Moving Towards a Global Afghan Taliban Settlement

Stratfor Analysis

January 25, 2010 will be remembered as the day when much of the planet buzzed about diplomatic talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban movement. The chatter comes in the context of a number of conferences that will be held over the course of the next week that focus on dealing with Afghanistan’s jihadist insurgency. The countries being represented at the meetings — including the United States, the Central Asian states, Europe, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India and China — have a stake in what happens in Afghanistan.

Each of these players has a different view on how to engage the Taliban in a negotiation process, but there seems to be an emerging consensus that when all is said and done, the Afghan jihadist movement –- in one form or another –- will be part of the government in Kabul. In other words, there is a general acceptance that if Afghanistan is to be settled, the Taliban have to be dealt with as legitimate political stakeholders. The difference lies in the degree to which the Taliban can be accepted.

From the point of view of the United States and its NATO allies, ideally the surge should be able to weaken the momentum of the Taliban and the overall counterinsurgency that divides them. This would result in a significant number of pragmatic elements being stripped from the core that surrounds Mullah Omar and other leaders. The United States and its Western allies are not, however, naive enough to believe that this can be achieved in the short span of time laid out in U.S. President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan strategy. Therefore, the West could learn to live with the hard-line Taliban as long as it can separate itself from al Qaeda, though there is still the matter of how the Obama administration will be able to sell this on the home front, especially in such a dicey political climate.

Pakistan, the second most important player when it comes to dealing with the Taliban (given Islamabad’s historic ties to the Afghan jihadists), would ideally like to see the Taliban gain a large share of the political pie in Kabul. Such an outcome could allow Islamabad to reverse the loss of its influence in Afghanistan and use a more Pakistan-friendly regime as a lever to deal with its security dilemma with India. That said, a political comeback of the Taliban in Afghanistan would also bring significant security threats to the Pakistani state, given Islamabad’s own indigenous Taliban insurgency and the complexities that exist between the two.

Though it does not share a direct border with Afghanistan, India is the one country that seems completely opposed to accommodating the Taliban. New Delhi does not want to see the influence it has gained over the past eight years eroded. More importantly, it does not want Pakistan to get a breather in Afghanistan such that it can focus on the Kashmir issue. From India’s point of view, an Afghan Taliban political revival could boost the regional anti-India Islamist militant landscape.

Iran, the other major power that shares a border with Afghanistan and has deep ethnolinguistic, sectarian, cultural and political ties with its eastern neighbor, has a complex strategy in relation to the Taliban. It is in Tehran’s interest to back certain elements of the Afghan Taliban as doing so keeps the United States occupied — at least in the short term — with the war in Afghanistan. This keeps it from taking aggressive action against the Islamic republic over the nuclear issue. In the long run though, the radical Persian Shia are ideological enemies of the militant Pashtun Sunni movement and would want to see them boxed in as per any negotiated settlement. The Iranians will play a role in any such outcome, particularly through its proxies among the non-Pashtun minorities. Iran also does not want to see its main regional rival Saudi Arabia make gains in Afghanistan, given Riyadh’s historical relations to the Taliban and Pakistan.

Conversely, for the Saudis, there is no turning back the clock in Iraq where an Iranian-leaning, Shia-dominated state has emerged. The Saudis are also seeing how Iran has made deep inroads to its north in Lebanon and south in Yemen, and has potential proxies within the Shia populations in the oil-rich Persian Gulf Arab states. The rise of the Taliban, which has religious as well as ideological ties to the Saudis, could serve as a key means of countering Iranian moves against the oil-rich kingdom.

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the three Central Asian states that share borders with Afghanistan, have ties to their respective co-ethnic brethren in Afghanistan, and deep security concerns about a government with a Taliban presence. The Taliban, during their first stint in power, provided sanctuary to Islamist rebels from all across the steppes of Central Asia. Therefore, they are relying on the U.S.-led international process to make sure that a resurgent Taliban can be kept in check.

These Central Asian states also have to contend with the reality that Russia, which enjoys a monopoly of influence in the region, has an interest in the Taliban insurgency remaining a thorn in the side of the United States, at least long enough to make it difficult for Washington to extricate itself. As long as the United States remains bogged down in Afghanistan and other parts of the Islamic world, Russia has the freedom to effect its own geopolitical revival in the former Soviet Union. The Central Asian republics, however, do take comfort from the fact that in the long term, Russia sees the Taliban as a security threat to its Central Asian sphere of influence as well as the Caucuses.

China’s position is similar to that of the Central Asian states. The Chinese fear that a legal Taliban presence in Afghanistan could help Uighur/East Turkestani Islamist militants with ties to Central Asian militants threaten the stability of their own Muslim northwest. But the Chinese have close ties to the Pakistanis and will therefore be working on both fronts to try and ensure that any Taliban political resurgence in Afghanistan be constrained.

Finally, there is Turkey, which has no physical links to the region, but is using its influence with the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and more recently Iran, to bring the various pieces of the Taliban juggernaut toward some settlement. Turkey under the Justice & Development Party is trying to insert itself as mediator in various conflicts within the Islamic world –- a move endorsed by the United States, which needs all the help it can get. In this case, the Turkish government is using its deep ties to Afghanistan and Pakistan to connect the United States and NATO with the Taliban. This coupled with Turkey’s ethnic ties to Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Turkmen communities constitutes a means for Ankara to create a sphere of influence in the southwest Asian country where it can serve as a potential jumping off point to expand influence into Central Asia –- the land of its forefathers and fellow Turkic peoples.

It is way too early to say what those with an interest in what becomes of the Afghan Taliban insurgency will do with this complex web of competing and conflicting geopolitical calculi as they move toward a settlement. They do not all have an equal say. The United States is the prime mover, and so all states must plan to align themselves with the United States’ exit timetable. In a best-case scenario, some states will walk away with some gains and others will have to cut their losses. In a worst-case scenario, all of these efforts fail and Afghanistan descends into a state of nature where the balance of power is sorted out the old-fashioned way.

 © Copyright 2010 STRATFOR. All rights reserved

18 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Army, FATA, Great game, India, Iran, Islam, Islamabad, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, quetta, Religion, strategy, Taliban, Terrorism, USA, War On Terror

18 responses to “Moving Towards a Global Afghan Taliban Settlement

  1. Ammar

    I am skeptical of this Afghan Taliban deal, as it will have implications for Pakistan but if such a deal is struck we must not abandon our plight to eradicate extremism from Pakistan. The allied forces must take Pakistan in confidence before any settlement as Pakistan is vital stakeholder in this war against terror.

  2. Mustafa Shaban

    Interesting analysis.

  3. haq

    Ammar,

    Pakistan’s fight against extremism has to continue. But this is also a battle of ideas, we need to bring our society to a point where individual freedom and secular values in politics are engrained. The ‘how” of this battle is what worries me more….. (am now holding my breath and waiting for someone from our friendly eastern neighbour to tell us how they went about it).

    Meanwhile, we will have to look for a practical solution in Afghanistan.

  4. vajra

    @haq

    Don’t be silly. How would we know? We haven’t got there yet ourselves. If you find out how, just pass the word along.🙂

  5. Hayyer

    It is only half an analysis.
    “Therefore, the West could learn to live with the hard-line Taliban as long as it can separate itself from al Qaeda, though there is still the matter of how the Obama administration will be able to sell this on the home front, especially in such a dicey political climate.”
    2001 redux. Having declined then why should the Taliban agree now? Is that what American policy is coming to-pious hopes?
    I could understand the interest of all the countries mentioned but two, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The latter may be a source of funds for the Taliban but surely not at a government level. Russia, Central Asian countries and China want a lid on Islamist infiltration to their own regions. India wants to contain Pakistan. Pakistan wants to remain uncontained. But Turkey? And poor Europe, after the pleasures of discussing Afghanistan are over, left wondering why it got involved in the first place. Europeans are only now discovering that they don’t want unlimited expansion of NATO.
    Obama spoke too soon. He cannot leave in 2011, not as a victor anyway. Karzai stateed in London today that it would take 10 years to train Afghan security forces.
    But Pakistan has the most difficult choice of all. How to prevent a resurgent Taliban from aiding its TTP allies circa 2012, while resuming a pre-2001 strategic alliance after the Americans have gone. The US in its hurry to get out on schedule may push Pakistan into even greater military commitments and ever more difficulty. If the PA continues to demur as it did over North Waziristan who can say what the Americans will think of doing?
    Obama has put himself in a no win situation by calling for a withdrawal in 18 months. He cannot get re elected as a loser and he risks Lyndon Johnson’s fate if he continues to hang in.

  6. haq

    vajra,
    refreshingly honest….may there be more like you.

  7. vajra

    @haq

    [sigh]

    I know you won’t believe me easily, but there are more like me – many more, better, and more balanced than I.

    Just regulars on PTH alone, Hayyer, Gorki, Majumdar, Luqmaan Khan; there are others who are less active.

    I can only regret very sincerely that YLH and you – and others I have heard of – have had such bad experiences so far. There are those Indians who report similar experiences with Pakistanis, and the whole thing saddens me. This is not representative of the bulk of the people on either side.

    You will forgive me for feeling somewhat melancholy.

    Peace to you.

  8. ved

    India will be wary of Talibans’s influence on Afghan government. It has very sore taste when Talibans were ruling in Afghanistan.

    India in the intial years of Taliban rule although did not recognise, were not so worry but IC814 highjacking and its landing in Kandahar and non-coperation of Kabul government is still fresh in Indians mind. Therefore they will always oppose their presence in any shape. Moreover their pan-islamic ideology make Indian government uncomfortable due to Kashmir issue.

  9. Junaid

    When Pak army puts forward a suggestion to use diplomacy with Taliban, they are branded as terrorist sympathizers; when the US does the same, its called pragmatism.

  10. updike

    To junaid

    The pak army still harbours many elements – right from bottom-most ranks up to the top – that wish to protect and re-train terrorists (terrorist groups) for use against India or even USA. Hence this difference of which you have written. Pakistan, esp. its army, has lost trustworthiness because of it’s long-standing habit of double-dealing everyone (even internally). Even today the pakistani army is quite proud of its past double-dealings and pugnaciously plans future ones.

    Trustworthiness is like thin glass. Once broken it cannot be repaired. Hence even peace-loving decent pakistanis are weary of the pak army.

  11. D_a_n

    @ UpDICK…

    ‘and pugnaciously plans future ones.’

    you’ll notice were a pugnacious lot we are!

  12. Mustafa Shaban

    @updike: I understand that there are a few elements friendly with the Afghan Taliban, but that is only on a relationship base. The Pak Army is not full of extremists who support the actions of the Pakistani Taliban. This rumor that elements in the Pak Army want to back terrorists and use them against India is propoganda. They however want the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan for strategic purposes to shield them from India not attack India.

  13. Hayyer

    MS:
    How do you account for the fact that as a result of the hijacked IA flight to Kandahar the terrorists freed from Indian jails landed were handed over to Pakistan and resurfaced there. Was not the Taliban Foreign Minister acting as an agent of Pakistan?
    Was the ability to use Kandahar and the Taliban government a demonstration of the strategic depth sought by the Pakistani army.
    What should a normal government have done when handed over a set of criminals as ransom for a hijacking?

  14. Mustafa Shaban

    @Hayyer: I never heard of this case before, can you tell me exactly what happened?

  15. Milind Kher

    @MS,

    The details of the hijacking are given below. It happened long ago, probably before you started reading newspapers or listening to the news.

    However, I thought you may have read some historical reference to it.

    On December 24, 1999, when Indian Airlines flight IC-184 took off from the Kathmandu Airport on Board were 174 passengers and an 11-member crew headed by Captain D Saran. Also among them were six heavily armed terrorists, ready to hijack the plane.

    How they managed to get on board remains a mystery to this day. As per their plan, the plane was to be taken to Lahore, but the Pakistani authorities refused permission. Taking a U-turn, the plane then returned to India and landed at Amritsar Airport.

    The hijackers demanded refueling, and when the Indian authorities dilly-dallied, they flew the plane back to Lahore.

    Why was it allowed to take off from Amritsar at all is another mystery.

    There are reports that at Lahore Airport arms were exchanged with the hijackers.

    No one knows if the claims of Pakistan’s possible involvement in the hijack drama are true or just a myth.

    By then the condition inside the packed airbus was getting nightmarish for the hostages. The hijackers had killed one of the passengers, Rupin Katyal, in cold blood.

    The hijackers then demanded that the plane be taken to Kabul. But realising that it was impossible to land there at night, they flew the aircraft to Dubai instead.

    There 25 passengers were released, three old men, nine women and 13 children.

    Rupin Katyal’s body was also handed over to the UAE authorities. Early next morning, on December 25, the plane took was flown to Kandahar in Afghanistan.

    The Taliban Government there set up communications with the hijackers and provded the hostages blankets, food and water. The plane was also refueled.

    Indian investigative agencies raised questions over Taliban’s actions. Did the Taliban actually help the hijackers? And what was Taliban leader Muttawakil’s role in the episode?

    Then came the demand that gave away the intention behind the hijacking. They demanded the release of Harkat-ul Ansar general secretary Maulana Masood Azhar from Tihar jail, 35 other militants and $200 million in cash. The next day a seven-member Indian team of negotiators reached Kandahar.

    The breakthrough came a week after the day of the hijack. India released three dreaded militants, including Masood Azhar, in exchange for the 155 hostages. But what of the money demanded by the hijackers? Did it change hands at all? There is no answer to this question as well.

  16. Mustafa Shaban

    @Milind: I remember hearing about it but it was long time bak. So what role did the Taliban play other than negotiating the demands and fulfilling them?

  17. Milind Kher

    @MS,

    It is unclear. See the questions raised.

  18. updike

    To junaid and Dan

    I am no fan of USA, who had their own ill intentions to misuse Pakistan (and even India, but India remanied aloof, what angered them very much). USA did a lot of damage to Pakistan, but simultaneously the pakistanis were also double-dealing and misusing the USA (a fact acknowledged by many pakistanis). However worse than the US-CIA has been the misuse of Pakistan by the triad-CIA comprising of China, Islam and Arabs. Each of the three is an alien (=from outside of the indian subcontinent) ruthless imperialist power with fascist methods and totalitarian goals. The pakistanis are the real hindus (=inhabitants of the Sindhu river basin), but islam has taught them a faslified account of history and instigated them to hate India and hindus and everything hindu. This analysis explains Pakistan’s politics and its downfall taking the whole society as hostage.

    If you cannot discuss this openly, publicly and safely in Pakistan then it confirms my analysis as correct. Islam-based societies become totalitarian very quickly. Freedom of opinion is restricted to glorifying islam and everything islamic. When I write this to muslims then I get abused, insulted and threatened or face a boycott. Such behavior also confirms the totalitarian closed-minded nature of islamic education. Islam is not the only totalitarian ideology that mankind is facing today – but the most powerful, ruthless and successful among them all. May be this is so because islam does it in the name of a so-called god. That is the magical-manipulative power in the very word “god”.

    Most discussions on muslim forums avoid this crucial issue and hence become a useless waste of cyberspace and time. When an indian points that out then he has reckon with a lot of ridicule and then a boycott.