The US hopes that the proposed direct talks with the Taliban in Qatar will enable it an honourable exit from Afghanistan. Both sides are negotiating preconditions.
The Taliban wants that some inmates from the Guantanamo prison, including Mullah Fazal, the butcher of Shias at Mazar-e-Sharif, be released for the talks.
The US wants the Taliban to give up violence and lay down arms. The US has kept Afghanistan out of these discussions leaving Karzai peeved but it has been impossible to keep Pakistan out. The Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network are both beholden to Pakistani authorities not just for weapons, shelter and finances but also that the families of the Taliban have taken shelter in Pakistan.
Reconciliation: By proposing direct talks with the Taliban, the US still
expects to be trusted by the Afghan leadership and others in the region
The Taliban presumably feel that they owe Pakistan both a debt of gratitude and that their families are hostages to the situation. Pakistan had made it quite clear to the US that negotiations without their approval were impossible when in February 2010 they arrested Mullah Omar's deputy and co founder of the Taliban, Mullah Biradar, who was negotiating with Kabul.
The assassinations of Wali Karzai and Burhanuddin Rabbani are suspected to have been a revenge for their attempts to open lines with the Taliban. The US however has few trumps in its hand. The grand coalition in Afghanistan is no longer so grand despite the surge in 2010, the billions spent and the casualties. Its chances of success in the fight against Taliban are minimal. The Taliban have extended their control to newer regions beyond the southern and eastern Pushtoon belts.
The US position has other weaknesses. Having announced prematurely that the US would withdraw in 2011, efforts at backtracking have only meant that the locals and their Pakistani masters believe that it is a matter of time before the US and NATO will leave.
Subsequent American announcements that there would only be a minor draw down of troops by 2014, has left the Taliban unimpressed. Islamabad would however be concerned that a US withdrawal would also mean a lack of interest in the region as in the 1990s and reduce the money/aid inflows. Besides, attempts at subduing the Taliban militarily having failed, the hope now to convert them into respectable parliamentary democrats has little prospects of success.
An excessive and unrealistic US reliance on Pakistan to deliver has been a major disadvantage. Pakistani attitude at the sheltering of Osama bin Laden last May and official reaction to his killing displayed a total disregard of any alliance obligations. Another major weakness in US attempts has been the desire to keep Iran (which has a 900 km border with Afghanistan) out of any attempts that the US makes in solving the problem.
Most Afghans do not see the Taliban as deliverers of some nationalist freedom but as religious zealots influenced by Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan, says Abbas Daiyar, an Afghan commentator. The other truth that the liberators of 2001 are today seen as an occupation force. US whimsicality has been a problem.
First, they installed their chosen man to head the government in Kabul and protected him, then announced a date of withdrawal without consulting the local leadership, then Karzai, fell from favour and finally, the US began negotiations with those who are not only Karzai's sworn enemies but who have a global agenda that includes the US. It does not do much for US credibility that negotiations with insurgents have been begun by it, as an outside power, while keeping the legitimate government out of the discussions. The US still expects to be trusted by the Afghan leadership and others in the region.
So long as the likes of Hafiz Saeed and extreme right wing religious groups like Difa-e-Pakistan, continue to be belligerent, there are natural misgivings about Pakistan's intentions. On the other hand, in recent months after the India-Afghanistan strategic agreement, Indian involvement including training Afghan police and army, apart from this economic and infrastructure assistance will increase.
India can, however, reciprocate gestures of good will and good intentions that Pakistan may want to make to India. Introspection will reveal to Pakistan that it would be far easier to deal with a democratic secular economically strong India than a turbulent Talibanised Afghanistan with a global agenda.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)