Taliban talks: West grasp excuse to cut and run
Pakistan’s involvement with the Taliban and al-Qaeda makes peace far more complicated
The announcement from Kabul and Washington that talks with the Taliban are under way sounds at first to be a victory for reason and commonsense. On Saturday, President Karzai confirmed that talks by the Americans had started and "were going well". Only a mile or two away from where he spoke, Taliban suicide bombers struck a police outpost in Kabul.
On Sunday, US defence secretary Robert Gates, who is only days away from retiring, confirmed the talks with the Taliban. He said they were "very preliminary" but should "come to a conclusion by the end of the year".
This is all designed to set the scene for a rapid draw-down of US and other international troops starting next month, with full control of security in Afghanistan being handed to the Kabul government by the end of 2014.
Next month President Obama is due to make his promised 'audit' of progress in Afghanistan in order to meet the pledge made in December 2009 to start bringing the American troops home in the autumn.
Intelligence reports about al-Qaeda in the region, starting with the commando strike to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan and followed by the signs of disarray as the organisation struggled to anoint his deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri as his successor, have merely bolstered the case for an early US exit from Afghanistan.
Not only does this provide an excuse for cutting and running, but cutting and running at the double.
This case is being embraced with almost unseemly alacrity by the Obama administration, and even greater enthusiasm by Team Cameron in Downing Street.
However, there are many missing elements to the cut-and-run narrative now being run by the ISAF international alliance in Afghanistan that should cause concern - and probably suggest that the handover to full Kabul control should be staged more slowly if we are to avoid even worse civil and regional conflict than we have seen for nearly 20 years.
For a start, Hamid Karzai was not wholly approving when he said the Americans were conducting their own contacts and talks with elements of the Taliban. "The foreign powers are conducting the talks for their own particular ambitions in the region," he stated.
Then there is the position of General David Petraeus, who is clearly arguing for a much slower pull-out of American forces than his president wants.
Petraeus is now cast as the villain of the piece by many in the Obama and Cameron circles: they paint him as the warmonger who has delayed and undermined sensible negotiations by his special operations campaign against the Taliban field leadership.
Cheerleader of these critics is the former British ambassador to Kabul and UK envoy to the region, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who has resorted to remarkably personal attacks on Gen Petraeus himself.
The facts that I have witnessed on the ground on two extensive visits across Afghanistan this year tend not to favour the Cowper-Coles argument that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban can be reached quickly and easily, provided the military don't interfere.
There are several very nasty different wars going on against different elements of the Taliban. Toughest is the fighting in the high eastern regions of Kunar, Nurestan and Nangahar where the Haqqani syndicate hold sway. The Americans there say there is clear evidence the Haqqani Taliban are run and supported by the Pakistan Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) agency, and in recent skirmishes have even called in fire support from Pakistan Army artillery just across the border.
The ISI, too, seem deeply implicated in concealing Osama bin Laden in his sprawling compound in Abbottabad. The ISI's local station was even closer to the compound than the nearby military barracks and academy, by all accounts.
Whether the ISI was directly baby-sitting the ailing founder of al-Qaeda may be a matter of conjecture, but what is plain is that the ISI have - brilliantly - turned the whole story of Bin Laden's killing into an argument for the expulsion of American forces and influence from Pakistan.
This has put the position of the head of the army, General Ashraf Kayani, in jeopardy - with a risk now that he is about to be voted out of office by his fellow senior officers. A senior international official in Kabul recently described Kayani "as just about the only senior figure in Pakistan, military or civil, who seems to be living in the 21st century".
In the latest flurry of optimistic announcements about talks with the Taliban, nothing has been said about Pakistan's involvement with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It is the dog that hasn't barked. But it is the real deal wrecker for any prospect of peace and stability in the region for at least 10 years to come. ·
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