The Afghan endgame has got off to an exciting start. The great reconciliation with the Taliban is all set to begin. Through sustained diplomatic efforts, Washington has gained acceptance — in the domestic opinion in the United States as well as internationally — of the idea that durable peace in Afghanistan can be reached only through an inclusive settlement involving the reconciliation of the Taliban. No one today (including the visceral critics of the Taliban in the Indian establishment) would demur about the idea of reconciling the Taliban that seemed so bizarre as recently as in January 2010, when it was first introduced at the London peace conference. In fact, no Indian official any longer quibbles over the subtle difference between ‘reintegration' and ‘reconciliation' in the diplomatic idiom.
‘Taliban not our enemy'
At any rate, it is crystal clear that the Obama administration intends to press ahead with the idea — and even speed up its realisation — no matter what others think about it. If Vice-President Joseph Biden is to be taken on his word, Washington has unceremoniously dumped the pre-conditions it underlined at the London conference. To quote Mr. Biden, the Taliban “ per se is not our [U.S.'] enemy.” Clearly, the strategic ambiguity over the ultimate destiny of the Taliban in mainstream Afghan political life has been conclusively cleared and the U.S. is open about its willingness — nay, keenness — to accommodate the Taliban in the power structure. So, the tantalising part of the U.S. strategy now narrows down to the ‘great game.' Put differently, what the U.S.' ‘hidden agenda' could be with regard to the western military presence in the region beyond 2014, which is the timeline set for the drawdown of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Here, too, the strategic ambiguity is being incrementally removed with a steady, calibrated spate of statements coyly suggesting Washington's determination to retain a permanent military presence, including combat troops, for itself and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. What 2012 will unfold is the high drama of bringing the Taliban in from the cold and getting it to accept the idea of a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, which it has so far opposed.
This is where Qatar comes in. The Obama administration places trust in the skill Qatar displayed in Libya (and, to an extent, in Egypt) in finessing seemingly intractable Islamist groups by making them susceptible to the way of all flesh. The western accounts claim Qatar spent $450 million on Libya. Thanks to the charming Qatari ally, the U.S. has been able to catapult itself to the ‘right side of history' in the Middle East alongside the Islamists on the surge. The Obama administration is optimistic about bringing the Taliban to Doha and exposing it to the magical Qatari ways of relaxing even Islamists with a stubbornly religious outlook. There could be other countries in the region such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia that may be ‘Islamic' but they do not possess the special skills that Qatar seems to have. All said, therefore, it stands to reason that the head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, travelled to Doha recently to make an on-the-spot assessment of the prospects of Qatar doing a ‘Libya' on the Taliban.
Thus, in the run-up to the New Year, the Obama administration began signalling that it was raring to go. Carefully planted media ‘leaks' began to appear, speculating on the appreciable progress of the U.S.' initial contacts with the Taliban so far and underscoring the high efficacy of buttressing the positive impulses of this sub-soil intercourse with some open display of confidence-building measures (CBMs), aimed at enticing the Taliban leaders to sit across the table with American officials in a formal setting in Qatar. Thanks to the latest ‘leak' on New Year's Eve, we now know that the Obama administration is considering the transfer to Afghan custody a senior Taliban official, Mullah Mohammed Fazl, detained at the Guantanamo Bay. The ‘leak' maintains that his release (transfer to Qatar) is by way of acceding to a request by the Kabul set-up. Now, Fazl is big-time Taliban — actually, one of the most experienced Taliban commanders and one of Mullah Omar's closest associates right from the infancy of the movement in the early 1990s. He went on to serve as deputy defence minister and chief of the Afghan militia.
Conceivably, nothing would convince Omar of American goodwill more than Fazl's ‘homecoming'. But herein hangs a tale. Fazl also happens to be linked to some of the bloodiest pages in the Taliban saga. According to reports reaching Tashkent, when the Taliban under the ISI's astute guidance and backing moved into the Amu Darya region, thousands of Shi'ite Hazaras, including women and children, were killed in ethnic cleansing in the August-September of 1998 and left to rot on the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif to be eaten by wild dogs. Reliable accounts put the figure at over 5000 killed. Indeed, Fazl (and Taliban governor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Mullah Manon Niazi if he is alive) would have a great deal to explain as war criminal — as also his role in the execution of eight Iranian diplomats who were assigned to northern Afghanistan.
Again, Fazl resurfaced in a pivotal role in strange circumstances during the surrender of the Taliban in Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif in November 2001. Most certainly, he mediated between the U.S. Special Forces and the al-Qaeda's ‘foreign fighters' who were taken prisoner in Kunduz. The then leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Juma Namangani, was an associate of Fazl. Fazl was a key figure in the execution of the grand design of the Taliban and the al-Qaeda (and its affiliates such as IMU) toward Central Asia and Russia's North Caucasus region. At the very least, he was Mullah Omar's ‘point person' at the operational level with the al-Qaeda, and he probably had one foot inside the al-Qaeda camp. Suffice to say, Fazl is not exactly the human face of political Islam in Afghanistan.
However, the Obama administration will be resorting to a masterstroke if it brings Fazl out from his 2x1 metre underground cell in Guantanamo Bay where he has been interned for a decade. Mr. Pasha's visit to Qatar to confer with the U.S. Central Command officials suggests that the ISI would like to take a rain check. After all, Fazl was a darling of the ISI and his ‘homecoming' ought to be a delightful event. Conceivably, it can even be transformed as Washington's ‘olive branch' to Rawalpindi. Fazl is today America's man too, after the intense bonding in Guantanamo Bay. But there is uncertainty when someone like Fazl is introduced into the game at extra time. For instance, the Haqqani clan may not easily give way to him. Of course, all this is predicated on Qatar ensuring that Fazl's metamorphosis as a reasonable Islamist politician is complete.
Terrific equation with the ISI
What is the game plan? First and foremost, Fazl does have the credentials to bring Mullah Omar on board for launching formal peace talks. Rather, the initial contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban can be expected to move on to a qualitatively new level if he is around. Second, Fazl is a familiar face to the Taliban militia and it would be inclined to emulate his farewell to arms. Third, he is one of the finest products of Pakistan's madrassas and he enjoyed terrific equations with the ISI. (Declassified U.S. State Department documents cite him as a key figure in the Taliban's capture of Kabul in 1996.) His bonding with the Islamist forces in Pakistan and the ISI can be useful channels of communication to persuade Islamabad to cooperate with the U.S.-led peace talks or, at the very least, refrain from undercutting. Fourth, Fazl evokes hostile sentiments from the Hazaras but not so much from the Tajiks (Ahmed Shah Massoud negotiated prisoner exchanges with him) or the Uzbekis (he worked with the U.S. Special Forces in November 2001 while in Rashid Dostum's custody in Qala-i-Jangi.) Fazl's appearance can throw the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups into disarray.
But Fazl is a trump card for the U.S. on two other templates. One, he is an antidote to Iran's influence in Afghanistan and can create imbalance in the delicate Iran-Pakistan equations. Tehran cannot easily forgive him for his war crimes. Two, Fazl used to be the Taliban's interface with the Jihadi Internationale and he is just the partner Washington might need in the great game if the ‘Arab Spring' were to appear in Central Asia holding prospects of regime change and the rise of ‘Islamic democracies' in the steppes. Of course, Fazl can always be counted upon to persuade the Taliban not to make such a terrible issue of the U.S. plans to establish military bases in Afghanistan.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)