Is Pakistan Appeasing the Taliban?

In May 2008, in the midst of the ongoing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, Islamabad concluded at least two peace agreements with Taliban and Taliban-linked groups operating in Pakistan. Although negotiations with the Taliban are necessary for any broad-based peace settlement in the region, these agreements threaten to complicate policy options for Washington and the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan.

Concessions offered to the Taliban can potentially strengthen its capabilities and bases in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which borders Afghanistan and contains the volatile North and South Waziristan provinces. From these bases, Taliban militants have a history of infiltrating and launching cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s approach to the Taliban amounts to appeasement. The United States should not abet this strategy by taking off the table such sticks as cross-border raids on Taliban bases.

The Agreements

The basic objective of the agreements is to end terrorist strikes and insurgent violence in Pakistan, which experienced a dramatic upsurge in 2007. The first deal was with the main Taliban group operating in Pakistan, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban, which is led by Baitullah Mehsud, a suspect in the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The Pakistani Taliban, based in Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is committed to stopping insurgent and terrorist attacks.

In return, Pakistan has withdrawn its forces from territory controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, left camps and weapons with the Taliban, and halted all military operations against them. At the same time regarding Afghanistan, Islamabad had denied responsibility for dealing with cross-border violence, saying that the Kabul government will have to handle this problem. Thus, in return for stopping attacks, Taliban control over the tribal areas (FATA) is strengthened further.

As part of the agreement, Pakistan also released two senior Taliban commanders from Afghanistan – Mullah Obaidullah Akhund (deputy to Taliban leader Mullah Omar) and Mullah Mansoor Dadullah – along with hundreds of other militants in exchange for over 30 army soldiers and officers as well as the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan who had been captured by the Taliban in early 2008. The agreement does not oblige the Pakistani Taliban to disarm and in fact releases hundreds of militants who can potentially take up arms again, in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. There is also no indication that training camps for suicide bombers run by Mehsud’s group in Waziristan will be shut down. Moreover, parallel to the negotiations, the Pakistan army also slowed down its operations against insurgents.

In a second agreement, Islamabad and the government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which borders Afghanistan, made peace with the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) which had fought the military in the Swat Valley district of the province. Again, several militant leaders and hundreds of militants have been released. The Pakistan military will also withdraw from the Taliban-infested Swat Valley, and in return militants will end their campaign against the Pakistani army. Although this area does not directly border Afghanistan, concessions to militant outfits without any meaningful, permanent obligations on the part of these groups does not bode well for a comprehensive peace settlement that involves the broader Taliban umbrella group, including the group’s leadership in Afghanistan. According to recent reports, Islamabad is scrapping the Swat agreement due to continued suicide attacks. Nevertheless, Islamabad is still willing to deal with militant groups without pressuring them to roll back their armed capability, which then ensures further terrorist incidents.

Islamabad’s argument for such a narrow and Pakistan-centric agreement is that it can no longer bear the violent consequences of the U.S.-led war on terror. But although it is essential that militant groups be brought into the dialogue process, the absence of any significant and permanent rollback of their terror infrastructure dooms the long-term prospects of such agreements. Islamabad’s argument also fails to consider that although the U.S.-led campaign against terror has given a fillip to militant outfits, there already was a decades-old militant infrastructure in Pakistan that merely reactivated itself in the form of the Pakistani Taliban in a violent, insular manner.

Finally, these negotiations ignore the presence of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, whose leadership, including Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, is widely suspected to be based in the Baluchistan capital of Quetta. In general, these deals still leave militant groups in positions of strength and without any qualitative decrease in their capabilities. As the attack on the Danish embassy in Islamabad in early June showed, there is no indication that al-Qaeda will halt its terrorist attacks. It claimed responsibility for the attack and continues to help train Taliban militants in the border areas. Furthermore, the agreement does not focus adequately on the removal of foreign militants who are based in the tribal areas and part of the al-Qaeda network there. Pakistani authorities have in fact refused to acknowledge that Al Qaeda actually does maintain camps in the tribal areas.

In 2006 Islamabad concluded a previous deal with militants in Waziristan, including Mehsud. That initiative is widely regarded as a failure because the Pakistani army evacuated these areas and militant groups were able to eventually regroup and step up violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is not clear to what extent the Pakistani Taliban will stick to the latest agreement in Pakistan, given that its commander, Mehsud, has demanded that Pakistan end its alliance with the United States as a condition for the deal to hold.

Options for Afghan and U.S.-Led Forces

NATO and Afghan forces fear that the agreement will reduce pressure on the Taliban in the border tribal areas of Pakistan, allow it to consolidate their bases and training camps, and increase attacks across the border. Not required to disarm, the Taliban will essentially remain in control of the areas under their occupation. Moreover, as already mentioned, Islamabad has made it clear that its objective is to stop violence in Pakistan and that they are not responsible for what happens in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders, especially Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, have said that they would continue attacking Afghan and multinational forces across the border.

Thus, current and future NATO/Afghan policy options will have to factor in the consequences of the Islamabad-Taliban deal. As it happens, in the last year, NATO/Afghan forces have been battling an increasingly assertive Taliban that has occupied parts of southern Afghanistan and has been bolstered by increased drug profits. Attacks in Afghanistan originating from Pakistan have doubled in recent months compared to last year and have especially involved non-Afghan militants.

These latest agreements call into question Washington’s proposals to fund and train the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary outfit under the Pakistani ministry of interior. Although the Pakistani military is supposed to move out of the south Waziristan area, the Frontier Corps will be allowed into these areas. However, despite $50 million in U.S. funds in 2007 for training and equipment supply, this force is badly trained and not suitable for fighting militants, as previous encounters have demonstrated. This plan is also complicated by the suspicion among U.S. agencies that the Frontier Corps has actually been assisting Taliban militants in the tribal areas, as opposed to combating them.

Apart from the Taliban, another re-emerging opposition force in Afghanistan is the Hezb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a prominent Mujahideen leader during the anti-Soviet campaign in the 1980s and closely connected to the Pakistani establishment, especially before the rise of the Taliban in 1994. Recent attacks in Afghanistan have hinted at a growing alliance between Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban. Hekmatyar’s influence among government officials is significant and provides avenues and information to aid attacks.

The Karzai government has offered talks and also considered inviting the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami to join the government to provide some stability. There have reportedly been some overtures by the Taliban. However, the Taliban’s objectives, which include the departure of multinational forces and possibly the eventual takeover of Afghanistan, would be too high a price, and certainly unacceptable to the U.S.-led force. While moderate elements of the Taliban do need to be co-opted into the political process the question is what concessions would they want in return and whether they would permanently give up violence as a strategy. NATO allies operating in Afghanistan, including the United States, have also considered opening up lines of communication with moderate elements of the Taliban. But such dialogue must be part of a more comprehensive process that reinforces the primacy of the Kabul government. The strategy here should be to push back Taliban forces and then negotiate with relatively moderate elements from a strong position. Perhaps an Afghan version of a “surge” could be considered, if troop levels could be raised in the short-term, but that is unlikely.

A key long-term requirement for Afghanistan is increasing the capacity of the national government in Kabul to impose its authority and take the lead in counter-insurgency operations as well as rolling back drug production. This requires a broad-based approach including a credible alternative to poppy production for the farmers. At the same time, governance problems, especially corruption, also have to be addressed. However, in the absence of some degree of stability and decrease in violence, it is difficult to implement such measures effectively. The need to maintain de jure control of some provinces forces unpleasant compromises with warlords in Afghanistan who might have their own private agendas, whether skimming off government funds or engaging in the drug trade. The Karzai government has to wean itself from dependence on warlords and instead encourage the growth of legitimate political parties, which might provide an alternative mechanism for opposition militants through which to enter the political mainstream.

Uncertainty also governs policy options available to Kabul and the U.S.-led multinational forces. According to outgoing NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, thousands more troops are needed. Increasing multinational troop levels in the short-term is unlikely to take place despite recent debates over increasing foreign troops. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is the obvious entity to take the lead in combating the Taliban, and its strength has risen to about 75,000 following training by NATO forces. However, this is less than half the number of troops required. Moreover, another key force, the Afghan police, is even further behind in terms of training.

Finally, in their talks with their Pakistani interlocutors, U.S. officials have broached the possibility of conducting cross-border raids on Taliban bases in Pakistan, but Islamabad has dismissed this proposal outright. Apart from the obvious problems arising from violation of Pakistani sovereignty, it would also lead to an even greater increase in anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. But in the absence of further multinational troops, the United States might be forced to resort to more intensified missile attacks on the Pakistani side of the border if there is an increase in the levels of attacks across the border following the agreement.

Thus, in the most recent incident, on June 10, U.S. forces carried out an air strike on Taliban militants on the Pakistan side of the border who had clashed with Afghan forces. At least 10 Pakistani troops who were supporting the militants were killed in the attack. Such incidents show that concessions that embolden the Taliban will inevitably lead to an escalation of violence both on the Pakistan side of the border as well as in Afghanistan.

Carrots and Sticks

Pakistan’s policy of initiating a dialogue with the Taliban is important for peace and stability. However, such a negotiating strategy has to be a “carrot and stick” policy. In this case, the proverbial “stick” is being thrown away by Islamabad making this policy little different from appeasement. In the current initiative, the concessions offered by Islamabad ensure that the Taliban can regroup in the border areas to increase attacks not just in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan, if needed.

Militant activity in Pakistan is a transnational phenomena. All affected parties, including those from Afghanistan, have to be included in the process. Simultaneously, there has to be a political dialogue process within Afghanistan as well, involving the Taliban and the Hezb-i-Islami, albeit without the kind of concessions made by Islamabad. Ideally, this would be coupled with a strengthened Afghan military with an assertive strategy rather than a reactive one. In the short-term however, with this agreement the Taliban has gained the upper hand in the Pakistani tribal areas and now looks westward across the Durand Line.

Sharad Joshi, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), is a postdoctoral fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, CA.