TO talk or not to talk. That is the question that the US appears to be facing now when it comes to the Taliban, at least if the media narrative is to be believed. Gen Petraeus was asked on Monday by members of the US Senate Armed Services Committee about the issue, particularly Pakistan’s role in trying to reconcile the Taliban and the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai. His answer was the stock one American officials from President Obama downwards have been giving of late: it’s too early to talk about reconciliation. Outwardly, the Obama administration remains committed to its strategy in Afghanistan whereby the Taliban insurgency has to be dented to an extent that when reconciliation is pursued, the Americans can do so from a position of strength. The problem is that the first part of that strategy — denting the Taliban insurgency — is not going anywhere nearly as well as the Americans had hoped. The operation in Marja is widely believed to be a failure; June was the most lethal month for foreign troops in Afghanistan; the operation in Kandahar has been postponed, seemingly indefinitely — the trajectory of the American effort is looking rather dismal.
True, these are early days, the full complement of American forces promised by President Obama as part of his Afghan ‘surge’ has yet to arrive and the American brain trust should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, it is telling that in the wake of the McChrystal debacle, the American media has focused on the modalities of a withdrawal, sooner rather than later, from Afghanistan.
Given this background, the Pakistan Army appears to think that the way ahead is to broker a quick deal between President Karzai, who is aggressively pushing for reconciliation with seemingly anyone and everyone, and the various factions of the Taliban. Yet, it’s not clear if that is such a sensible idea. The easy route in Afghanistan, picking up where we left off from in the mid to late ’90s with necessary adjustments for the present realities, may be tempting for Pakistan’s security architects, but it wholly misses the point. Even before 9/11, the writing was on the wall when it came to the use of the so-called ‘non-state actors’. Re-imagining Afghanistan as something other than a zero-sum game will take courage, but it is necessary. The army’s response to any perceived threat, whether from India or Pakhtun nationalism, need not automatically be a defensive crouch. A peaceful, stable and friendly Afghanistan, the army’s avowed goal, is a good idea. The problem is that it is hard to square the choices made here with that eventual goal, objectively assessed.