There is a lot of talk these days of reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan, including at a conference last month in London.
What does "reconciliation" mean? Is it realistic? Who are the major players and why are they pushing for it? Who are the winners and losers in this political game?
The key players are the United States and Great Britain, Hamid Karzai and his government, the Taliban, Hizb-e Islami Gulbudin Hikmatyar and the Pakistani military.
The United States has been pushing the idea of a dialogue with the Taliban for quite some time. Based on statements made by government officials, there are three reasons why it is worth the effort to have a dialogue with the Taliban.
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First, there is the "precedent" in Iraq. But the Iraq analogy voiced by top U.S. authorities is faulty because the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are very different.
In Iraq, insurgents had no choice but to reach out to the U.S. military and eventually the central government in Baghdad. Unlike Afghanistan, the central government in Iraq was dominated by a long-standing enemy, a rival sect. And the Sunni insurgents in Iraq did not have the full backing of a neighboring country (like Pakistan for the Taliban), nor were they working closely with al-Qaida next door. That is why, to assure the U.S. military of their sincerity, the Iraqi insurgents publicly condemned al-Qaida and threw their support to the United States
The second reason the United States is pushing for a dialogue with the Taliban stems from what Mullah Omar said last fall about the importance of national interests over the international ones.
More specifically, he hinted that the Taliban cared more about Afghanistan than the rest of the world, implying that his goals were different from al-Qaida's goal of spreading Islamic extremism to the rest of the world.
To the United States, this meant the Taliban was now moving away from al-Qaida in some significant way. But there is no way of knowing know how sincere Mullah Omar was in his statement.
In this connection, we have to recall that when the Taliban came to power in the mid-1990s, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some gulf states recognized its regime. The United States, too, was about to follow suit when all of a sudden the media in the United States began broadcasting atrocities of the Taliban in Afghanistan, especially what they were doing to women. Public opinion in the United States forced the government to give up the idea.
The third reason why the United States is interested in reconciliation involves Taliban detainees in U.S. custody. The government has indicated that during interrogation the detainees said their prime motivation to join the Taliban was money.
But when you are in jail, you might say or do anything to get out. The detainees would not have been released had they had said they were true believers in jihad (holy war) against the United States and the government in Afghanistan. Thus, while there undoubtedly were some detainees who were telling the truth, there must have also been some Taliban fighters whose motivation was to engage in jihad against the "Kafirs," the infidels.
What about the Afghan insurgents? Why would they want to reconcile with the U.S. military and Afghan government?
To answer this question, one must understand the insurgents in Afghanistan consist of Hizb-e Islami Gulbudin-e Hikmatyar and the Taliban.
The Taliban, in turn, consists of its leader, Mullah Omar; his commanders, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani; and the foot soldiers. The foot soldiers, in turn, mostly include the brainwashed madrasa (religious school) students or graduates; residents of the Kandahar, Helmand, Urozgan; Tahrik-e Taliban-Pakistan, some al-Qaida elements and former Taliban officials residing in Kabul.
The Taliban leaders have set as a precondition for reconciliation with the government the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Gulbudin Hikmatyar also has set that as a condition for reintegration.
In addition, reconciliation means different things to different people.
To the United States and the West, it means the Taliban laying down their arms, condemning and cutting all ties to al-Qaida and accepting the Afghan constitution.
For Hamid Karzai and his close advisers in the government, there are different motivations.
First is that he wants his fellow Pashtuns, especially the Durranis, to dominate the government and the security forces.
Second, he wants to put more foreign funds into the pockets of Pashtuns in the south and east regardless of whether or not they are Taliban. In the process, millions of Pashtuns would be employed in the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and other branches of the Afghan government, further tipping the ethnic balance in the government and security forces in favor of the Pashtuns, who make up 40 percent of the population.
Third, reconciliation will divert attention from rampant corruption and fraudulent presidential elections. In the view of many if not most Afghans, the international community is responsible for bad governance, corruption and illegitimacy of the Karzai government.
For the Afghan Taliban, the primary goal is to await the departure of United States and other coalition forces from Afghanistan.
In the meantime, the Taliban leadership and HIG want to stay alive and at the same time infiltrate the Afghan government and its security forces.
Although currently the target of the U.S. drone strikes are Tahrik-e Taliban-Pakistan and al-Qaida operatives in north Waziristan, there is a good possibility that these strikes will also extend to Baluchistan, where the Taliban leadership plans their attacks inside Afghanistan, killing Americans and Afghans, including children. The reason is that these strikes have so far been very successful in killing or injuring key Tahrik-e Taliban-Pakistan operatives.
Finally, as the main player in this political game, Pakistan's military, especially its Interservice Intelligence, has multiple reasons for pushing for reconciliation.
It wants to establish a Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul sympathetic to Pakistan. It wants the U.S. drone strikes and retaliatory bombings of Pakistani cities by al-Qaida and Tahrik-e Taliban stopped. It wants to prevent Mullah Omar and other Taliban operatives from being killed.
After all, it was Pakistan that created Mullah Omar and the Taliban to control Afghanistan in the first place. And had it not been for Sept. 11, Mullah Omar would have controlled the entire country.
Pakistan knows the United States and other coalition forces will eventually leave. In that eventuality, if the Afghan government is dominated by the Pashtuns, the Taliban would easily fill the vacuum and come to power again, enabling Pakistan to control Afghanistan in the process.
Finally, Pakistan would receive billions of dollars in U.S. military and nonmilitary aid. In fact, there are signs that Pakistan even wants to be put in charge of the hundreds of millions of dollars donated in the reconciliation fund.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the ISI was also in charge of billions of dollars in cash and weapons. The Pakistanis and HIG got most of the aid from the United States and Saudi Arabia. Thus, just as the occupation was "a milk cow" or a source of cash for Pakistan, the insurgency is now providing the same opportunity for Pakistan.
In light of the hidden agenda of the various players, reconciliation with the Taliban is unrealistic and bound to fail.
The suicide bombings will continue though at a slower pace and less often.
In the final analysis, the true winners in this political game are, first and foremost, the Pakistani military, the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida, the Pakistani Taliban, and Karzai and the Pashtun nationalists in his government.
The losers, on the other hand, are the Afghan people, the U.S. government and taxpayers, and other countries, including Central Asian nations, Iran, Russia, Turkey and India.
Reconciliation will enable Pakistan to bring the Taliban back to power in Afghanistan, reigniting civil war.
Instead of reconciliation, it is in the best interest of the United States and the rest of the international community to focus on security and development from bottom up as opposed to from top down. Here Afghan communities take their destiny in their own hands and get involved in the safety and development of their areas.
A good example is the recent deal the U.S. military made with the maleks and other elders of Shinwar in the east to drive the Taliban out of their territory.
This is more realistic and has a good chance to succeed, and in fact could serve as a prototype for the rest of the country.