Light at the end of Afghan tunnel

M.K. Bhadrakumar August 4, 2015 8:12 AM (UTC+8)
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The Chinese state news agency Xinhua signaled in a major commentary on Monday that Beijing views the new Taliban leadership of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a positive light. The salience of the commentary, entitled ‘New Afghan Taliban chief keeps hope alive for Pakistan-brokered Talks’, lies in three intertwined estimations.

Beijing views the new Taliban leadership of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a positive light
Beijing views the new Taliban leadership of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in a positive light

One, Mansoor has been projected as a moderate and pragmatic personality who favors peace talks with the Afghan government; and, therefore, with his ascension as the new Amir of the Taliban, the inter-Afghan talks that began on July 7 will not only move forward but gain momentum.

Two, Kabul too shares a favorable view of Mansoor and pins hopes on his leadership to usher in a formal dialogue process in search of a settlement.

Three, most important, Pakistan is expected to ensure that the peace process is not derailed due to the change of Taliban’s leadership; put differently, Pakistan has influence over Mansoor to make certain in the period ahead that the Taliban take their place at the negotiating table.

What explains the optimism? It stands to reason that Beijing has been keeping close contact not only with the Pakistani intelligence and the Afghan government but also maintained direct contact with the Taliban Shura. Mansoor is, evidently, a familiar face for the Chinese diplomats.

Interestingly, Xinhua strongly hints that there is a consensus opinion between Beijing, Kabul and Islamabad that Mansoor’s leadership is highly helpful in speeding up the peace talks.

Of course, neither the Pakistani nor the Chinese intelligence will ever acknowledge what role, if any, they would have – together or in tandem – played through the recent weeks and months to facilitate Mansoor’s formal ascension as the Amir last week. It stands to reason that much spadework was needed.

Indeed, both the Chinese and Pakistani intelligence would have been aware for quite some time already that Mansoor was the de facto leader of the Taliban and was merely pretending he was acting on behalf of (late) Mullah Omar. But they arrived at an assessment at some point recently that the time has come when it is no longer possible to sustain the ‘Mullah Omar myth’, especially if the peace talks were to move forward and agree on a ceasefire to the fighting.

It is extraordinary that Xinhua asserted that Mansoor has been elected as Amir with majority support from the Leadership Council members and religious scholars. It also implies that China intends to do business with him as the legitimate Amir of the Taliban.

Needless to say, China’s backing will be very useful for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to sequester, isolate and tame the dissidents – or, alternatively, crush them if they become recalcitrant and create problems. At any rate, the western thesis that the Taliban is heading for a “split” seems far-fetched. At the end of the day, the rebels will need sanctuaries, funds, supplies, logistical support and foreign sponsors.

Even Mullah Qayum Zakir, who has been a detainee in American custody for almost a decade and is being lionized by the western media as a powerful counterpoint to Mansoor, becomes vulnerable to a concerted crackdown by the ISI and will be fighting for his survival. His family members used to live in Peshawar and sometime last year he shifted them to the tribal areas, which are under the control of the Haqqanis. Quite obviously, they cannot escape the long arm of the ISI.

Importantly, the Chinese-Pakistani game plan will be to stem the ascendancy of the Islamic State, which not only could pose a serious threat to regional security, but also could be seized as an alibi for the perpetuation of the western military presence in Afghanistan.

Both Islamabad and Beijing would have watched with profound dismay the recent visit by Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to Kabul on a mission to “form a network to oppose the trans-regional threat posed by the Islamic State” – to quote from the Pentagon readout.

Dempsey proposed to President Ashraf Ghani that Afghanistan should be transformed as “a regional hub to potentially allow for the forward deployment of US counter-terrorism forces in the region and also provide a base to strengthen regional partners who may be in the lead fighting terrorism”. Dempsey visualized that the fight against terrorism will be a lengthy struggle that could last a generation.

Suffice it to say, dispensing with the ‘Mullah Omar myth’ and instead consolidating the transition to a new Taliban leadership that is willing to work toward reaching an early settlement in Afghanistan, became a top priority for both Pakistan and China. Time is the essence of the matter, and Pakistan acted to clean the Aegean stables.

Now, Pakistan alone could not by itself have got away with this act of anointing Mansoor as the new Amir, given the covert support from western intelligence enjoyed by Mansoor’s detractors (such as Zakir). But China’s support has made all the difference. Pakistan may be vulnerable to American pressure, but Pakistan plus China altogether changes the calculus.

It is highly improbable that Mansoor’s detractors will be propped up by the western intelligence. The United States, in particular, knows that Pakistan and China will ensure that Mansoor consolidates quickly as the Taliban’s Amir, no matter what it takes, and that he will be in a position to ensure that the peace process gains traction in a very near future.

In short, an early Afghan settlement is no longer the pipe dream that it seemed to be until a week ago.

The US will have no choice but to applaud that there could indeed be light at the end of the Afghan tunnel. The hurried trip by the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Daniel Feldman to Rawalpindi on Friday to meet Pakistani army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif signifies both a virtual recognition of the crucial role Pakistan is all set to play (with China’s complete backing) as well as an implicit acknowledgment that the ‘great game’ has gone in favor of the regional powers.

Suffice it to say, Dempsey tried to shift the focus to the specter of the Islamic State haunting Afghanistan. But with the last week’s happenings, the focus has shifted back to where it ought to be, namely, the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. To be sure, the hype about the Islamic State was in any case vastly exaggerated. At any rate, it is through an early settlement in Afghanistan that the Islamic State threat to that country is best tackled – and not through open-ended western occupation.

In sum, President Barack Obama now faces an existential choice. If he really wants to redeem his pledge to wind up the Afghan war and pull out the last American trooper out of the Hindu Kush by the end of next year, a window of opportunity is opening for him. All he needs to do is to instruct Feldman to work diligently with his Pakistani and Chinese colleagues to work out a ceasefire forthwith in Afghanistan and launch a peace process in all earnestness.

Of course, it means that the US would have to jettison the geopolitical agenda to keep a military presence in Afghanistan under whatever pretext available to push the containment strategies against Russia and China and to keep Iran and Pakistan on a tight leash.

In short, it means asking Gen. Dempsey to stand down and prepare instead for a total pullout of American troops from Afghanistan by end-2016, which was actually what Obama had originally pledged to do.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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