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Why US-Taliban Talks Won’t Bear Fruit – OpEd

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With the Taliban ready to negotiate and Washington desperate to get out of Afghanistan, there shouldn’t have been any problems in working out a deal. But what’s surprising is that despite both sides being willing and with Pakistan playing mediator, the dialogue process doesn’t seem to be making any headway.

Though Washington keeps accusing the Taliban leadership of insincerity and blames them for breakdown of talks, which to some extent right, the entire responsibility for the Taliban’s blow hot-blow cold behaviour cannot be entirely apportioned on this terrorist group alone.

The West has been projecting the Taliban leadership as a group of uncouth fanatics, incapable of rational thinking and possessed with a perverse proclivity for settling disputes through the gun. But this portrayal is far from true. The reality is that Taliban leaders have been born and brought up in an environment that’s always been very prone to fierce tribal loyalties with generations old feuds and rivalries as well as infested with an acute obsession with honour, wealth and power. Sheer survival instincts have endowed the Taliban elders with not only extraordinary negotiating skills but also uncanny guile necessary to subsist in the merciless and violent world they live in.  

If one applies the old Urdu adage “Jab Miya Biwi Razi toh kya karega Qazi” (When the husband and wife are in mutual agreement, then what’s there left for a judge to do) to this situation, then the Taliban’s flipflop on the issue of conducting dialogue becomes inexplicable. But anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of Taliban-Pakistan relationship won’t find this behavior perplexing at all, because these negotiations aren’t just a simple case of two parties who are equally anxious to negotiate. Even though Pakistan claims that it’s only playing the role of a neutral facilitator with the sole objective of bringing peace to the region and has no vested interests, the reality is just the opposite.

That it was the Pakistan army that created terrorist groups to fight in Afghanistan and J&K is no secret. Former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has admitted that “militants and extremists emerged on the national scene and challenged the state not because the civil bureaucracy was weakened and demoralised but because they were deliberately created and nurtured as a policy to achieve short-term tactical objectives.”

Gen Pervez Musharraf who has been both Pakistan’s President and army chief too has proudly owned up that “We poisoned Pakistani civil society for 10 years when we fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It was jihad and we brought in militants from all over the world; with the West and Pakistan together in the lead role.”

Some may argue that since the aforesaid statements pertain to events that occurred more than three decades ago, quoting them to buttress the current argument is incorrect and in order not to disappoint such readers, one would like to give them the benefit of doubt. But having done so, it would be pertinent to remind them that it  was as late as 2016, when Sartaj Aziz, who was Adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Foreign Affairs, himself admitted that “We have some influence on them (Taliban) because their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities; their families are here,” and adding that, “So, we can use those levers to pressurise them to say ‘come to the table’!” But what’s more important is his revelation that Islamabad had continuously “hosted” the Taliban for 35 years!

The irony is that even though Washington knew this all along, it did nothing that would force Pakistan to stop providing safe sanctuaries to the Taliban on its soil. All it did was to intermittently castigate Islamabad (like Hillary Clinton’s making the ‘snakes in the backyard’ remark) and suspend financial aid temporarily.

But on assuming office, one expected that things would finally change after US President Donald Trump tweeted that “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

There is no doubt that Pakistan was really hit hard by suspension of US financial aid. But instead of responding positively by taking action against the Haqqani network and other factions of Taliban who are fighting against the US led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa decided to brazen it out, declaring that what Pakistan expected from the US was “respect and confidence” and not financial aid.

Even though this decision triggered the country’s downward economic spiral, Gen Bajwa still stuck to his guns because for Rawalpindi, saving its ‘strategic assets’ was of paramount important. Infact, with Gen Bajwa’s blessings, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif even went to the extent of warning Washington that its war on terrorism “can’t be won by excluding or confronting Pakistan.”

Rather than take a strong view of Pakistan’s intransigence, the Trump administration threw in the towel and like always, Pakistan army’s ‘strategic assets’ proved to be the proverbial ‘ace’ of spades that has even ‘trumped’ POTUS. The Pakistan army is well aware that the moment they get rid of the terrorist groups that further its agenda in Afghanistan, Washington will demand the dismantling of its ‘strategic assets’ fighting in J&K and this they can’t afford to do.

So, in order to have the cake and eat it too, Rawalpindi is pretending to be a dedicated mediator but is covertly ensuring that no breakthrough is achieved and the continuing attacks on ISAF by the Taliban is a clear indication of this!

Tailpiece: Though Trump may appear to be a hard nut to crack, but it seems that, just like his predecessors, political expediency is forcing him to make another Faustian deal with Pakistan.

Seeing this sorry state of affairs, the following lines of a song (‘The Grave’) from the 70s, written and sung by Don Maclean:

“When the wars of our nation did beckon
The man, barely twenty, did answer the calling
Proud of the trust
That he placed in our nation
He’s gone
But eternity knows him
And it knows what we’ve done!

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

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