All who matter in Afghanistan are talking about reconciliation with the Taliban, but on the Afghan government's terms. Strangely enough, though, the offers of peace talks are being made at a time when 37,000 fresh US and Nato troops are on their way to the country in a desperate attempt to bring the conflict to a military end. This is a turnaround from statements from Western capitals in the past that the Taliban are terrorists and not worthy of being engaged in political talks or reconciliation.
President Barack Obama took the lead by emphasising the need for a political solution to stabilise Afghanistan. US defence secretary Robert Gates has been arguing that the Taliban were part of the political fabric of Afghanistan and thus needed to be included in its political mainstream.
Gen Stanley McChrystal, commander of the US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan, has himself advocated a political solution. His "surge" strategy is based on an attempt to weaken the Taliban to compel them to agree to negotiations and a political solution. In fact, he does not rule out the presence of the Taliban in a future Afghan government.
However, the US, as well as its Western allies having soldiers in Afghanistan, have presented certain conditions for talks with the Taliban, including renunciation of violence and their laying down their weapons. The Nato members who deployed troops in the country and suffered losses would prefer to pull out only after ensuring that at least a few of their objectives in the region are achieved and Afghanistan doesn't become a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda once again.
On the other hand, the Taliban, who won't give up the fight easily after their sustained resistance against a formidable enemy for so long, demand that all foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan and without any agreement on the country's future and its system of government. So it would be naïve to assume that the Taliban would cut a deal with the US and its partners under pressure from Pakistan on terms that are more favourable to Islamabad than to their leader Mulla Mohammad Omar.
The Western nations also want the Taliban to accept Afghanistan's constitution. British foreign secretary David Miliband has gone a step further when he publicly stated that the aim of the Western countries was to divide the Taliban and overcome their resistance. In fact, this is precisely the aim of all Western nations jointly fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and failing despite eight years of intense efforts involving significant human and material losses. Past attempts to create divisions in Taliban ranks have failed and now new strategies are being devised to win over low- and mid-level militants.
Referred to as a reintegration plan, it is the initiative of President Hamid Karzai. He isn't in a strong position to make a success of such a critical move despite his re-election for a second term, in fraud-tainted presidential and provincial council elections last August. In fact, he is now entangled in a struggle for power with an increasingly assertive parliament that twice refused recently to give a vote of confidence to 27 of the 41 ministers proposed by him. This tussle will now last longer as the elections for parliament have been delayed from May to September.
Besides, President Karzai and the fractious opposition groups in and outside parliament would continue to wrangle over the contentious issue of reforming the election commission before the polls, particularly in view of the rigging. That would sap the energy of Karzai's government and make it difficult for him to offer reintegration to the Taliban, and from a position of strength.
The latest initiative to wean away Taliban foot-soldiers and local commanders from the top leadership isn't really something new. The National Reconciliation Commission headed by former Afghan president Sebghatullah Mojadeddi was part of a similar exercise to persuade former fighters to lay down their arms and reconcile with the state. Mojadeddi, Mr Karzai's boss during the Afghan war against the Soviet occupying forces, had thought that in his capacity as a former Mujahideen leader and spiritual figure he would be able to prevail upon the Taliban and other militants to stop fighting, but he was unable to achieve much.
The only change, and a significant one, in President Karzai's new reintegration plan is the availability of more funds to pursue the goal of triggering defections from Taliban ranks by offering surrendering fighters jobs, education and protection. An amount of one billion dollars provided by the US is now available to fund this project, and other countries are willing to contribute to the effort once it gets the green signal at the international conference on Afghanistan being hosted by the UK in London on Thursday.
The cornerstone of this initiative is that a large number of Taliban fighters aren't ideologically motivated and are fighting because they are jobless or harbour grievances against the foreign forces and the Afghan government, and warlords who are part of the ruling dispensation. The main idea is to offer them money and jobs and, once they switch sides, protection from their former Taliban colleagues.
There is a strong belief in the West, and even in Kabul, that the Taliban are able to pay more to their fighters than the monthly salary of $101 that Afghan soldiers receive. This is unproven and misplaced, because those who have seen Taliban fighters would confirm their poor living conditions, lack of resources and the poverty of their families. If this commitment on their part is indeed the case, then the whole premise of buying off the Taliban to out down the insurgency is flawed and hence unlikely to succeed.
In fact, the Taliban have made it clear that no amount of money would weaken their resistance as they were motivated by the religious cause of jihad and were fighting to liberate their homeland from foreign forces. Though some fighters would certainly stop fighting in return for favours and the media would initially highlight it as a promising development, the majority, as in the past, would stay loyal to Mulla Omar and continue the resistance.
In the context of Pakistan, it was instructive to note that its offer to help the US and its allies in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table was immediately seen as proof in Kabul and some Western capitals that Mulla Omar, the Haqqanis and other top Taliban commanders had refuge in Pakistan and were under the influence of the Pakistani military, and that they were allowed to stay despite assertions to the contrary. The largely pro-government Afghan media went to town with talk shows and analyses on the issue and allegations were made that Islamabad wanted to appease the US and position itself to receive more military and civilian assistance by offering to use its influence with the Taliban to encourage reconciliation in Afghanistan.
Islamabad certainly has influence on the Afghan Taliban and some of their top leaders and commanders have been allowed to hide in Pakistan, as in the past when Afghan Mujahideen were given refuge and not stopped from operating from inside Pakistani territory.
However, there have been limits to Islamabad's influence on Mulla Omar's Taliban in the past when they refused Pakistan's requests to deliver Osama bin Laden to the US, not to destroy the Buddhas in Bamiyan, expel wanted Pakistanis hiding in Afghanistan under Taliban refuge and not to misuse the facility of the Afghan Transit Trade. Even now there would be limits as to what Pakistan can do to persuade the Afghan Taliban to agree to reconciliation in Afghanistan. It seems Pakistan's influence over the Afghan Taliban and credibility with them eroded following its decision to assist the US in invading Afghanistan in 2001 and removing Mulla Omar from power.
Pakistan will have to be careful not to argue the cause of the Afghan Taliban to such an extent that it leads to the strengthening of the Pakistani Taliban, because the links between these two militant groups cannot be broken easily. It is ironic that the West is keen to promote reconciliation and political dialogue with the Afghan Taliban while insisting on the military defeat of the Pakistani Taliban.