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Seizing the moment: India and the ‘moderate Taliban’

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 08, 2009

    The Taliban is doubtless a menace and requires to be combated. Towards this end the Global War on Terror, recently rechristened ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’, has been underway for the better part of this decade. The Taliban, however, only appears to be growing in strength and in the spread of its reach. Therefore, the Obama administration is simultaneously pursuing a policy of reaching out to the ‘moderate’ Taliban. It hopes to whittle down the Taliban, permitting an early exit of the US from the region. The policy is reminiscent of its experience in Iraq in which it used the Sunni Awakening movement to win over the Sunni triangle. The key architect of the US’ Iraq strategy, General Petraeus, has since moved as head of Central Command overseeing operations in Afghanistan. A similar strategy is set to unfold in Afghanistan once the elements are in place. This comprises a change in command of forces in Afghanistan, a troop ‘surge’, training of the Afghan National Army and police and a ‘peace corps’ of civilians for assisting with nation building as parts of the Riedel-Holbrooke conjured Af-Pak strategy. In the interim, Pakistan has been goaded into militarily ending the sanctuaries available to the Taliban and al Qaeda combine in FATA. Prior to getting to grips with the hard core of the Taliban, Pakistan is presently engaged in an attempt to roll back its expanding influence from other areas of NWFP such as Swat. These military operations have been at considerable human cost and the jury is still out on their long term success. Given the enormous effort the clearing of Swat has taken, taking the fight into Taliban areas of FATA is bound to prove a difficult challenge.

    At this juncture in the situation in the neighbourhood, a persuasive Indian position has it that finally the Pakistani state is attempting to roll back the monster that it has creation. This is taken to be in India’s interest. The ascendant view has been articulated by the doyen of India’s strategic community, K Subrahmanyam, in his op-ed ‘Stand up and be counted’ in the Times of India of June 3, 2009. The argument is that “what the world is fighting against in the Af-Pak area is a dangerous ideology” and therefore compromise is unacceptable. In this view, ‘moderate Taliban’ is an oxymoron. Accommodation with the Taliban would result in re-emergence of a threat to Kashmir. It would compromise inroads into Afghanistan made through the exercise of India’s developmental support to the Karzai regime. It would once again make Pakistan punch above its weight by preserving its ‘strategic depth’. A return of an extremist regime in Kabul would embolden fundamentalist forces elsewhere in the subcontinent. Therefore, India should press for continuation of operations against the Taliban.

    India’s interests are deemed to include preventing the return of Taliban to Kabul. It sees the Taliban as a Pakistani stooge and a continuing threat for the return of stability in Kashmir. It has also attempted to bracket the terror groups targeting India, such as the LeT and the JeM, along with the al Qaeda-Taliban threat so that Pakistan is also compelled to roll back these along side. While India has managed through deft diplomacy to keep Kashmir off the Af-Pak conception, it would like to continue to keep Kashmir off the radar screen as well. The Indian approach has so far been generally supportive of US actions. Aware that it cannot rely on the international community to furnish its national interest, it has also attempted to safeguard these through exercise of power. It has invested over a billion dollars in infrastructure support for the Karzai regime. It is providing training to the ANA. Its activities are apparently of such an order that Pakistan has objected to its consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad!

    However, the continuing relevance of this strategy in light of the possibility of accommodation of the moderate Taliban in the end game in Afghanistan needs to be reviewed. Persisting with this stance could prove anachronistic in case progress is made towards and in such talks.

    Continuation of operations would be dependent on Pakistani capability and intent continuing into the near term. With Taliban expanding the scope of the conflict into Pakistan’s core areas, whether Pakistan would stay the course is questionable. Three million people have been internally displaced by operations in Swat. This has exposed the ethnic divide in Pakistan with people in the plains, particularly in Sind, reluctant to take in more Pushtuns. The situation is set to deteriorate to civil war like proportions. The Pakistani Army, comprising 15 per cent Pakhtuns, would also be reluctant to have its internal cohesion disrupted by operations in Pakhtun areas against the primarily Pakhtun Taliban. While public opinion was behind the Army operations in Swat, it would only wilt when faced with the escalating Taliban threat. The recent surge in operations has been interpreted as an exercise by the Pakistani Army to impress the Obama administration with its commitment and thereby extract the promised financial and military package. With the Zardari-Obama-Karzai summit now history, it is possible that Pakistan would return to hedging its commitment to clearing the Taliban from its territory. It would press for a policy of talking to the Taliban.

    In principle, talking to an insurgent opponent is in keeping with counter insurgency doctrine. Analogy can be drawn from the situation preceding the demise of the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran’s end was predicated on the defection of his warlord in the Eastern Province, Colonel Karuna. Thus, it would be necessary to exploit divisions in the Taliban, for not all those in the resistance to US presence and action are activated by an expansive jihadist ideology. They are energised by differing motivations that include traditional tribalism and the renowned Pakhtun nationalism. Some, being unemployed, have joined with little ideological commitment. Thus there is scope for bringing about a distinction between the hard core and uncompromising Taliban and those who can be ‘purchased’. Not only would this preclude military operations but the Taliban that come across can be utilised to further constrain the hard core Taliban. The escalation that threatens stability of Pakistani state, its nuclear assets and society would thus be precluded. A stable Pakistan being in Indian interest, India need not be averse to talks with the Taliban.

    It also remains to be seen as to whether a predominantly military strategy would succeed or even be persisted with by the United States. For the sake of its image as a superpower it cannot afford to fail. But Obama would not wish to divert much attention and energy to Afghanistan at a time when managing the global recession is the uppermost priority. Obama would like to see movement in the Af-Pak situation by the time he considers running for a second term. A military solution cannot be expected to eventuate in so short a duration. Therefore, the Obama strategy would be to accommodate the Taliban to the extent that it is willing to concede US interests. In such a scenario, the returning Taliban would view India as a hostile state and current Indian apprehensions of threat would prove a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    The recommendation here is that India should not be averse to reaching out to the Taliban. India, being a regional economic and military power, would continue to be consequential. Continuing with its supportive activities and its exercise of soft power would undercut any blocks that Pakistan can conjure up. The instrumentality of the SAARC, presently in limbo, can also be energised as a vehicle of Indian and mutual interests. Such an engagement would increase the ‘moderate’ quotient of the Taliban. Its representation and interest in such talks would ensure that the hard core continues to be marginalised. By engaging with the ‘moderate’ Taliban, India would be able to gauge the attitude of the Taliban to it and also sensitise the Taliban to its concerns.

    The present policy of having no truck with the Taliban has diminishing returns. It would have conceded the space to Pakistan by default through inaction. Anticipatory action is therefore warranted. The present situation in which a resurgent Taliban is being combated by an unwilling and incapable Pakistani Army and counter productive application of stand-off military might of the US-NATO combine should be interpreted as their search for a position of strength from which to negotiate a deal with amenable sections of the Taliban. Therefore, the impending political approach to the Taliban requires that India should not await the moment but seize it. Not only should it lend its weight to this but also lead the effort to carve out leverage in a post-conflict Afghanistan. The forthcoming visit of Hillary Clinton can be used by India to more actively join the international effort on this score.