Is the US taking a Leap of Faith toward Taliban and al-Qaeda?
Time is running out, because Afghanistan is due to hold presidential elections in April 2019
According to reports, the Taliban disclosed on Tuesday that five former Guantanamo inmates from their leadership have joined the Taliban political office in Qatar. This dramatic development signals that the talks between the Taliban and the US are underway in search of an Afghan settlement.
The five former Guantanamo inmates were top figures in the Taliban regime in the 1990s and close confidantes of late Mullah Omar. They are former interior minister Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, former army chief Muhammad Fazil, former governor of Balkh and Laghman Noorullah Noori, Taliban’s deputy intelligence chief Abdul Haq Wasiq and Taliban’s communication chief Nabi Omari.
They were released from Guantanamo Bay by the Barack Obama administration after 12 years of incarceration in 2014 in exchange for US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held hostage by the Taliban for nearly five years. The five Taliban leaders were shifted from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar where they have been in protective custody of local authorities. If they are indeed joining the Taliban’s political office in Doha, it can only be with the approval of the Qatari authorities and the acquiescence of the US.
The stunning part is that these five Taliban leaders once carried stigma for the US, for having been closely associated with the al-Qaeda. Indeed, Washington had all along anticipated that a time would come when the hardcore Taliban leadership would need to be constructively engaged. That alone explains why the (Afghan) Taliban was thoughtfully excluded from the US State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Washington took the position that the Afghan Taliban is an insurgency with control over vast swaths of territory and aspirations to govern the country. It conveniently left the door open to negotiate with them and reconcile with them, hopefully, when the time came.
Evidently, the Trump administration assesses that that time has come. The induction of the dreaded five Taliban leaders with al-Qaeda links to mainstream peace talks follows the recent visit of the new US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad to Pakistan and Qatar. Khalilzad is a diplomat in a hurry and is raring to negotiate peace even if it involves interlocutors who might have been closely associated with the al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
Indeed, it shows Khalilzad’s cold realism and pragmatism as a veteran diplomat, while on the other hand also the sense of urgency within the Trump administration that a settlement must be negotiated as quickly as possible.
There is no evidence that the Kabul government has been consulted or is party to this development in Qatar. Khalilzad will be proceeding on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, since Afghan polity is hopelessly fragmented and it must be a bitter pill for the Kabul elite to accept that the five Guantanamo Bay inmates are back in political circulation as top protagonists.
On the contrary, Khalilzad is working in close consultation with Islamabad. The release of the former No 2 in Taliban hierarchy Mullah Baradar by Pakistan last week (at Khalilzad’s instance) synchronizes with the development in Qatar. Clearly, Pakistan is positioning Mullah Baradar also in anticipation of the commencement of the fateful talks in Qatar in the very near future.
Time is running out, because Afghanistan is due to hold presidential elections in April 2019. The US is conscious that another puppet government elected through a farcical election charade and post-election gerrymandering will lack legitimacy and may even spell doom for the country. The sensible thing will be to bring the Taliban to the forecourt and get them involved in the upcoming political contestation.
How that is going to be possible in the limited time ahead remains to be seen. In all respects, a tricky and dangerous transition looms ahead – ominously reminiscent of the UN-sponsored transition in 1992 from communist rule to the Mujahideen, which collapsed in spectacular failure.
Once the Qatar talks begin in right earnest, the last ounce of legitimacy left in the Kabul set-up will drain away. The pressure will increase to fill the power vacuum that will inevitably arise. However, compared to 1992, the good part is that while the Afghan Mujahideen were split into rival groups, with some such as the Jamiat way out of the orbit of Pakistani control, that is not the case with the Taliban. Pakistan is in a position to shepherd them in the right direction.
But Pakistan will expect the US to reciprocate by taking into consideration its sensitivities and interests – especially, the revival of the old full-bodied relationship between the two countries. Read an opinion piece in Dawn newspaper underscoring the criticality of Washington and Islamabad moving in tandem in search of a ‘joint solution’ through the coming six-month period in order for Khalilzad’s talks to be fruitful and productive.