A calibrated media offensive has appeared, the principal objective of which is to underscore that the Taliban are gaining the upper hand politically. The intention seems to be threefold. First, to scare the daylight out of the non-Pashtun groups which believed from day one that the idea of accommodating the Taliban in the Afghan power structure would be extremely dangerous. If the non-Pashtun groups could be sufficiently incited to agitate, they would exert big pressure on Karzai regarding the "sell-out" to the Taliban. The discord would tear apart the tenuous coalition that Karzai heads, and a sure casualty could be the High Council that the Afghan president is erecting as his bridge leading toward the Pashtun camp in Pakistan bypassing the Punjabi-led establishment. Second, the media offensive projects the veteran mujahid Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin, onto the center stage. A "senior Pakistani official" even claimed that talks are going on between Haqqani, Karzai and the US government - "The ice has broken". An impression is being created that while the Quetta shura may remain important, its stature as the principal interlocutor in the insurgency has eroded while the Haqqanis surged as the main military threat to the US forces on the battlefield. That is to say, there can be no enduring peace unless the Haqqanis are engaged in talks by the Americans as their key interlocutor. Third, this sort of media expose creates confusion regarding the nascent reconciliation process. It puts Karzai on the defensive vis-a-vis his non-Pashtun allies, embarrasses moderate elements within the Taliban leadership and forces them to resort to grandstanding and intransigence that ultimately could derail the reconciliation process.
In short, this entire media blitzkrieg aims at aborting the sort of "Afghan-led" reconciliation process that Karzai is conceiving.
The reconciliation process is at an extremely vulnerable "embryonic" stage, to use the words of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill. Last week, while talking to reporters in Washington, Sedwill said, "There are significant (Taliban) leaders who seem to be weary of the fight and seem to be willing to contemplate a future within the mainstream." But, "Essentially, we're at the embryonic stage. The channels of communication are o pen. I wouldn't, at this stage, say that we've reached the point of real negotiation."
The context becomes very important from yet another angle. A new level of equilibrium or maturity has lately appeared in Washington's equations with Karzai. Washington has manifestly edged closed toward Karzai in recent days, putting behind the period of alienation and drift. The controversy over the issue of "corruption" has tapered off. Again, Washington accepts the conduct of the Afghan parliamentary elections and is preparing to deal with the emergent power alignment involving the new parliament and Karzai.
The Barack Obama administration seems to have decided to work with Karzai when the search for a political settlement is shifting gear.
Detractors and debunkers of Obama's war see things differently. The former US Central Intelligence Agency operative-turned-critic, Michael Scheuer, says, "The game is over and we are looking for a way out. Obama won't be able to hold his base for 2012 if he is not out (of Afghanistan and Iraq)".
However, we cannot be so very prejudiced as to overlook that there is a consistent streak in Obama's political personality. Laurence Tribe, the renowned professor who became Obama's intellectual mentor at Harvard, once summed up nicely, "Overall, Obama has... a problem-solving orientation. He seems not to be powerfully driven by an a-priori framework, so what emerges is quite pragmatic and even tentative. It's hard to describe what his presuppositions are..."
All indications are that Obama is acutely aware that the war isn't going too well. If anything, author Bob Woodward further provoked Obama into a "problem-solving orientation" with revelations in his latest book Obama's Wars of rifts in the administration over Afghan war policy.
No doubt, Obama's video teleconference with Karzai on Monday had a "hands-on" purposive approach. He firmed up a most crucial leg of any Afghan settlement, namely, formalizing the US commitment of long-term support to the Kabul government embracing the post-settlement era.
Obama and Karzai agreed that a new US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Declaration would be ready by the time a NATO summit takes place in Lisbon in November.
They linked this to the other key topic at the NATO summit, namely, "transition to Afghan lead security responsibility by 2014", as the White House readout put it. The White House said on Wednesday that Obama supported Karzai's efforts at opening peace talks with Taliban leaders, but "this is about Afghanistan. It has to be done by the Afghans."
On the other hand, US-Pakistan ties, which have always been difficult, have come under new pressures. The US has sharply escalated drone attacks on Pakistan's tribal areas. Two "hot pursuit" incidents provoked Pakistani attacks on NATO convoys and the closure of the Torkham border post from Pakistan into Afghanistan, but no one is losing sleep in Washington or Brussels.
A Voice of America commentary rhetorically asked, "Have the (Pakistani) attacks brought supply shortages to NATO troops in Afghanistan?" It went on to answer with a derisive "No", quoting General Joseph Blotz who commands the International Security Assistance Force: We do have plenty of supplies and stocks within Afghanistan. We do have access to transport and logistics through other border crossing points... and, yes, we need to look for other options and the other options are, you know, getting in the necessary supplies and logistics through border crossing points with neighboring countries in the north... where we get in actually almost as much supplies as through the border crossing points with Pakistan, so there are alternatives. In sum, the US message is getting to be somewhat blunt: the Pakistani military has little choice but to cooperate. Again, regional players may have differences with the US strategy in Afghanistan, but the Obama administration keeps the back-channel to Iran, is actively consulting Russia, and has restrained New Delhi from making precipitate moves. Equally, it is preposterous that Beijing would contemplate goading the reluctant Pakistani military into the high-risk enterprise of "strategic defiance" of the US in the Hindu Kush.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has so far ignored the Pakistani attempt to draw the US into the unrest in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal flashed details of a White House report that is being forwarded by Obama to the US Congress which in unusually plain speaking says that the Pakistani military is playing a double game in the Afghan war.
"The Pakistan military continued to avoid military engagements that would put it in direct conflict with Afghan Taliban or al-Qaeda forces in North Waziristan (tribal area in Pakistan). This is as much a political choice as it is a reflection of an under-resourced military prioritizing its targets."
We are witnessing the foreplay of an Afghan peace settlement. No doubt about it. As a perceptive Guardian commentator put it, the issue is no longer about peace talks but as to when the fighting will stop. And Pakistan is reiterating its claim to be the key arbiter of any peace talks and has asserted its seamless capacity to be a "spoiler" if it is spurned.
A charming thing about magpie robins is that they can incorporate fragments of other bird calls into their songs. Remember how their songs kept frustrating the Geneva talks and prolonged the Soviet agony in Afghanistan?
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
[Description of Source: Hong Kong Asia Times Online in English -- Online newspaper focusing on political and economic issues from an "Asian perspective," with over 50 contributors in 17 Asian countries, the United States, and Europe, and a branch office in Bangkok; successor of the Hong Kong/Bangkok-based print daily Asia Times that closed in 1997, it claims an average of 100,000 daily site visitors, with 65% of the audience based in North America, and 22% in the Asia-Pacific region; tends to be critical of the United States; URL: http://www.atimes.com]
Pakistan: Haqqanis Sons Hold Talks With Tribal Elders To Pacify Kurram Agency
SAP20101021098003 Karachi Dawn Online in English 21 Oct 10
[Report by staff correspondent: Haqqanis two sons mediating in Kurram]
[Text disseminated as received without OSC editorial intervention]
ISLAMABAD: The three-year fragile and ineffective efforts for peace between warring sectarian tribes in Kurram Agency have received an unexpected boost in the shape of the controversial Haqqani network which is now trying to play peace broker. This has been confirmed by more than one source from among the key players involved in the peace process. The entry of the Haqqanis in the Kurram peace talks, which date back to 2007, has surprised many. After all, the network is usually mentioned in terms of its war theatre in Afghanistan and its base in North Waziristan. The US has been pressurising the government for months to dislodge the Haqqanis from North Waziristan. Khalil and Ibrahim, sons of the network's founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, have reportedly been meeting tribal elders from the Kurram in Peshawar and Islamabad to end the hostilities between the local tribes and bring peace to the area which has witnessed some of the worst clashes in its history over the past three years. The last round of talks was held in Islamabad on Oct 10. "They first turned up at a meeting held in Peshawar in the first week of September," a tribal elder told Dawn. This account is corroborated by another elder who adds that the two brothers were also present at the second meeting in the provincial capital on Sept 16 and then at a subsequent one in Islamabad. It is expected that elders and mediators will put their heads together in the next few days yet again to ensure sustainable peace in the area. Although the ongoing spate of violence dates back to 2007 and the peace efforts to 2008, the Haqqanis have been in contact with the rival tribes since early last year. In the early phase, Haqqani's senior 'commanders' negotiated with all the groups in Kurram on his behalf. But the talks remained inconclusive. Now he has nominated his two younger sons which shows how important the region has become for the group. However, the people of the violence-wracked Kurram are apprehensive of the aims of the mediators. Not only are they wary of those involved in fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also because they think that the involvement of the Haqqanis may not be possible without the tacit approval of the military which is reported to enjoy links with this group of Afghan militants. Such suspicions gain credence against the backdrop of reports that members of the Haqqani clan visited Peshawar and Islamabad for the talks. Some reports suggest that the Haqqanis have sought full authority and 'machlaka' (bond) from rival factions before unveiling a new peace agreement. The proposed deal will be binding on all parties. However some groups are reluctant to give full authority and machlaka to the 'mediators'. Instead, they are stressing that the Murree/Islamabad agreement signed by all tribes be implemented.The government had brokered the agreement in Murree that was signed on Oct 16, 2008. Under the agreement, the rival tribes deposited Rs20 million to the local authorities as guarantee that they would refrain from fighting in the future. But the five-point agreement which covers all major issues could not be implemented. Tribesmen blame a lack of interest on the part of the state organs for this. According to some reports, the tribesmen have sought the release of the people kidnapped during an attack on a convoy on the Thall-Parachinar road in July. The Haqqanis' interest is not linked to the welfare of the residents of Kurram but to the tribal agency's strategic position. The most important among all the agencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Kurram borders Afghanistan's Khost province in the south, Paktia in the southwest and Nangarhar in the north, while Kabul is 90 kilometres west of Parachinar. In fact, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, all the major groups of 'M ujahideen' had bases in the area. The Haqqani group is active in Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Ghazni and Wardak, which is close to Kabul. And especially as Waziristan has become vulnerable for the network in the wake of frequent US drone attacks, the Haqqanis are desperate to find safe locations outside the agency. Kurram would prove ideal for them and this is why they are trying to reconcile with the tribes in its lower and upper parts. They are not the first to find Kurram's proximity to Afghanistan attractive. In fact, Taliban first came there in 2006 when they moved to Orakzai Agency and some parts of Kurram from Waziristan after signing peace deals with the government. Baitullah Mehsud, the late chief of the banned Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan had deputed Hakimullah Mehsud to oversee Kurram, Khyber and Orakzai.
Another reason the Taliban shifted activities to Orakzai and Kurram was that North and South Waziristan were being closely watched by the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan and they were facing difficulties crossing the border from there. However, the militant groups' move to Kurram was opposed locally. The residents of the upper parts of Kurram opposed the movement of armed men through the agency. Eventually the agency plunged into bloody clashes in April 2007, leaving over 3,000 people dead, according to unofficial estimates, while hundreds of families were displaced. Property worth millions of rupees was destroyed in clashes and the people suffered immensely because of prolonged closure of the Thall-Parachinar road. Unfortunately, scrappy media coverage of the clashes gave them a sectarian colour and the involvement of the Taliban was ignored, although the government did acknowledge on some occasions the involvement of a third party. For a number of reasons, the Taliban since then have not been able to enforce their writ in Kurram. And this is why they have been forced to negotiate peace, a process which the Haqqanis have joined. Meanwhile, the residents of Kurram remain sceptical about the new initiative.
[Description of Source: Karachi Dawn Online in English -- Website of Pakistan's first and most widely read English-language daily promoting progressive views. Generally critical of military rule; URL: http://www.dawn.com]
Pakistan: US Reportedly Forms New Group of Taliban To Fight 'Real Taliban'
SAP20101022100013 Islamabad Daily Express in Urdu 22 Oct 10 pp 5, 8
[Report by Fida Mohammad Adeel: "Pentagon Forms New Group To Stage Drama of Negotiations With Taliban"]
Peshawar -- The formation of a new group of the Afghan Taliban has come to light. However, instead of formally bringing members of this group to surface, work on a new US plan to use them covertly against the real Taliban has been expedited. According to sources, the Taliban leaders fed up of fighting are being inducted in this group, and under the new strategy of the Pentagon, reports of negotiations with the Taliban are being played up in the US and Western media. A prominent figure considered close to Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani has also been included in the group. He is being used to cause hatred against the leadership of the most dangerous Haqqani network among over 20 Taliban groups that consider Mullah Omar their supreme commander [as published]. Meanwhile, the Hizb-e-Islami has claimed that so far, the representatives of the Afghan peace council have not contacted any resistance group, nor is there any truth in the reports of direct or indirect contacts with United States.
[Description of Source: Islamabad Daily Express in Urdu -- Daily owned by Century Publications of the Lakson Business Group. The second largest daily after Jang newspaper with a circulation of over 120,000. Provides good coverage of national and international issues and follows moderate and neutral editorial policy.]
Asia Times: 'Taliban Peace Talks Come to a Halt'
CPP20101101715041 Hong Kong Asia Times Online in English 0004 GMT 30 Oct 10
[Asia Times Report by Syed Saleem Shahzad: "Taliban Peace Talks Come To a Halt"; headline as provided by source]
Efforts to begin a process of reconciliation with the Taliban have completely failed as Washington has refused to give any of the guarantees demanded by the Taliban as a prerequisite to sitting at the negotiation table, a Taliban representative has told Asia Times Online.
Should the breakdown prove permanent, the coming year promises to be a very tough one in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan's tribal areas, home to militants and al-Qaeda.
The recent strategic dialogue between the United States and Pakistan that renewed a US$2 billion five-year security assistance package for the Pakistani army is aimed specifically at effectively fighting against al-Qaeda bases situated in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The al-Qaeda response, Asia Times Online has learned, will be to activate sleeper cells around the world, orchestrated by a fresh team in place in border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Talks fall flat
The moves towards reconciliation with the Taliban began in late 2008. Saudi Arabia was named in the Western media as the main component of the process; it invited some former Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan members for dinner during the annual hajj (pilgrimage).
This became the first regular process of indirect American and Taliban interaction, with messages conveyed through various third parties. Interestingly, this period saw the beginning of the US's stepped-up drone war against al-Qaeda's sanctuaries in the tribal areas, with almost daily missile strikes, especially in North Waziristan.
By this October, at least two dozen important al-Qaeda members had been killed, as well as a sizeable number of newly recruited and trained European nationals. Regional franchises of al-Qaeda, including the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban), also suffered losses, as did the Uzbek militia.
Extensive spy networks in the tribal areas ensured that the Americans fully understood the dynamics of al-Qaeda and the ground situation in North Waziristan. A case in point is Nasrullah Khan, a former member of the Laskhar-e-Taiba jihadi group who joined forces with Ilyas Kashmiri's al-Qaeda-linked 313 Brigade.
Before the beginning of the Commonwealth Games that ended on October 14 in Delhi, Khan had been selected to head a unit of the brigade to carry out an operation against the Games.
However, on September 20, he and five other men were killed in a drone attack in the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. Khan had an extensive network of operatives in India and Indian-administered Kashmir and his death disrupted the ground operations in India to such an extent that no operation could be undertaken.
Similar drone missile attacks in September and October brought al-Qaeda's European operational branches in North Waziristan to a halt.
Even as death was raining from the skies in the tribal areas, the peace process with the Taliban was gathering pace, with fresh overtures in August. For the first time, all parties noted some flexibility in the Taliban's approach, and it appeared they would at least sit down for negotiations with the Americans or with the Afghan government. (See Taliban and US get down to talks Asia Times Online, September 11, 2010.)
The process drew on all international players to solicit the student militia to resolve the nearly 10-year conflict. (See Taliban soften as talks gain speed Asia Times Online, September 15, 2010.) To establish rapport with the Taliban and further the process of dialogue, the Taliban's commander in Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was released. (See Pakistan frees Taliban commander Asia Times Online, October 16, 2010.)
The US's top man in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, while saying that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would remain tough in Afghanistan against the Taliban, said the peace process was welcomed. He also disclosed that NATO had even gave safe passage to a senior Taliban commander to go to Kabul for talks - a hint over the release in Pakistan of Baradar.
Publicly, though, the Taliban did not acknowledge that talks were taking place. A recent handout read: No Taliban official has spoken to the Americans or their puppet Afghan government... those who were arrested (Baradar), those who changed their loyalties (former Taliban foreign minister Abdul Wakeel Muttawakil and Senator Arsala Rahmani) or those who are living under Afghan government surveillance (former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Zaeef) are not Taliban representatives. Their interaction does not have any meaning for the Taliban. Due to the extraordinary surveillance against the Taliban, no senior leader would agreed to come forward to give the real Taliban side of the story; however, eventually a middle-cadre member was sent to meet with Asia Times Online, and he confirmed the public statement.
"The much-hyped reconciliation strategy was a trap and we never actually considered it as an option," the Taliban envoy - who had traveled from Kandahar in Afghanistan - said.
"The Americans never wanted reconciliation with the Taliban. They never approached us directly. If we were approached by third parties, like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or the UAE (United Arab Emirates), we did not consider it anything serious," the envoy said.
This did not fit with a general understanding that Naseeruddin Haqqani, the son of commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani of the most powerful Taliban network, had been at the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad in September. Further, the embassy had arranged for him and his family to go on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. (Naseeruddin Haqqani had been arrested in 2009 by the Pakistani security forces and then released in exchange for Pakistani soldiers. The swap was brokered by now slain Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.) I gave my understanding, "That was the real clandestine interaction of the Haqqani network with the American or the Afghan government through Saudi Arabia, not the contacts mentioned in the Western media." I continued, challenging the envoy's version of events, "The fact of the matter is that the Taliban did show flexibility for talks, so I wonder why they abruptly failed?" The Talib responded, "On the one hand they were offering an olive branch and from the another hand they were tightening the noose around us. We could see that the whole game of reconciliation was not aimed at offering us power, but on inflicting serious damage on us." He explained, "On the one side they were looking to establish a channel of communication with the Haqqanis, yet now (in October) they are gathering troops in Khost (province in Afghanistan across the border from North Waziristan). There has been extraordinary troop mobilization in Khost. For what?" he asked, then answered the question.