Friday, November 16, 2012

Daily Times Editorial Nov 17, 2012

Release of Taliban prisoners Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC) delegation led by chairman Salahuddin Rabbani has returned to Kabul with a partial success in getting some middle level Taliban prisoners released from Pakistan’s custody. Differences on the list of prisoners were reported during the HPC’s sojourn in Islamabad. The HPC was desirous of more senior Taliban prisoners being handed over, considering this a necessary condition for pushing the potential peace process with the Taliban forward. Of particular interest to the Afghans was the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mulla Omar’s one time second-in-command, and Mullah Toorabi and two other insurgent commanders. However, despite Islamabad not acceding to this request, the door has been left open for their later release should the initial process yield positive results. The responses to the development have been fairly predictable. The Afghan government has welcomed it, while the Taliban have dismissed it out of hand, saying the released prisoners are no longer part of the Taliban and therefore their release will make no difference. Besides, the Taliban spokesman reiterated, they still stand by their position that the Karzai government is a puppet and they will only negotiate with the US. Deputy Chief of the US Mission in Pakistan Richard Hoagland too has welcomed the release while carefully distancing Washington from any hint of a role in the outcome. Hoagland was at pains to stress that this was a bilateral mater between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but expressed the hope that it may open the door to meaningful negotiations. It may be recalled that the US efforts in the past to open a channel of communication to the Taliban foundered because, in the case of Mullah Baradar, our ISI did not deem it fit to allow unfettered access to the Americans and reportedly sat in on the meeting, while the Qatar initiative for talks proved abortive when the US dragged its feet on the release of five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay. The 12-point joint statement at the end of the HPC’s visit, while it failed to reveal the names of the released prisoners, emphasised the long standing demand of the Afghan government that the Taliban sever links with al Qaeda and other international terror networks. The proposal has been mooted that in order to facilitate the process of contacts, the Taliban negotiators’ names could be removed from the UN sanctions list, which inhibits their ability to travel. As the Qatar initiative’s failure demonstrated, it is not clear what the Obama administration’s policy on this issue is. Mulla Omar’s still being on the wanted list of the US is considered one obstacle, while the recent designation of the Haqqani network, a group closely allied to the Taliban, as a terrorist organisation by both the US and the UN could prove another stumbling block. There is little doubt that all parties to the conflict have their eye on the looming withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan by 2014, with any residual US military presence in the country still far from a settled matter. Clearly, the apprehension that Afghanistan might well spiral downwards into more chaos and conflict after 2014 has all regional and international players worried. If the partial acceptance of the HPC’s request for prisoner releases by Islamabad is any guide, it may be that these apprehensions are finding expression in the willingness of the Pakistani military establishment to explore the possibility of a different, negotiated course rather than continued reliance on proxy actors to ensure an outcome favourable to Pakistan’s interests. The proxies strategy is by now clearly yielding diminishing returns in the shape of the home grown Taliban movement in Pakistan, with a nexus and support from at least the Haqqani network. When the openly declared enemies of the Pakistani state are being helped and supported by the one time protégés of the military establishment (the Haqqanis), there could not be a more cogent argument for a rethink in the interests of peace and stability in Afghanistan, which cannot but help something similar emerging in Pakistan too.

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