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October 30, 2010

Three Questions: Pakistan and Afghan Talks with Taliban

by Ira Mellman

The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan says high level talks between Afghanistan and Taliban members are not taking place.

Last week, envoy RichardHolbrooke admitted to reporters in Washington that there had been some communication between Afghan officials and "provincial leaders, individual commanders" who have fought alongside the Taliban.  But he stressed they were "not hard-care ideological Taliban" who have been reaching out.

"There's less here than meets the eye," Holbrooke told reporters after a trip to Kabul. "There is no indication at this point that the Taliban leadership wishes to change its course," he said.

The clarification by Holbrooke comes after a senior NATO official told reporters in Brussels that NATO had facilitated contacts between top Taliban leaders and the Afghan government by granting them safe passage to meetings in Kabul.

Suggestions of talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban without Pakistan's participation could be seen as a snub at Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's government, which has repeatedly stated that it would welcome the role of facilitator in such talks.

Asked to comment on the reports of reported Afghan-Taliban talks, one senior Pakistani security official told the Los Angeles Times "We are out of the loop."  The official asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue.

VOA spoke with Dan Markey, a Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Washington based Council on Foreign Relations, about Pakistan's possible concerns.

Why would Pakistan object to discussions between individual Taliban leaders and Afghan officials?

I think Pakistan is worried they can get cut out of this negotiating process. Pakistan also probably reads more into the negotiating process than is currently there, and doesn’t trust Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Pakistan is probably a little overly worried at this stage of the game, but I think they were hoping that they could use their influence with Afghan Taliban leadership residing inside of Pakistan to really drive these talks, to really control these talks. For one reason or the other, they feel really left out than in control.

So I don’t think they have a legitimate concern but I can understand why they are worried. I think that in general, a lot of our talks in Afghanistan are too Karzai centric.

What do you mean "too Karzai centric"?

I’m not convinced that Karzai has the clout, the standing in the Afghan national community to really pull off any kind of serious negotiated settlement. I’m not sure that the Taliban take him seriously, I’m not sure he can deliver a wide spectrum of Afghan public opinion in favor of any kind of settlement he might be able to engineer with the Afghan Taliban. So this is flawed and problematic in a lot of different ways. And one final way is that the United States appears to be, in some very limited ways, facilitating these pre conversations potentially leading to these negotiations, but we are not leading them. We’re not deeply involved, we’re not guiding them and we’re not setting down a clear set of rules or red lines that everybody needs to understand. So I think we’re going to find ourselves in a very reactive mode rather than driving the process in a constructive way, and I think that could be dangerous for us.

Could or should the United States trust the Pakistani government with the history of the connection between the ISI (Pakistan Secret Service) and the Taliban?

Trust, I think is a little bit strong in terms of what the United States should see in relationship with Pakistan on these issues, but Washington needs to understand that whether it trusts Pakistan or not, Islamabad intends to be involved in this outcome. Islamabad will want to have some influence over whatever dispensation and merges in Kabul and Afghanistan and will make it relevant. So if that means spoiling any kind of process toward a negotiated settlement, if that means upping the ante in terms of violence, and if that means being marginally helpful, it will do any of those things as long as it stays involved. So the United States needs to recognize that even if it doesn’t trust that Pakistan could necessarily deliver something, it would be beneficial to the United States to understand that Pakistan is important to the outcome.