From October 7, 2001, until about a year ago, the world was hearing of the “war on terror” in the Af-Pak region as one on Taliban and tribal warlords allied to them. No longer. What assails our ears increasingly over the recent period is talk of a campaign to woo and win over a section of the same “enemies of civilization.”
All the avowed “anti-terror” warriors are engaged in the campaign. The US administration and the Afghanistan government are publicly committed to this policy change, with powerful quarters emulating the example despite protestations of uncompromising opposition to terrorism. Voices from within India, meanwhile, suggest pressures for a similar attempt by New Delhi. South Asia’s biggest power is being nudged to do business with forces officially regarded until the other day as implacably fundamentalist foes.
The campaign is approaching its culmination, with the highest international forum extending far-from-hidden support to the process. The United Nations, too, is now involved in not-so-secret talks with those considered not long ago as too terrorist for such UN-conferred legitimacy.
In one sense, it all began with President Barack Obama’s moves for a new Afghanistan strategy. Weeks before the strategy was announced on March 27, 2009, Obama said in a newspaper interview that the US “was not winning the war in Afghanistan and opened the door to a reconciliation process in which the American military would reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.”
Around the same time, speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Vice President Joe Biden claimed that “at least 70 percent” of Taliban guerrilla fighters were “mercenaries” who could be “persuaded” to lay down their arms and join the “peace process.”
These signals could not but have strengthened the hands of those in Pakistan who were never excited about engaging in a serious conflict with Afghan insurgents – particularly the Taliban, perceived as largely a creation of Pakistan during the days of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Officially, of course, Pakistan is supposed to have abandoned all its reservations about an all-out “war on terror” with its offensive in the Swat region in May 2009. Ties with the Taliban, however, are still cherished in powerful quarters.
Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, caused much more than a ripple recently when he issued an appeal to the Taliban as the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and leading province closely identified with the country’s army. Shahbaz requested his “friendly” terrorists to spare Punjab because his party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), had “something in common with them” (opposition to former President General Pervez Musharrf).
The appeal came in the wake of 12 terror attacks in less than a year, which left hundreds killed, including women and children, in Punjab’s Lahore, considered the country’s cultural capital. It has led to an outrage.
In a newspaper article captioned “The terror is next door, Mr. CM,” leading cultural activist Naeem Tahir says: “Rarely had he (Shahbaz) been noticed as much as he was noticed this time. Explanations followed, but these explained nothing. Everyone, including parliamentarians, journalists, government functionaries and the general public tried to figure out the meaning of this request.”
“Did he mean to suggest” – asked Tahir – “that the terrorists should spare Punjab and try Balochistan? Or Sindh or, for convenience of proximity to the Punjabi Taliban, try the capital Islamabad?” No convincing answer has been forthcoming.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani army has undertaken an agitprop operation alleging links between India and the Taliban. Military aircraft drop pamphlets in North Waziristan on ties between the Taliban and India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The pamphlets also talk of relations between Israeli intelligence outfit Mossad and Indian consulates in Afghanistan.
Until recently, the official Indian stand was against attempts to differentiate between “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban.” Of late, however, New Delhi has signaled its willingness to try out the line. The policy draws support from the thinking of the country’s security establishment over more than a decade of experience in the Af-Pak region as well.
A case for some ties with the Taliban is argued, for example, in an over-a-decade-old document authored by a former RAW official who is an informed and influential security analyst today. B. Raman, now a well-known columnist as well, talks in this paper titled “Bin Laden, Taliban and India” of the al-Qaeda leader’s ambiguous stance on Pakistan’s chief adversary.
Noting that the Taliban had issued no “call for killing Indians or Hindus,” Raman says: “The past anti-India comments of Osama and the Taliban were restricted to supporting the right of the Kashmiris to self-determination … It has repeatedly denied Indian allegations that its volunteers were active in Kashmir.”
Raman quotes the Taliban’s “most comprehensive statement to date on this subject (September 20, 1998)” as saying: “Afghanistan and India had friendly relations in the past. We don’t have any diplomatic ties now, but we won’t mind resuming relations with India as, at least, we won’t have to contend with an enemy India…. We obviously support the jihad in Kashmir… It is also true that some Afghans are fighting against Indian troops in Kashmir. The Taliban has not sent them…. We have no intention of exporting our jihad or revolution to any country.”
Raman’s counsel: “… India should test out the sincerity of the Taliban’s interest in a non-adversarial relationship with India by maintaining a line of communication with the Taliban leadership through their office in New York. Its professions of innocence should be tested out and not dismissed out of hand.” He adds: “The USA too, while taking strong action against the Taliban’s support to Osama and its violation of human rights, has at the same time maintained a dialogue with the Taliban leadership through their New York office and during the visits of US officials to Islamabad.”
Whether the counsel is heeded at last remains to be seen. Meanwhile, however, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has opened talks with the country’s second-largest militant group linked to the Taliban. The Hizb-e-Islami has reportedly submitted to Karzai a 15-point plan for possible peace talks. The main point envisages withdrawal of all foreign forces from July this year, to be completed within six months.
At the helm of the Hizb-e-Islami stands Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord and former prime minister classified as a terrorist by the US and the UN. This, however, has not stopped the world body from joining the bandwagon and initiating its own parleys with the insurgents.
First came former UN special envoy Kai Eide’s secret talks with Taliban leaders during his two-year tenure (from March 2008) in Afghanistan. The process was made public on March 25, 2010, with Staffan de Mistura, special UN representative in Afghanistan, meeting the men of UN-blacklisted Hekmatyar.
We do not know where the process will lead. It will be a strange end to the “war on terror,” however, if it leaves the Taliban and tribal warlords tyrannizing over their wild terrain and threatening peace over a larger South Asian region.