The Taliban and Pakistan: Strategic Dialogue

In Preparing for Peace in Pakistan and Is Pakistan Appeasing the Taliban?, Mehlaqa Samdani and Sharad Joshi offered different interpretations of the ongoing negotiations between the Pakistani government and extremist groups operating along the country’s frontiers. Here they respond to each other’s arguments. In addition, Tarique Niazi, author of several FPIF briefs on Pakistan, responds to both initial essays.

Mehlaqa Samdani

Sharad Joshi’s central argument is that Pakistan’s negotiations with Taliban groups are tantamount to appeasement, and therefore the United States should continue cross-border attacks into Pakistani territory. It is my contention that while the peace agreements are less than perfect, the United States should help improve them rather than undermine them which would hurt its long-term security interests in the region.

Joshi is not alone in believing that the current peace deals are a form of appeasement and extremely similar to the peace agreements signed in 2004 and 2006, which allowed militant to regroup. I would argue, however, that the current peace deals are different. First of all, this time around the government is negotiating from a position of strength. Preceding the current peace talks were military operations in South Waziristan and Swat as well as economic blockades enforced by the government. The government has also maintained that it will use force in the case of violations by the militants.

Moreover, Baitullah Mehsud himself is clearly interested in initiating peace talks. Over the past several months, he has been under immense pressure from fellow tribesmen to negotiate given how military operations have displaced so many of Mehsud’s people. In addition, during the current negotiations Mehsud compelled his subordinates to continue with the talks at those times when they wanted to back out. Finally, Instead of just negotiating with Taliban groups associated with Mehsud, the government has engaged Mehsud tribal elders and has extended them the responsibility to enforce compliance.

True, the peace agreements already signed lack enforcement mechanisms and fail to mention cross-border attacks. As I recommend in my article, instead of undermining the agreements (something that increases anti-Americanism) the United States should work to bolster the text of the agreements as well as their implementation. Over the past several days, additional clauses have been added to the agreement that will soon be signed between Mehsud’s people and the government. These new provisions, which could serve to alleviate some U.S./Afghan concerns, call on the Taliban not to engage in cross-border militant activities and to hand over foreign militants to the government within a two month time-frame. In addition, a committee will be formed to monitor compliance.

In his article, Sharad Joshi also recommends that the United States should continue with cross-border raids into Pakistan. I would like to draw his attention to two such attacks mostly recently carried out by coalition forces. The one in Damadola, Bajaur killed 13 innocent civilians; the Mohmand agency strike killed 11 Pakistani soldiers. No high-value targets were killed in the process. Instead, everyone from FATA’s civil society activists to the Pakistani military condemned the attack in the strongest terms possible. Even the ANP, known for its pro-Karzai sentiments, declared the incidents unacceptable and has called into question its cooperation with the Afghan government and coalition forces.

Finally, it is preposterous to imagine a country placing the interests of other countries above its own. Only after peace is established in Pakistan can it hope to contribute to peace in the region as a whole. Until then, coalition and Afghan forces must do all they can to bring peace to their side of the border.

Sharad Joshi

At the outset, there is unanimity in the two articles on one point – the need for dialogue with militant groups, including the Taliban, for a long-term settlement. But the divergence is on how to proceed with such a reconciliation process and what concessions are involved on each side. It is also important to question the Pakistan-centric nature of these initiatives, given that the Taliban operates in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Any reconciliation measures should involve Afghan representation, even if the main focus remains on halting terrorist violence within Pakistan.

Mehlaqa Samdani talks of a “working relationship” between the Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad paving the way for negotiations with Afghanistan-based entities. The problem here is that the Pakistani Taliban is in league with the Afghan Taliban, and their main aim is to defeat Afghan and NATO forces. In a step-by-step approach such as this, there is no indication how long it will take to establish a working relationship between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban. And in the meantime, the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban will continue their attacks across the border. If anything, a better model for talks would be the Bonn accord negotiations of 2001, only this time with the inclusion of the Taliban.

Allowing the Taliban a free hand in Afghanistan provides them with ample opportunities to focus their firepower across the border. The first priority of any state, as Samdani emphasizes in case of Pakistan, is to “establish peace and stability within its borders.” However, for that to happen, the border must first be secured. Admittedly, the Afghan government is partly at fault here, with its refusal to recognize the Durand Line, but it is a fair assumption that Pakistan does. Even if large parts of the Afghan-Pakistan border are under control of the Taliban and the tribal groups, Islamabad must insist that the militants respect the boundary. But it is obvious that the freedom to infiltrate and attack targets in Afghanistan seems to have been the unstated concession that the Taliban has forced from a willing new civilian leadership in Islamabad.

Samdani points out that the Taliban has agreed to renounce militancy. But at the same time, its leadership, especially Baitullah Mehsud, has said quite openly that attacks across the border will continue, reducing the credibility of its renunciation commitment. Moreover, as profiled in The New York Times recently, the activities of the veteran mujahadeen-turned-Taliban leader Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani is another example of bases in the tribal areas of Pakistan being directly used for mounting attacks in Afghanistan. And there is a considered reluctance to act against Haqqani, just one more indicator of the Pakistani state’s inability and unwillingness to extract deeper concessions from militant groups. To make matters worse, groups such as Haqqani’s are closely linked to al-Qaeda.

Furthermore, there is no indication that the Taliban militants will lay down their arms and accept the writ of the state. Thus, the best we can hope for is an uneasy detente between Islamabad and the Taliban, which can be broken at any time. Even for the sake of Pakistan-centric peace and stability, it is important for the Taliban to make meaningful concessions that underscore the primacy of the state. These would include allowing the Pakistan army into the areas under control of the Taliban (and not just the relatively weak Frontier Corps) and the latter’s laying down of arms. The accords so far indicate that the Taliban will remain in control of the territory it occupies, and Islamabad’s miniscule influence there will decrease even further. What’s to stop Baitullah Mehsud and his followers from launching further attacks in Pakistan at a later date?

So, at best, such agreements are a tactical, short-term concession by the Taliban when it agreed to halt attacks in Pakistan. In effect, the Taliban has not really renounced militancy. Iit has only agreed to redirect its firepower. Instead of a two-front campaign (Pakistan and Afghanistan), it is now free to concentrate on one. Moreover, attacks in Pakistan have continued even after the first version of the accords were concluded, reducing the credibility of any renunciation of violence by the Taliban. At the same time such agreements also set a bad precedent when agreed to without any significant rollback of the armed capabilities of militant groups. It demonstrates to lesser Taliban-related groups that if they pose a big enough threat to the state, they would be successful in their blackmail.

A key characteristic of a successful counter-insurgency program is coordination between the various agencies, governments, and security forces, a point made by Samdani. However, in recent months, cooperation from Islamabad toward the main coordinating mechanism between Afghanistan, NATO, and Pakistan has virtually come to a stand-still. According to the NATO leadership in Afghanistan, the Pakistani side has not attended the last few meetings in recent months of this mechanism. This coincides with the complete slowdown of all Pakistani operations against the Taliban.

The agreement does talk about the expulsion of foreign militants from the region and correctly points to a need for a monitoring mechanism to ensure expulsion of al-Qaeda militants. But in the agreement there is no indication whether the term “foreign militants” also includes al-Qaeda militants, to say nothing of the senior al-Qaeda leadership. Moreover, under the latest amendments to the agreement, although expulsion of foreign militants has to begin as soon as the final agreement is concluded, the time period for this is as much as four months – enough time for the foreign militants to make alternative arrangements.

Furthermore, according to the Pakistani newspaper, The Daily Times, one of the agreements signed with the Utmanzai tribe in North Waziristan states that al-Qaeda militants can remain in the area so long as they do not carry out violent activities. Clearly, this shows an ambivalence, if not a downright acceptance, of the presence of foreign militants in the area. And even if they refrain from violence, their support base will remain. Also, the most publicized of the agreements, with Baitullah Mehsud and his Pakistani Taliban, is probably centered around South Waziristan, which is Mehsud’s base. So even if foreign fighters (whether that includes al-Qaeda militants or not) are evicted, they can easily move to North Waziristan to the area of jurisdiction under Islamabad’s agreement with the Utmanzai tribe.

Again, this demonstrates that one agreement (whether it comes with lenient or stringent conditions) is clearly not enough. Militants can easily move base to other areas under control of a different tribe, which may not have been part of the same deal.

With respect to U.S. policy options, Samdani makes the valid point that the U.S. military should refrain from air-strikes or drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan. But this is really a consequence of the freedom given to militants to mount attacks elsewhere. In all fairness, Islamabad, under pressure from the United States has inserted conditions in the agreements to force the Pakistani Taliban to refrain from cross-border infiltration and attacks. However, the proposed amendments, even if accepted by the Taliban, are vague and open to interpretation. The revised draft agreement between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban under Mehsud does not specifically commit the Taliban to halt cross-border attacks. Moreover, the fact that Islamabad agreed to renegotiate a tougher agreement only under pressure from the United States further demonstrates the lack of commitment to anything more than a short-term, myopic strategy that could still leave Pakistan under the Taliban gun.

Finally, to reiterate, the difference between the two articles is not over whether to negotiate with the Taliban but, rather, on how to negotiate with them. In my opinion, unless the talks and the agreements address the eventual disarmament of the Taliban and the supremacy of the Pakistani state in the tribal areas, the risk of the Taliban’s defection from the agreement remains.

Tarique Niazi

In their thoughtful analyses Sharad Joshi and Mehlaqa Samdani have evaluated U.S. wariness of Pakistan’s peace with the Taliban. Joshi’s key argument is that Pakistan is easing up on the Taliban, who could become a gathering threat across the border into Afghanistan. Samdani, on the other hand, sees the United States getting tough with Pakistan for its peace overtures to the Taliban, which could strain Pakistani-U.S. relations. Both perspectives are anchored in verifiable facts, but the presentation and interpretation of these facts paint a different picture of the same reality.

Sharad Joshi makes a three-fold argument. First, Pakistan has relinquished its “stick” by concluding peace agreements with the Taliban in South Waziristan and Swat, and as a result pulled out its forces from their territory. Second, Pakistan has made these pacts without any significant and permanent rollback of Taliban’s terror infrastructure. Third, these agreements ignore the presence of the Afghan Taliban, foreign militants, and the al-Qaeda network in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He concludes with a prediction of rising violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Taliban getting ever stronger and menacingly looking “westward across the Durand Line.”

I would have shared this pessimism and agreed with Joshi’s conclusions if he were talking about the peace deals that General Pervez Musharraf, now Pakistan’s diminished and disgraced leader, had cut with the Taliban in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Those deals failed to yield their intended dividends because they were meant to protect the interests of one person — Musharraf. Since the February 18 elections, which have inaugurated democratically elected governments in Islamabad and in the Pakhtunkhwa, of which Swat is a part, Pakistan has changed from a military dictatorship to a democracy. The 2008 deals have, thus, been conducted under the stewardship of democratically accountable leaders, whose overriding interest is to end Taliban violence inside Pakistan and along the Durand Line, which separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Joshi overlooks the democratic reality of contemporary Pakistan. The facts behind his analysis are right. My reading of these facts is, however, different.

First, Pakistan has not relinquished its “stick” by pulling out its troops from the tribal areas. Even after peace deals, Pakistan’s troop strength in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which is suspected of being a Taliban redoubt, remains unchanged. Pakistan has 200,000 military and paramilitary forces stationed in the FATA and along the Durand Line. Of these, 90,000 troops are drawn from military. All these forces are still holding their positions in the area. The same holds true with the Swat district, where the equivalent of an army division has not yet been withdrawn. In addition, Pakistan has over 1,000 security posts to police the 1,610-mile long Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As a matter of fact, Pakistan’s current troop strength in the FATA is numerically superior to the NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and the Afghan National Army put together. At 200,000, Pakistan’s force deployment is nearly twice the combined strength of the coalition forces (53,000) and Afghan National Army troops (57,000). It is also worth noting that Pakistan has raised 90,000 army men after redeploying them from its eastern border with India to pacify the Taliban in the FATA. Above all, Pakistan has lost 1,000 men and officers in its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. These casualties are higher than the combined casualties Pakistan suffered during its three wars with India.

Although Pakistani troops are still holding their positions, the active conflict between the Taliban and Pakistani forces has changed. Since the signing of the peace deals, the Taliban in South Waziristan and leaders of the Tehrik-i-Nafaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) have agreed to a ceasefire, ending the violent conflict. Without military pressure, the ceasefire or conclusion of peace agreements would have been impossible. Also, there has been prisoner-swap. Pakistan is releasing Taliban detainees, after careful scrutiny, in exchange for the freedom of security forces captured by the Taliban. Yet, of 85 Taliban detainees, only 18 have thus far been released. Most will be released on bond and kept track of.

Second, deals or no deals, the Pakistani state will not be so self-destructive as to allow its citizens to build and run a terror infrastructure. This dictum applies as well to the Taliban but with a difference. The Taliban are not a regular military outfit that occupies designated camps and forts. If they were, they would be dislodged. The U.S. air strikes in October 2001 swept them out of Kabul and Kandahar, because they were identifiable targets in their offices, homes, and firing lines. Since then, they have melted into “Lashkars” (small bands of armed fighters). But even in these small and nimble formations, they could not hold against U.S.-led coalition forces’ ground offensives or air assaults. They have since turned to stealth attacks with suicide bombers.

This trend has continued in Pakistan as well. In the FATA, as in Afghanistan, the run-of-the-mill Taliban are indistinguishable from the rest of the population. They farm land, graze animals, or gather fuel by the day and fight by the night. Bomb-making and suicide incidents are indeed acts of terror. But the sniffing out of such terror requires intelligence network, surveillance, tracking of suspects, monitoring of known criminals and general policing, not active military engagement. Between 2003 and early 2008, Pakistan’s military action in the FATA caused thousands of civilian deaths, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of tribesmen, and the assassinations of over 200 pro-government tribal Maliks (chiefs). All this has only strengthened the Taliban, whose reach now extends far beyond the FATA to major towns and cities in northwestern Pakistan. This creeping Talibanization, fueled by active military engagement, was not only stoking violence across the border into Afghanistan but destabilizing Pakistan as well. It amply shows that stability in Afghanistan cannot be built on instability in Pakistan or vice versa. This wisdom is guiding the recently concluded peace deals to reverse the course of Talibanization and bring stability to Pakistan and, by extension, to Afghanistan.

Third, these peace agreements do not ignore the presence of the Afghan Taliban, foreign militants, and the al-Qaeda network in Pakistan’s tribal areas. On the contrary, the precondition for these agreements is that the Taliban will sever their ties with non-Pakhtun militants (a reference to Arab, Chechen, Uigher, and Uzbek militants who were holed up in the tribal area) and help end violence against the Pakhtuns on both sides of the Durand Line. The main architect of these deals is the nationalist, secular, Pakhtun-dominated Awami National Party (ANP), which is the staunchest supporter of Afghanistan and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It calls Afghanistan its mother country, and aspires to reunite 50 million Pakhtuns on either side of the Durand Line.

Of late, the ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan, while sharing the podium with President Karzai in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, declared to his host’s cheer: “I am first an Afghan and then a Pakistani.” He also told his audience that he does not need a passport to come home –Afghanistan. On June 15, when President Karzai vowed to march his troops into Pakistan to hunt down Taliban leaders Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah, the ANP and its allies defended this red-hot rhetoric as the Afghan leader’s frustration with continuing violence in his country.

While crafting the peace deals, the ANP attracted the Taliban with an economic reconstruction plan for the war-torn tribal region, which will need a massive infusion of $12 billion (in contrast to the $750 million in aid that the U.S. government has approved for the region over the next five years). In parallel, it planned what is viewed in Pakistan as “radical” political reforms, which would extend such basic rights as the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to assembly, the right to form political parties, and above all, the overturning of the centuries-old, colonial system of justice – Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCRs) – that was built on collective retribution for individual offenses. While holding the Musharraf government responsible for the bloodshed of Pakhtuns in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, the ANP invited the Taliban (who are predominantly Pakhtuns) in the name of Pakhtunwali (a social code of honor, justice, and hospitality by which every Pakhtun aspires to live) to bring an end to direct or indirect violence against their co-ethnics whether they are in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan were receptive to these overtures, which led to the sealing of pacts with them.

Joshi concludes that these deals will increase violence in Afghanistan when the stronger Taliban in Pakistan looks westward. The NATO has similar apprehensions. It has already observed a 50% spike in violence in April this year compared to the same month of last year, which it attributes to Pakistan’s peace deals with the Taliban. In September 2006, when the Musharraf regime cut a peace deal with the Taliban in North Waziristan, cross-border attacks in Afghanistan quadrupled. This time around, however, the jump was only 50%, which is one-eighth of the previous figure. This correlation – between the deals and the spike in violence – should not be confused with causation, however. Taliban’s attacks are more in tune with seasonal flows than anything else. Year after year, their notorious “spring offensives” follow this pattern. In freezing winter, they hibernate until the weather warms up for them to come out and resume fighting. The 50% hike in cross-border violence in April this year likely fits into this seasonal pattern.

Although cross-border infiltration and consequent violence cannot be fully stanched, there are far more important factors contributing to continued violence in Afghanistan. Most important of all, the ISAF is grossly undermanned with a total strength of 53,000 troops, which have been contributed by the 40-nation NATO. Until February 2007, this strength was as low as 33,000. Even at this low number, all ISAF troops are not engaged in combat. The British shadow defense secretary Liam Fox taunts most coalition partners as “risk averse” for basing their troops in pacified northern and central Afghanistan. As a result, the United States, Britain, and Canada – in that order – bear the major brunt of combat. The outgoing U.S. commander of NATO’s ISAF, Gen. Dan McNeill, told the media on June 3, before handing over the command of his forces, that Afghanistan needed 480,000 troops to defeat the Taliban and secure the country. [3].This means coalition forces have on their hands a shortfall of 427,000 troops, which is too high to meet. In addition, Gen. McNeill admits: “This is an under-resourced war and it needs more maneuver units, it needs more flying machines, it needs more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance apparatus.” Although the Afghan National Army (ANA), with 57,000 men under arms, could cut the ISAF some slack, its combat-readiness is, however, in grave doubt. On April 27, the images of hundreds of ANA soldiers, armed with AK-47s, fleeing a military ceremony in Kabul in the face of a Taliban attack, while guards hustled away President Karzai, was depressingly uninspiring. Even worse, it was laughable to hear President Karzai threaten to send these troops into Pakistan to hunt down the Taliban.

It is therefore important to muster adequate resources to fight a long-term insurgency. An “under-resourced war,” in Gen. McNeill’s description, will likely steel the will of the enemy to fight on. The existing resource gap in the war effort has already been a big booster for Taliban’s rally. To put this gap in perspective, look at India, which has a deployment of 700,000 troops in Kashmir to fight a far tamer insurgency, the support base of which, according to Indian analysts, does not extend beyond 2 million Sunni Muslim Kashmiris. In contrast, the coalition forces in Afghanistan have tens of thousands of armed Taliban to pacify, whose support base stretches across a country of 26 million people, spread over an area of 251,737 square miles. This is a daunting task that can be met only with patience, additional massive resource commitment, and close alliance with Pakistan — a country without the support of which no war in Afghanistan can be won.

In the meanwhile, Mehlaqa Samdani’s observation that the United States is getting tough with Pakistan to keep it from making peace with the Taliban has been echoed, albeit in a different context, by Sharad Joshi as well. Yet peace with the Taliban is not possible without broader agreement between Pakistan and the United States. Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), which Samdani has referred to as the lead actor behind the peace deals, has held detailed meetings on the subject with U.S. State Department officials. Besides, the State Department has publicly supported a “comprehensive approach” to the region, including dialogue with those who renounce violence. For this multifaceted approach, the U.S. government has approved a $750 million in aid for the FATA, which will be distributed over the next five years. As such, there is no need for one ally to get tough with the other.

More importantly, Pakistan does not need be persuaded to fight religious extremism, which Washington has helped fuel by shunning secular civil society in Pakistan and standing firmly behind military dictator in complete disregard of Pakistanis’ democratic aspirations. This alignment was structured on an unfounded assumption that General Musharraf was the best bet to defeat the Taliban. On his watch, however, the Taliban have grown stronger than ever, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet Pakistan will have to deal with the Taliban with or without the United States. Pakistan is, thus, already immersed in a generational conflict, while its leaders are concerned that the United States is getting ready for “the second abandonment” of Afghanistan.

Mehlaqa Samdani is a consultant to the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Sharad Joshi is a postdoctoral fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, CA. Tarique Niazi teaches environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and can be reached via email: [email protected] All three are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).