By M.K. Bhadrakumar

The “Qatar dialogue” last week between the representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban raises hopes. But there are caveats.

To be sure, as more and more details emerge as to the happenings at the Al-Kohr resort, an extraordinary picture emerges of the Taliban having undergone a gene therapy in these years since they disappeared from Kabul and Kandahar into the fastness of the night in the winter of 2001.

Quite obviously, they still wear black turban and have use for the kohl eyeliner. But a mutated gene that caused a ghastly disorder and brought then much disrepute in the nineties appears to have been “knocked out” (to use the medical terminology.)

The result is stunning: Taliban no longer have that congenital aversion toward mixing with the female gender, which once prompted the then U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright to call the “Afghan Nazis”.

At Al-Kohr, the Taliban representatives led by none other than the No. 2 in their Political Committee, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai did not mind sitting across a conference table with women representatives from Kabul (who were not accompanied by male relatives), conversed with them without shyness and apparently even prayed Namaz with them.

The Taliban also jettisoned their rejectionist previous stance and showed willingness to discuss in detail “the structure of the political system” (read the Afghan constitution) and agreed that “different opinions may arise in this respect,” acknowledging in essence that “no party should have a monopoly on power.” Indeed, that is a big step toward willingness to share power in a future government in Kabul.

These are early days, of course, but one main factor working on the Taliban’s changing stance seems to be the spectre that is haunting Afghanistan from a medium term perspective, namely, the possibility that at some point, the Islamic State (IS) may raise its banner on Afghan soil, as a rallying point for discontented elements.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban supremo Mullah Omar would have a shared interest in preventing their country’s descent into mindless violence and suffering.

The Taliban are also greatly vulnerable to losing their status as the leading insurgent group. The point is the IS might hold a fatal attraction for kindred souls who are for one reason or another – not necessarily ideological – unhappy with Omar’s leadership and his devotion to traditional Islam that formed part of the tapestry of Afghan culture and society as well as his indifference to the charms of global “jihad.” The threat that IS poses to the Taliban in the medium term cannot be underestimated.

Besides, as things stand, there are many discontented “non-Islamist” elements and groups within Afghanistan — those who thrived from war profiteering and want the war to continue and the U.S. troops to stay on so that the gravy train continues to run forever, those Mujahideen groups and warlords who have been sidelined for one reason or another by the regime in Kabul, the free-lancing field commanders, or even plain smugglers and drug traffickers and so on. In Iraq, the IS banner did attract even the staunchly secular Ba’athists, retired (Sunni) military officers and tribal chieftains not wedded to Islamism on the basis of their shared antipathy toward a perceived Shi’ite regime in Baghdad that was refusing to accommodate them. The situation in Afghanistan and Iraq may have certain similarities.

However, in the short term, the spectre of the IS is being deliberately played up many vested interests in Afghanistan, including government officials, many of whom are unhappy that the drawdown of the U.S. troops would deprive them of avenues of massive war profiteering. This is already evident in Kunduz where the local officials are spreading exaggerated claims in interviews with the western media that the city is under attack by the IS (and not the Taliban proper) and that two female dead bodies have been spotted among the killed “jihadists”, etc. It doesn’t need much ingenuity for an old timer to see through the typical Afghan ploy. The Afghans are adept at manipulating their foreign journalists and their hope is to use gullible western journalists to whip up xenophobia and make out the case that in the present circumstances an open-ended American military presence in Afghanistan has become an imperative need.

Hopefully, President Barack Obama will not allow himself to be manipulated by these hustlers hoping to make a good living out of the crumbs falling from the high table of a U.S.-led war.

The heart of the matter is that a long-term American military presence in Afghanistan will spell doom for that country. It will be a recipe for prolonged bloodshed and an eventual disintegration of Afghanistan. No matter the change of heart on the part of the Taliban toward women or any issues that remained contentious up until now and reduced the scope for their reconciliation, there is one red line which they will not fudge — namely, their unequivocal opposition to the presence of foreign troops in their country. The Qatar dialogue reconfirmed this.

Therefore, it is an encouraging sign that the participants in the dialogue in Qatar generally “agreed that foreign forces have to leave Afghanistan soon.” It is a good beginning.

In immediate terms, the trend seems to be that the Taliban will not agree to a ceasefire prematurely. At the very least, they will want to emphasize the “ground reality” — their vast reach in that far-flung country to stage such audacious attacks simultaneously, as have happened recently, in the far-flung regions of Farah (western province), Kunduz (northern province) and Badakhshan (eastern province), which are so far away from their so-called sanctuaries in Pakistan to the south.

Clearly, Pakistan is unwilling to restrain the Taliban at this point. Why should it do otherwise, anyway? Pakistan will await the stage for the peace talks to gain traction and there is clarity to the effect that Pakistan’s legitimate interests are accommodated in a broad-based government, which of course includes Taliban’s rehabilitation in a broad-based power structure. It will never hand over its “strategic assets” on a platter to the Americans prematurely.

The big question is whether the Taliban would halt their military offensive half way through the current fighting season. It seems improbable that the Taliban will not make an effort to display that they are more than a match for the Afghan armed forces (who are finding themselves in a combat role for the first time all by themselves and do not appear to be acquitting themselves well so far in Kunduz.)

From the government side, therefore, this fighting season presents a do-or-die situation where it pulls all stops to thwart the Taliban’s military offensive while at the same time negotiate with flexibility and patience. Whoever is advising the Taliban on the fine distinctions between tactic and strategy is indeed doing a masterly job. The Taliban have kept their word — the US may keep the watch but Taliban will keep the time.

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