Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Search for Elusive Taleban 'Moderates'

Pakistan is struggling to find "moderate" Taleban to participate in a future broad-based Kabul government.
By Arif Azad

There are clear signs of jitters in the West as to the nature and direction of the US military campaign in Afghanistan. Three weeks into the bombing, there are no substantial gains. The Taleban show no signs of cracking, Osama Bin Laden is as elusive as on day one of the campaign and the Northern Alliance has failed to win defections or make significant territorial gains.

In Britain, support for the bombing is flagging. In a "War on Trial" programme on Channel 4 television, a pro-war lobby won by a narrow two percentage points. A poll by a leading national newspaper revealed support for the war had fallen by 12 per cent, with a majority supporting a pause in the bombing.

Prime Minister Tony Blair appealed on October 29 for continued faith in the war goals, while his press advisor, Alistair Campbell, met White House officials to fine-tune their media policy in a bid to win back support.

Meanwhile, the Taleban are bracing for the only kind of fighting they know - ground war and hand-to-hand combat. Precision aerial bombing has made little dent on the morale of Taleban troops. In this context, the US is reluctant to parachute in its soldiers in vast numbers to flush out the terrorists for fear of returning body bags, a political nightmare for both president and Pentagon.

What has dawned on American policy-makers is the need to establish a post-Taleban political settlement, but the exact elements of that formula are causing a major headache. Balancing the competing interests of Pakistan and other regional state actors with its own military objectives has impaled the US on the horns of a dilemma.

The US has to factor in Pakistan's stake in a future political settlement in Afghanistan if it is to keep it a willing player in the anti-terror coalition. But it is wary of accommodating what Islamabad terms "moderate" Taleban.

Russia and Iran have rejected outright any future Afghan government involving moderate Taleban. So far, the US has accommodated Pakistani concerns in order to keep its coalition rolling. The situation, however, cannot continue indefinitely.

Washington faces a similar dilemma with the Northern Alliance. Though a natural ally of the US in its goal of crushing the Taleban, the Afghan opposition's ethnic composition goes against the broad-based, representative government espoused by the US. It is strongly anti-Pashtun, and perceived by Pashtuns to be so.

US difficulties have been compounded by the inability of the Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency, ISI, to produce the sort of moderate Taleban that President Pervez Musharraf insists are essential if the proposed broad-based government is to possess ethnic balance.

Efforts to prise two Taleban ministers away from the leadership floundered recently when foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil and minister for tribes Jalaluddin Haqqani visited Islamabad for talks, only to denounce Pakistan on their return to Kandahar.

Pakistan's failure to spark defections from the movement can be attributed to the dearth of anti-Taleban assets and allies inside Afghanistan.

The three weeks that have elapsed since Musharraf's momentous U-turn on support for the Taleban is too short a time in which to develop fresh alternatives inside Afghanistan, particularly in view of a public opinion enflamed by the continued bombing.

But more importantly, there is no established political nucleus to which potential defectors in the Taleban could defect: the Northern Alliance is almost entirely composed of non-Pashtun elements.

With the moderate Taleban option now a remote memory, Pakistan is casting about with increasing desperation for an alternative strategy. On October 24, Pir Syed Ahmed Gailani, veteran leader of a Pashtun resistance movement during the anti-Soviet war, gathered together more than 800 tribal leaders in Peshawar to discuss the shape of a future, post-Taleban government.

IWPR sources say ISI accountants met expenses for the participants. But no representatives were present from either the Northern Alliance or ex-king Zahir Shah, and it seems they were not invited.

US secretary of state Colin Powell reportedly tried to prevent the Peshawar summit from going ahead, making plain his desire to see a rival meeting of Northern Alliance leaders in Ankara succeed. The Turkish press reported, however, that the Ankara gathering failed to materialise due to deep-seated disagreements between leaders of the Northern Alliance.

Meanwhile, there appears to be a large gap between the CIA and ISI over precisely which Pashtun political leader is "genuine" enough to participate in the increasingly remote broad-based government.

The differences came to light after the tragic killing of Abdul Haq, the moderate Pashtun nationalist and ex-mujahedin, who was captured and executed by the Taleban on October 26 while on a mission to stir up rebellion in the south of Afghanistan.

Haq left on his fateful mission with the support of the CIA and reportedly tried to call for US air support when he found his group surrounded.

Suspicions that the news of his mission and whereabouts was leaked by satellite phone to Taleban commanders by their friends in the ISI only added to CIA fears that its premier source of intelligence about Afghanistan's rulers is continuing to play a double game, in spite of a recent purge of its pro-Islamist leadership.

Faced with the challenge of balancing the rival interests of Afghanistan's neighbours, the US called in the UN to negotiate a formula that might lead to a political settlement. UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi set out his vision of a homegrown solution, which, in order to be successful, will have to resist pressure from foreign powers like Pakistan that seek to impose their own "solutions" on Afghanistan's fractious ethnic groups.

Arif Azad is a political commentator who regularly broadcasts for the BBC Urdu service.

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