Anyone’s first instinct will be to pinch oneself and check out whether he is lost in some reverie. Certainly, the stunning remarks by the advisor to the Pakistani prime minister on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz earlier this week while on a visit to the US acknowledging publicly the symbiotic relationship between his country and the Taliban will at once seem preposterous. In a few sentences, Aziz unceremoniously demolished a myth that has been assiduously cultivated and tenaciously sustained for two decades and more to the effect that Pakistan has had absolutely nothing to do with the Taliban.
This is what Aziz said during an event at the well-known American think tank Council of Foreign Relations in New York on Tuesday when he was asked pointedly about the extent of influence Pakistan would be wielding over the Taliban to get them to come to the negotiating table:
-- It’s a good question, because this is a question which surrounds a lot of misgivings and suspicions that float around right now. I think—first of all, I think people who have dealt with this issue recognize that Taliban in the best of times were—did not listen to Pakistan always, whether it was the Bamiyan statues, whether it was the Christians actions, many other things. They would listen to us when it suited them, otherwise they did not.
-- And now, we have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressurize them to say: Come to the table. But we can’t negotiate on behalf of the Afghan government because we can’t offer them what Afghan government can offer them. So actually, Pakistan, U.S., and China are committed on the road map to persuade them to come together. But then it is for the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate whatever they want to—outcome they aim at.
-- Now, Pakistan lever, as you said, what kind of hands we hold, one is freedom of movement. We already, before the 7th July meeting last year, we had to use some of these levers and restricted their movements, restricted their access to hospital and other facilities, and threatened them that if you do not come forward and talk, then obviously we will at least expel you, because—or give you the chance to go wherever you want to, because we have hosted you enough for 35 years. We can’t do any more. It’s now—the whole world is blaming us just by your presence here.
-- So that is the kind of leverage we have to bring them to the table. But to pressurize them, to negotiate, will depend on the parties which are actually negotiating…
Aziz, a highly experienced statesman and accomplished diplomat, always speaks with great deliberation and circumspection, and it just couldn’t be that he committed a faux pas on such a hugely sensitive topic — even if it were an eager attempt to impress his America audience with Pakistan’s sincerity, candor and good faith. That’s for sure, given the extent to which he actually took it upon himself to flesh out the facts. Aziz would know that it is no small matter to admit unequivocally that his country has been controlling an insurgency movement that has been bleeding a neighbouring country and damaging regional security. So, why did he do this?
Can it be that Pakistan is distancing itself, finally, from the Taliban and dumping them? No, that cannot be the case. Why should Pakistan do that when the Taliban are on victory march? The American assessment is that the Taliban already exercise total control over one-third of Afghanistan. In the recent weeks, Afghan government forces have been regularly vacating from more areas in southern Afghanistan. In sum, the Taliban saga that began in the early nineties is reaching its successful culmination — with the international community widely accepting the Taliban as a legitimate, mainstream protagonist on the Afghan chessboard — and Pakistan is just getting ready for the trophy.
On the other hand, this is the time when the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are slated to begin in the next few days or weeks, and it will be advantageous for Pakistan to flaunt its influence over the Taliban. Indeed, the time is approaching for Pakistan to encash its ‘strategic assets’ and secure its own interests in any Afghan settlement. But then, why should Aziz speak publicly?
Now, could it be that Aziz actually bragged about the extent of Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban to impress the world opinion regarding its centrality in the search for an Afghan settlement ? After all, the Taliban are no more a cohesive movement and cracks have appeared. Occasionally, reports have appeared that the Taliban are spinning out of Pakistan’s control.
Frankly, such reports, mostly American reports, never really carried credibility. Make no mistake, Mullah Mansour is a progeny of the Pakistani security establishment. Pakistan has a glorious history of media management and dissimulation when it comes to the Afghan war. Throughout the Afghan jihad in the eighties, Pakistan flatly denied that it was controlling the famous ‘Peshawar Seven’ (Mujahideen groups).
Consider the following. Aziz himself is an ethnic Pashtun Kakakhel and would know better than anyone in the Pakistani leadership that the ‘Afghanness’ of the Taliban would militate against them being discussed like this in front of a western audience – as if they were mere puppets in the hands of the Pakistani establishment. Aziz, in fact, said that Pakistan “threatened” the Taliban leaders and implied that they were frogmarched to the talks. He’d know he risked offending Pashtun (Taliban) pride and self-respect. So, he must have had some weighty reason for underscoring that Pakistan enjoys absolute control over the Taliban.
What could it be? Well, the most striking thing here is that Aziz chose to spill the beans before a select American audience. The CFR is a premier think tank of the US establishment where spies and diplomats and genuine pundits rub shoulders. Was he conveying something to his hosts?
Such as, for instance, that Islamabad is in the know of covert attempts being made by the US intelligence on a parallel track — despite the existence of the Quadrilateral Consultative Group — to develop independent lines of communication to the Taliban, encouraging the latter to sidestep their Pakistani mentors and discuss a deal with Uncle Sam directly…. Don’t be dismissive.
At its most obvious level, Pakistan seems to be embarking on a shift in strategy. What used to be a covert alliance is being openly acknowledged, even publicized. Such audacity helps Pakistan to recalibrate its stance, now that the defining moment is arriving shortly, launching the reconciliation process involving the Taliban. From now onward, as Americans would say, it is a new ball game and Pakistan has little to gain by being in a denial mode regarding its two-decade old covert alliance with Taliban. On the contrary, it is better to acknowledge the trump card, put it on the table and negotiate optimal terms. How this new game gets played out in the months ahead will bear watch. (The tran of the event at the CFR is here.)