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Gauging Taliban Moves in Pakistan

Interviewee: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, CFR
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
March 8, 2012

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There are reports of efforts to unify various Taliban groups under a single umbrella (NYT) and of a growing rift within the Pakistani Taliban that could open a door for peace deals between the Pakistani government and insurgents in the restive border region. "This could be the beginning of an effort to get all of the militants on the Pakistani side of the border pushing in a similar direction, which would clarify matters in terms of negotiation with the United States," says CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey. He adds: "I'm still skeptical that it would make it easy to reach some sort of accommodation that would ultimately serve U.S. purposes." Markey says Washington's lack of clarity on its intentions in Afghanistan and in talks with the Taliban is the "single biggest problem" in its policy toward the region.

The sacking of Faqir Muhammad, the second top commander in the TTP or Pakistani Taliban, by chief Hakimullah Mehsud points to a growing rift within the group's leadership. Why was Muhammad sacked, and are there other divisive lines within the Pakistani Taliban?

The most widely reported reason for him being sacked is that he was engaging in dialogue with the Pakistani army, probably in efforts to negotiate a deal. There are reports that the army had released some Taliban militants to appeal to him and divide him from other elements within the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, under the leadership of Hakimullah Mehsud. This would be useful in a sense to the Pakistani army, because Faqir Muhammad was active in Bajaur agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which is one piece of a much bigger puzzle.

The United States, when it talks about negotiating or reconciling with the Taliban, it's primarily talking about the Haqqani network and about the Quetta Shura Taliban, those fighters who haven't been actively fighting against Pakistan.

Is this welcome news to Washington as it pushes for peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan?

It's a very complicated game and very difficult to tell how any individual piece, in terms of negotiation, might fit into the broader whole. The reason is that different factions of the so-called Taliban that are resident inside Pakistan haven't been on the same page with respect to their attitude toward the Pakistani state. Some of them are fighting against Pakistan--that is the TTP; others have essentially not fought against the Pakistani state and are perceived as being tools of the Pakistani state, like the Haqqani network or Quetta Shura Taliban [central leadership of the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Omar reportedly based in the Pakistani city of Quetta].

The United States, when it talks about negotiating or reconciling with the Taliban, it's primarily talking about the Haqqani network and about the Quetta Shura Taliban, those fighters who haven't been actively fighting against Pakistan.

We use the same name "Taliban" to talk about them all, but they are somewhat different groups, and yet in a sense they are connected, because if the Pakistanis were able to make a broader deal somehow with the Pakistani Taliban, that would eliminate a threat to them. [Then] perhaps their goal would be to unify many of these different groups essentially with their Afghan counterparts, make them a broader, bigger Taliban. Pakistan could then try to bring [them] to the table for its deal with Washington.

I happen to be very skeptical about this, primarily because some of these groups, while they may be at the surface amenable to a dialogue, when you break it down as to what they are actually pursuing both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, their goals may be fundamentally contrary to U.S. interests. It's important to see some of these distinctions, particularly whether these groups are already fighting against Pakistan or essentially are in league with Pakistan, whether they could ever be reconciled to some broader negotiation with the United States.

We'd like, for simplicity's sake from Washington's perspective, to group all these guys together--that is both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban--and come to some term with them that would allow us to reduce our military presence and reduce the level of violence in both countries. But as a practical matter, complexity is probably the more defining feature, and the distinctions between these groups may be more meaningful than their unity.

There are reports that suggest that the head of the Haqqani Network is leading a new war coordination council, known as the Muraqaba Shura, to unify all the different Taliban and insurgent groups on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Could this help U.S. negotiations with the Taliban?

I will believe it when I see it. If in fact it is true, then we could be seeing an attempt by the Haqqanis that would be probably supported by the Pakistani military to make sure that all these groups are on the same side, and that they all essentially stop fighting against Pakistan and direct their attention toward Afghanistan.

In that context, perhaps they would--even as they continue to fight--also be willing to participate in some sort of a dialogue. So that would simplify and clarify matters to some degree. But if it's also the case that Hakimullah Mehsud is unwilling to go down that path and that he has others in the Pakistani Taliban who are also aligned with him, who still see the Pakistani state as an enemy, then you won't see this all coming together. But this could be the beginning of an effort to get all of the militants on the Pakistani side of the border pushing in a similar direction, which would clarify matters in terms of negotiation with the United States--although I'm still skeptical that it would make it easy to reach some sort of accommodation that would ultimately serve U.S. purposes.

In the past, when peace deals have been made between the Pakistani state and militants in tribal areas, U.S. officials have said that security has deteriorated on the Afghan side of the border. So how should Washington respond?

Whenever Pakistan has agreed to some sort of a cease-fire arrangement with Taliban on its side, Americans and others have claimed that you've seen an uptick in violence on the Afghan side. That's exactly right. The [militants] have been freed up to pursue their war against NATO and Afghan forces without harassment by the Pakistanis, and this has brought Pakistan a fair amount of abuse from U.S. officials throughout the Bush administration and even into parts of the Obama administration.

[W]e could be seeing an attempt by the Haqqanis that would be probably supported by the Pakistani military to make sure that all these groups are on the same side, and that they all essentially stop fighting against Pakistan and direct their attention toward Afghanistan.

The thing that's changed is that the United States itself is now apparently undertaking an outreach to negotiation with parts of the Afghan Taliban. So while it says that it wants to fight and talk, and that seems to be very much the case, it is difficult for the United States to blast the Pakistanis for essentially doing the same thing.

If the United States does want Pakistan to bring the Afghan Taliban to the table, as some people have suggested, then it needs to give Pakistan the space to do that and to cut these sorts of deals. It further makes it difficult for the United States to criticize Pakistan for engaging in these kinds of dialogues. So there's a lot of mixed messaging, and part of that relates to a broader American uncertainty about the realistic prospects for negotiation.

How, then, should Washington best manage this process?

Because it's difficult to get a window into the intricacies of what's happening inside Pakistan, what the United States can do is to be more clear about its intentions--in other words, signaling what precisely it means in terms of negotiations.

I understand the need for a certain degree of secrecy and conducting these things quietly; at the same time, the public message needs to be very, very clear. That public message needs to have different components: whether we have red lines about who we are willing to negotiate with; whether we have a timeline that is different from2014, and what that looks like, because unfortunately Washington has not been able to make that clear. That's [been] made more complicated by our inability to negotiate an agreement with the Afghan government, with [President] Hamid Karzai, about precisely what our military can and can't do inside of Afghanistan, specifically night raids. There are differences over that and over control of the prisons.

These things create considerable barriers to Washington's ability to be clear about its intentions in Afghanistan and its intentions in negotiations with the Taliban. And that lack of clarity gives greater incentive to the Pakistanis to continue to hedge their bets; to the Taliban to continue to believe that they can outfight and outlast us; and continued fear to many Afghans who would probably prefer never to see the Taliban come back, gives them reason to believe that in fact, that's what the future looks like--and they are in some cases departing the country or making plans to do that. So lack of clarity continues to be our single greatest problem, despite the fact that we have committed heavily militarily over the past couple of years.

CENTCOM commander General James Mattis plans to visit Pakistan soon. What should be the focus of his talks while he is there, and how should the U.S. manage this fraying relationship?

The visit, if it does take place, comes at a time when we are at a pretty low point in the relationship, perhaps the lowest point since 9/11. The goal for the specific visit is apparently to turn on supply routes into Afghanistan that have been turned off since the friendly fire incident back in November.

In a sense, we have been in a holding pattern since the friendly fire incident, and that was a very low point in the broader relationship. What Mattis can try to do, and then others presumably would follow him, is to gradually dig a way out of that hole, piece by piece, focusing more on operational-level cooperation than on some broader strategic vision for relationship.

That's probably as much as the traffic can bear in the near term, for reasons having to do mainly with politics. What we might see is a kind of harder-edged, transactional type of a relationship, kind of a tit for tat, that may have coercive aspects to it from the United States--more threatening in certain ways, but also keeping a door open to the prospect of a much better working relationship. Both Islamabad and Washington are likely for the next nine months to be consumed by internal domestic politics at the senior level. At that point though, whoever is in charge in Washington --whether it's Obama term II or a Republican president--will have to assess if a far more ambitious agenda for Pakistan is possible.

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