The government of Afghanistan under President Karzai has so far failed to break the deadlock of meaningful talks with the Taliban. There is a sea of difference between talks as one thing and negotiations as another with each having its own strategic and tactical parameters. Until very recently and before President karzai's change of strategy in his peace process, the plan of action was based on exploratory occasional contacts, meetings, exchange of notes, ideas and emissaries between the government and the Taliban.
Towards gradual confidence building with Taliban, the High Peace Council and the late Burhanuddin Rabbani made painstaking efforts to reach out to the Taliban leadership and its mystrious Quetta Shura, although it was never clear who might be a genuine representative of the Taliban's leadership and who might not be.
The Council and its chairman followed almost all the leads and contacts that they were provided with. The Council, for some part, relied on some of its members who were former Taliban officials in 1990s. It was one such figure in the High Peace Council that contacted some in the Taliban's former leadership and provided the Council and its chairman with a seemingly genuine contact.
This geuine contact, in turn, led to other Taliban contacts all the way to the person who turned out to be the assassin of the Peace Council's chairman. The way Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chairman of the council and ex-president, was assassinated was clearly a meticulous, sophisticated military-intelligence operation of the type that can be carried out only by an experienced agency or by an outfit that works in close conjunction with it. Available evidence points to the latter possibility. This fact has left observers with the question that when and how the chain of HPC's interlocutors was infiltrated and set up for the operation.
Anyhow, for now, it has become apparent even to President karzai that what he hoped to achieve is simply not forthcoming. In an interview with the BBC a few days ago, President Karzai had some very blunt statements and expressed dismay at the Taliban's dependence.
For now, the President has stopped the drive of the HPC to explore contacts with the Taliban. He, instead, has favored direct talks with Pakistan. Any positive outcome from these talks is not guaranteed and for now, the very idea of peace talks is in shambles.
But it would be naive to believe that President Karzai would never again seek to engage the Taliban in talks and offers of dialogue. Just how long the President's new position would last is not known and is anybody's guess. The President, on one hand is under a tremendous pressure from the public in Afghanistan and on the other, has felt betrayed and let down by the very forces he truly believed are his "disaffected brothers".
But it would be totally wrong to think of the Taliban as mere puppets who have no power or tendency to think and act on their own terms. Even at the height of Taliban's rule in the 1990s, the Taliban regime and its leadership, on more than one occasion, intensely opposed some demands of their sponsors and benefactors.
The Taliban, their leadership as well as their rank and file, horrendous as they are, are indeed primarily an Afghan phenomenon. The Taliban, their rise and their intensifying insurgency in the post-2001 era are also primarily intera-Afghan issues.
It would be wrong to think of the Taliban as mere puppets in a geopolitical great game in which they only deliver the bidding of others. Such a wrong view of Taliban amounts to an over-simplification of this phenomenon and it even might misguide some of our policy makers.
In light of this observation, it emerges that a decision by the Afghan government to boycott talks with Taliban is condemned to being an outright impossibility. Whether or not President Karzai would be glad to return to talks with Taliban, he simply has no other viable option before him.
Now it is apparent that the President's decision to boycott talks with Taliban is born out of the pressure he finds himself under; otherwise the President has an undying conviction in the necessity of seeking talks with the militant group. After all, the post-2001 Taliban insurgency has a very strong intra-ethnic undertone to it. We have a situation in which some broad divisions within a major ethnic entity are angry with their fellow ethnic brethren. The Afghan war is as much an intera-ethnic conflict as it is an insurgency against foreign military presence.
The Haqqanis pose a somewhat different challenge than the Taliban. The Haqqanis, being less ideological than the Taliban, are much more vulnerable to temptations of deal-making and material benefit than the Taliban are.
There can be a certain sum of dollars that can win away, albeit temporarily, the Haqqanis but no amount of material incentive could buy away the fanaticism of Taliban lunatics. The government of President Karzai, although having had meetings with some prominent representatives of Haqqanis, is utterly unable to initiate and pursue any serious outreach to the Haqqanis. This has left the ball in the court of Americans who are more interested in finding a face-saving exit from Afghanistan than fundamentally resolving Afghanistan's problems.
With the arrest or, to be precise, the surrender of Haji Mali Khan, allegedly a key person in the Haqqanis' terror-business-mafia empire, talks between the Americans and the Haqqanis has practically started. Pakistan has been instrumental in making possible this new channel of contact.
In all this hubbub and wheeling and dealings, what is starkly missing is a strong presence of Afghanistan's government. The proud dignity of a nation is being traded in bazaars. In the end, it is the common people at the bottom who come to pay the price for the gambles played with their fate.
It would be interesting to see how President's plan to give a major push to talks with our neighbor will play out. But the outcome is not difficult to foresee. The President's new strategy of talking to Pakistan instead of the Taliban will end up as yet another failed plan under the present circumstances. The siege of Afghanistan and its people will continue to tighten and festering wounds will continue to bleed.