The South Asia Channel

The bin Laden aftermath: what now for Afghan reconciliation?

"As for duplicity, I would say that diplomacy is not single tracked. We all follow many different tracks; sometimes, apparently, working against each other," a retired senior official from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) told me and my colleagues during a private gathering in Islamabad in July 2010 that was organized as part of The ...

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

"As for duplicity, I would say that diplomacy is not single tracked. We all follow many different tracks; sometimes, apparently, working against each other," a retired senior official from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) told me and my colleagues during a private gathering in Islamabad in July 2010 that was organized as part of The Century Foundation’s International Task Force on Afghanistan. "Double games or triple games are part of the big game."

The ISI has long cultivated ties with militant groups as part of the country’s national security strategy, in order to mitigate considerable gaps in conventional military capabilities with its principal adversary, India, and to check regional competition within Afghanistan. The United States and its international partners have been somewhat tolerant of this Pakistani game-playing. While it has long been known that Pakistan continues to support and harbor Afghan insurgents, American dependence on Pakistani supply routes, international fears about the nuclear-armed country’s own stability, and its presumed counterterrorism cooperation with respect to al Qaeda, created a dynamic that has indulged official duplicity.

The discovery that Osama bin Laden was residing within walking distance of Pakistan’s military academy in Abbottabad has shaken the foundations of this unsustainable arrangement and generated widespread outrage regarding Pakistan’s possible links with the most reviled of transnational jihadis.

There will now be considerable congressional pressure to at least curtail or condition U.S. aid and military reimbursements to Pakistan. But rather than ceasing all counterterrorism cooperation or downgrading ties in the near term, the United States should now use its enhanced leverage with Pakistan to push forward an inclusive political process to end the fighting in Afghanistan — a process that necessitates positive Pakistani involvement. The death of al Qaeda’s leader has created additional momentum for those on all sides seeking a political resolution to the current conflict. And in the final analysis, such a process also offers Pakistan an opportunity to realize some of its strategic aims.

It is high time for the White House to realize that recent U.S. and allied military efforts and tactical successes in Afghanistan have not shifted the overall strategic balance of the war. With a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan, and a corrupt Afghan government fuelling the expansion of the insurgency and unable to hold cleared territory, the sustainability of current military efforts remains untenable. Therefore, the Obama administration should seize on the success of its audacious military operation to kill bin Laden to push forward a political strategy of outreach to the Taliban.

Such a political settlement will no doubt require distasteful compromises for all sides and its achievement is far from certain even if all practicable efforts are made. But bin Laden’s death provides Taliban leaders — who would have to sever their ties with al Qaeda in future negotiations — with greater political cover.

In discussions last July with insurgent field commanders and others with political connections to the major Afghan insurgent factions, many Afghan interlocutors made clear to me their own willingness to eventually sever ties with al Qaeda. But they also emphasized that such a move could only be the result of negotiations, as opposed to its opening act. Several further argued that such a move at this stage, when the U.S. surge was reaching its peak, would be tantamount to a unilateral and partial disarmament.

As we were told repeatedly, when faced with the military might of the United States, these fighters were willing to accept the assistance of any other parties that could amplify their military efforts, including al Qaeda. For many of these insurgents, their struggle was conceived in terms of Afghan national goals, and tactical cooperation was more about survival than ideological convergence. Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Kandahar-based researcher who has discussed the issue of al Qaeda at length with members of the Taliban, points out that any moves to sever ties at this juncture could "jeopardize links with other militant factions that provide material support and assistance to the Taliban, and could even incite violent retaliation against them."

But the issue of severing ties with al Qaeda will face internal resistance. Bin Laden’s death improves the optics of any such move, and strengthens the ability of those insurgent leaders who favor a political approach to win over skeptics and rejectionists within their ranks. It also eliminates the key personal tie that cemented the relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network, which in some cases go back to the insurgency against the Soviets.

The opacity surrounding Pakistan’s role is also likely to breed paranoia among the ranks of the Taliban, who will fear that the military operation was the result of a U.S.-Pakistani deal. This heightened sense of vulnerability to double cross by their Pakistani patrons could prove useful in encouraging political engagement.

Of course, the Taliban’s position is only one factor in the effort to reach a political settlement to end the Afghan war. Any viable political process will necessitate active and constructive Pakistani engagement.

Pakistan’s diminished international standing as a result of the bin Laden operation may partially remedy the issues that have long bedeviled U.S.-Pakistani relations, including the moral hazard that has driven Pakistani actions. While the exact connections, if any, between Pakistan’s security establishment and bin Laden remain murky, the picture that has already emerged is deeply damaging to Pakistan’s credibility — at best, they appear oblivious and incompetent and, at worst, they have provided covert support to the most odious of transnational terrorists.

While Pakistan has called repeatedly for political reconciliation and a political settlement to the conflict, its commitment to such a process continues to be an open question. Pakistan’s security establishment has not yet signaled that it is willing to pressure its allies to abandon conflict in favor of a political path.

While all of Pakistan’s familiar options for subversion remain, the bin Laden episode has raised the stakes for this beleaguered state. The specter of bin Laden has created a possible pathway for international isolation and pariah status — if the Pakistani security establishment is intent on continuing along its current course.

Now would be the optimal moment to seek concrete steps from Pakistan. To begin with the focus should be on ensuring that Taliban leaders who seek to engage on a political level are afforded the freedom to do so without interference or threat. Instead of forsaking a relationship with Islamabad, which would bring it little strategic gain, Washington should instead pressure its chastened and embarrassed partner into making constructive contributions to an all-inclusive peace process.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation.

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