All sorts of indications have been coming in lately that the direct talks between the United States and the Taliban leadership of Mullah Omar are finally gaining traction. The Taliban statement on the killing of Osama bin Laden certainly contained nuances indicative of a certain distancing from al-Qaeda in institutional terms. The US-Taliban talks taking place through emissaries have been held in third countries such as Qatar and Germany. Saudi Arabia is somewhat under the weather at the moment for prevailing upon Pakistan to betray bin Laden – as evident in the murder of the Saudi diplomat in Karachi (apparently by al-Qaeda, although you can’t be sure). The big issue is the role for Kabul and Islamabad in these direct US-Pakistan talks. Put differently, has the US intelligence penetration of the Afghan-Pakistani insurgent groups been so hugely successful that Washington has no reason to be dependent on the ISI or on Hamid Karzai anymore for getting through to the Quetta Shura? According to the Pakistani newspaper Nation quoting unnamed sources, there could be as many as 7000 or more US intelligence operatives crawling all over Pakistan. Now, that is very extensive “penetration” that will take some time for the Pakistani authorities to root out and eliminate. (I wonder how Pakistani military could have been so naive as to trust the US and hand over their entire country like this on a platter!
Be that as it may, this, in my opinion, is a grey area – how autonomous US intelligence operations inside Pakistan are today, especially vis-a-vis the Quetta Shura. Much as the Americans would pretend they can dispense with the ISI (or Pakistani military role as mediator/facilitator) and although it is a high probability that eventually, at some distant stage the “Afghanness” of the Taliban leadership would finally surge (manifesting a desire to diversify their contacts with the international community and shake off the ISI mentors), my estimation is that this inevitable, inexorable happening can only take place over a period of time and certainly not when the fighting is going on and the Taliban are highly vulnerable to Pakistani pressure for accessing manpower, weapons and safe havens. The Taliban commanders cannot be possessing the military skills to work out operational details and physically survive to fight for another day when David Petraeus is relentlessly hunting them down, without expert professional guidance.
As for the Americans, it suits them to put on a certain bravado that their dependence on Pakistan is not so very critical as generally believed. However, the fact that John Kerry was dispatched to islamabad within a fortnight of the Abbottabad episode reminds us once again that the Barack Obama administration is in a desperate hurry to ease the tensions and to get things moving. (Hillary Clinton is also apparently going to visit Islamabad soon.) The drying up of the ISI intelligence must be hitting the US operations very hard indeed.
Therefore, again, cutting right through the usual American bluster to thicken the fog of the war, a fascinating question occurs to me: What about Hamid Karzai’s dogged insistence that the Taliban reconciliation should be “Afghan-led”? Will Karzai accept that the Americans literally hijacking the Taliban from under his nose and not only talking to them but also cutting him out of the talks? Is he happy that he is kept informed by the Americans on a “need-to-know” basis as to the progress of the US-Taliban talks? Doesn’t he want to be in the loop? After all, the outcome of the US-Taliban talks also concerns his political future as a Pashtun leader and a national figure.
The crunch time comes when the Taliban are finally led out into the open before TV cameras. There is much talk that they would have a representative office functioning work out of Qatar. Why has the Istanbul idea been dropped? It seems US is anxious to keep the Taliban as its prized exclusive American trophy and where else can things be under better control than under the eyes of the enigmatic ruler in Doha who can be trusted to carry the can of worms for a correct price in dollars? The Turks will be a tad disappointed that they have been cut out of the high drama, as they have been pretending to be the world’s ace mediator in conflict situations. The US probably don’t trust the Turks anymore on such a do-or-die issue as the Taliban reconciliation.
My judgment is that it is highly unlikely that Pakistan will accept anything less than a central role in the reconciliation of the Taliban. Pakistan will firmly draw the bottom line here. Pakistan knows it is holding all the trump cards and the Americans are bluffing. The big assumption we are making is also that there has been a genuine change of heart on the part of the Taliban. Who knows better than Pakistan how the Taliban heart beats or what is the current pulse rate?
So, all things concerned, Kerry came to plead that Pakistan should not resort to the role of a spoiler when the US-Taliban waltz is just about getting exciting. This waltz is so terribly important for Obama and most of all, the president is anxious that this doesn’t turn out to be his last waltz. By the time the big statement is to be made in July about the drawdown of US troops, Obama would like to be in a position to proclaim that he is well advanced on the path of an Afghan settlement and that marks a successful end to the war and facilitates the return of the US troops home. Nothing will please the American public more.