With multiple dialogues involving the Taliban taking place (See ‘A New Taliban Shura’, http://bit.ly/yH7Krv, and ‘Dialogues of a Dangerous Kind’, http://bit.ly/w1xKFG) it is important to understand the objectives and endgame of stakeholders. Who are the Taliban apologists? Who are their opponents? And are there opportunists, who see the Taliban as a means to achieve their own ends?
Who are the Taliban apologists?
There is a substantial section that supports the Taliban in terms of what it stands for and whom it fights against. This section is predominant among the Pashtun population in Afghanistan, and a substantial majority in Pakistan. The support for the Taliban amongst this section, spanning Karachi to Kabul, may stem primarily from anti-American sentiments rather than pro-radical leanings. This section provides the much needed street support at one level, and equally importantly, the crucial intellectual and strategic defence and explanation in the multiple media shows and newspaper columns.
Does the above section support the Taliban because they believe in the Taliban ideals and objectives? Or do they support the Taliban because it is fighting the US-led international troops in Afghanistan? Does the anti-American sentiment define a pro-Taliban outlook? Perhaps.
Similarly, within the Pashtun society in Afghanistan, does a section support the Taliban because they believe in their ideals, or because they are convinced that Karzai may never be able to provide governance? Perhaps they are convinced that only the Taliban can provide stability, if not peace.
Whatever may be the reason for defending the Taliban, what needs to be understood is, this section (irrespective of the number) is more vocal and popular within Pakistan, and certainly amongst the pastun population in southern Afghanistan.
In the Af-Pak region, there is a significant section of the Taliban apologists that needs to be talked to. There is a need for a larger dialogue with this section, for the Taliban gets the support not from its fighters, but from its apologists. This section may not look anywhere close to the Taliban in their outward appearance, but are nonetheless dangerous because of their belief systems. The ‘War on Terror’ should be waged against these inner beliefs and sentiments, and not the ragtags with AK-47s.
At a different level, there are also ‘strategists’ in the US and the rest of the international community who could be defined as Taliban apologists. These are security experts who believe that the Taliban cannot be won, and hence should be talked to. This section considers not all Taliban as dangerous, for there are some ‘moderate’, and even ‘good’ Taliban!
Who are the Taliban opponents?
There are two streams of Taliban opponents – a small minority who publicly oppose the Taliban, and a larger, silent majority, that provides opposition, albeit in their drawing rooms and through inner beliefs. A section within the political elite in the Af-Pak region publicly opposes the Taliban. From the members of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to the PPP in Pakistan, there are different political parties and organizations that are against the Taliban ideals and strategies.
A substantial section among the moderates, from within all the sub-nations of the Af-Pak region from Uzbeks to Mohajirs, also publicly oppose the Taliban. From their public statements to opinion columns in newspapers, one can read and hear a strong repudiation of what the Taliban stands for. This section is worried about the present chaos and the future generations.
Also, within the tribal society across the Durand Line, there are Pashtuns who silently oppose the Taliban, besides those who actually fight them through their jirgas and tribal lashkars. Unfortunately, the sacrifices made by this section, at the hands of the Taliban and the state forces, will never be discussed in detail. The Taliban has used brutal suicide bombings to silence this section, especially the Pashtun elders who believe in Pashtunwali, the tribal code, rather than the radical edicts of the Taliban brand of Islam.
Who are the Taliban opportunists?
Outside those who support the Taliban and those who oppose it – either overtly or silently - there is the third section, perhaps the most dangerous than the Taliban itself – those who see the Taliban as an opportunity to further their own narrow interests, at any cost to the societal fabric in the Af-Pak region.
Clearly, al Qaeda is the most opportunist of them all. They saw the Taliban in the 1990s – inward looking, isolated, with no understanding of the international framework, conservative and ignorant - as the biggest opportunity to further their goals at the international level. The secret yet not-so-secret establishment of Pakistan even today sees the Taliban as an opportunity to achieve its own interests in Afghanistan. In the short-term, the Taliban is also a trump card for a section within the establishment to negotiate with the US.
Besides the above two, sectarian organizations and local warlords also (both in Afghanistan and Pakistan) see the Taliban as an opportunity. From Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan, to the various factions of the TTP with a base in FATA, and the Punjabi-based Sunni sectarian organizations, Taliban is an opportunity – both in the short and long-terms.