With the 2014 deadline approaching fast, both US and Pakistan have their end games unraveling in Afghanistan. While, both have been fooling the rest of the world in projecting a moderate, if not a good image of Taliban, it is important to analyze what will be Taliban’s game plan? Will it negotiate with the US and (or through) Pakistan and what will it negotiate on?
First, the most important question – who is being talked to? While one may be cynical about new factions in the Taliban, the idea of negotiating with any of these sections should be welcome. The reasons for this are simple. One, the deadline is fast approaching; clearly, there is no end game in sight in reference to Karzai and his administration. Neither has he been able to deliver in terms of administration or convince the Afghans of his ability to govern, nor is he in a position to protect himself forget protecting the capital. The Afghan security forces are far from having the capacity to take over the security situation and deliver. Moreover, the Afghans no more respect or trust Karzai and his administration. But to be fair, Karzai inherited this problem from the previous administrations and the international security forces that had multiple agendas in Afghanistan.
Second, despite a decade after 9/11, the Taliban’s networks remain intact. Though al Qaeda has been damaged considerably, especially after the killing of its top leadership including Osama bin Laden, Taliban has smartly gone underground and has preserved its leadership. Or perhaps, the global war on terrorism was al Qaeda specific, keeping the Taliban as a secondary target which has helped it to escape. Third, irrespective of the rupture between Pakistan’s links with the TTP, its relation and influence vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban seem to be continuing.
The question then is whether the Afghan Taliban is willing to negotiate? Within the Afghan Taliban – there are two major networks led by the Huqqanis and Mullah Omar. Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, as the name suggests is alleged to be based in Pakistan and conducting operations primarily in Afghanistan. There is no adequate evidence to prove that Mullah Omar is interested in taking on Pakistan’s security forces and looking east of the Durand Line, so far. It appears he is using Pakistan only as a base and is aiming to get back to Kabul
While Washington is working hard to bring Mullah Omar on board, it appears except for few regional commanders (war lords to be specific), who joined the Taliban in the later phase, Omar’s network does not seem to be in a hurry to negotiate with the US. At the time of 9/11, not the entire Taliban leadership belonged to the diehard Mullah Omar network. As his forces started winning towns after towns in the mid 1990s, many of the erstwhile mujahideens and local war lords embraced the Taliban phenomenon and became converts. The reasons were purely tactical and not based on any loyalty or love for the Taliban. This conversion suited them in the 1990s; ten years after 9/11, another conversion will not hurt them. This is evident in the fact that there is not a single mujahideen leader, except perhaps for the Lion of Panchsheer, who can claim that his loyalties never changed.
The Mullah Omar network seems to be convinced that the American exit will automatically pave way for their takeover of Kabul. Even if the US has to leave a small contingent, it is unlikely that the American troops will continue active counter insurgency operations against the Taliban after 2014. Thus, Mullah Omar would rather wait until 2014, and restart his campaign from Kandhahar, as he did in the 1990s. This should be déjà vu for him and his network. If few commanders of him are willing to negotiate with the US, perhaps it is a part of the plan.
On the other hand, the Huqqani network seems to be under great influence from Pakistan’s security forces. Unlike the Omar network, the Huqqanis may not be able to survive either in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. According to media reports within Pakistan, the Huqqani network has already shifted into the FATA region. Taking over Kabul by being Pakistan’s proxy in Afghanistan may not hurt the Huqqanis; but an independent functioning might.
Clearly, the Huqqani network has to be the moderate face of Taliban, for they are willing to negotiate. But, will the Huqqanis be able to deliver along with Karzai after 2014? Or will they join Mullah Omar network after 2014? They are being Pakistan’s proxy now; but who are they likely to play for after 2014? This is a dilemma that still needs to be addressed. If the Obama administration is not serious about what will happen after 2014 that will be the biggest disservice to the victims of 9/11 and those who gave their lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan since then. Obama is extremely busy, getting ready to deliver another rhetoric and self-patting speech ten years after 9/11. And why not? After all, did he not eliminate the US enemy number one?