Waging 10 year war on Taliban then making peace with same Taliban!

Stanley McChrystal, the senior US general in Afghanistan, has told the Financial Times he believes a negotiated settlement would be the right way to end the Afghan conflict. His comments have fuelled a debate on the merits of talking to the Taliban.

Can negotiations end the war?

The appeal of dialogue to end the Afghan conflict has a whiff of alchemy about it: great in theory but extremely difficult in practice. The biggest problem may be that the Taliban feel they are winning. US troop deaths more than doubled in 2009. Gen McChrystal hopes his surge of 30,000 troops will convince his opponents they are better off negotiating but admits that Taliban attacks are likely to spike. “They have got to create the perception that Afghanistan’s on fire,” he told the Financial Times. With Nato allies already eyeing the exit, the Taliban may believe their long-term goal of regaining power in Kabul is within their grasp.

Who could help facilitate dialogue?

Pakistan played midwife at the birth of the Taliban and, along with Saudi Arabia, was one of only three countries to recognise the movement when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Reports of efforts by Islamabad and Riyadh to broker talks have surfaced repeatedly. Both are US allies that would use their leverage over any peace process to expand their influence in Washington. Pakistan, in particular, would want to be rewarded with greater backing in its competition with India.

How would talks happen?

Even contacting the Taliban is a complex process involving intermediaries bearing scraps of paper: the leaders shun telephones that could be used to trace their location. Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador who lives in Kabul, helps facilitate contacts with the Taliban’s leaders, but organising face-to-face talks would be complex. Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, which also recognised the Taliban government when it was in power, might be the most plausible venues for initial meetings between low-level representatives.

Although many insurgents loosely pledge allegiance to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the movement’s founder and spiritual head, he was a renowned recluse even before fleeing the 2001 US invasion. Distinguishing key Taliban decision-makers from mid-level commanders who control only small groups of fighters would be tricky.

So what’s the problem?

Too many to list. It is hard to see Mr Omar, who once ruled Afghanistan as emir of an austere theocracy, accepting a role under the current western-style constitution. Although the Taliban has recently stressed it does not pose an international threat, its leaders are conscious of the ire they earned in the west for allowing Osama bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda, to organise the September 11 2001 attacks from Afghan soil. Mistrust on all sides runs deep.

What about other insurgent leaders?

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who leads the insurgency in several eastern provinces, is most likely to cut a deal. A former prime minister, he founded a party called Hezb-e-Islami, a faction of which already shares power in Kabul. A father-and-son team from the Haqqani family who run a fiefdom straddling the Pakistan border are less biddable.

Can Taliban fighters simply be bribed?

Maybe. Western countries gathering in London for a conference on Thursday will pledge funds for a scheme outlined by Hamid Karzai, the president, to try to lure Taliban foot soldiers with job offers. Details remain sketchy. Insurgents may simply accept the incentives then return to the fight. The central problem remains: the Taliban may simply believe it can outlast the west. (Q&A: How do you get the Taliban to negotiate By Matthew Green in Kandahar )

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