Hussain, a former adviser to Karzai. "The most important factor for bringing peace is to improve the quality of the Afghan government." More over what would be the approach of the Tajiks and Uzbeks who are viewing the negotiations with the Taliban as surrender by the government remains to be seen even though President Karzai has ensured that one amongst them Salahuddin Rabbani heads the High Peace Council (HPC). As for now the visit of Salahuddin Rabbani for consultation on Afghanistan’s reconciliation process and Pakistan’s role in it to Islamabad is likely to be the next trigger.
Emergence of local militia combating the Taliban in some provinces in the country is a new phenomenon in the current phase of violence even though local tribal leaders have been running such militias in the past. There are reports that local tribals have organized militias in the provinces of Ghazni and now Nangarhar to take on the Taliban after they were repeatedly assaulted by rebels and not permitted to carry out activities such as running schools. Battles are also being waged on local issues of control in some parts of these provinces. There were reports that Hizb E Islami is supporting such groups in an attempt to expand its influence. The government and security forces have been bystanders given that the locals have lost trust in delivery of law and order or security. How this will be weaved into the overall security network in the country now remains to be seen for there are negative fall outs of local leadership taking law in their own hand as well.
It is apparent that vigilante action by the locals is likely to place the Taliban on the back foot at least for some time before they take retaliatory action. Provision of some form of security to local leaders who have taken up cudgels against the Taliban is important for sustaining this would provide an impetus to shifting the population support away from militancy. Thus the right conditions may allow the government forces to build up public support and deny the same to the Taliban. This is particularly possible in the provinces where security transition has taken place for the Taliban will not be able to exploit presence of foreign troops as propaganda.
Against this backdrop one can expect the Taliban to pull out of talks at least temporarily given that Pakistan is also unlikely to be too happy with the declaration of this group as a FTO by the US. But this may be temporary and more importantly the signal to the rebels that they cannot carry out terrorist attacks with impunity while opening a façade for negotiations is important and to that extent this is a positive development.