The Kandahari Taliban

Either time has travelled backwards and it’s the 90s again or the Obama speech on Afghanistan has brought out a fresh new round of Pakistani “pragmatists” making a case for a US settlement with the Afghan Taliban.

Back in the 90s one would only have to crack open an English daily to come across a level-headed and clear-eyed assessment of the benefits of proxy warriors to further Pakistan’s security interests abroad. It’s very instructive to browse the Dawn archives and read op-eds from the late 90s and contrast them with those today.

Anyway, I am going to single out two particularly egregious examples of the return of Pakistani Proxy Pragmatism, by a writer who I have had a great deal of respect for, Mosharraf Zaidi.

Here is a link to the first article published in the Times of India on the anniversary of the Mumbai attacks. I am not going to comment on the part discussing Mumbai but rather, focus on the connection he draws between the Mumbai attacks and what he perceived as India’s attempt to leverage the sympathy from these attacks into a stronger position in Afghanistan. I believe this is the first article in which the author uses the term “Kandahari Taliban”.

Zaidi expands on this term in his next article. In this article describes Obama’s main mistake in his Afghan policy speech as the claim that the US and Pakistan share a common enemy.

For Pakistani decision makers (and cynics are welcome to insert all the acronyms here that they like, but the fact is that the military and politics of this country are ultimately inextricable) Pakistan’s enemies are those terrorists that are killing Pakistanis. America’s enemies are those that are killing Americans.

It is true that Pakistanis are getting killed at the hands of FATA-based terrorists, and that Americans (soldiers) are getting killed at the hands of the same militants. That is about where the similarities end.

One might think that Zaidi’s article is merely descriptive. After all, few would doubt that this is indeed correct and that 8 years of incentivizing cooperation from Pakistan on the part of the US have failed.

But Zaidi seems to go a step further when he actually rationalizes this behaviour by Pakistan’s security establishment. Not only that but he believes that the US must accept this behaviour as a fait accompli and design it Afghan strategy around it:

President Obama could have tried to outline these broad strokes to his audience at West Point and around the world in his speech. Instead, he chose to continue a dangerous tradition of dealing with Pakistan clandestinely. This is a deeply fascinating choice of strategy. Constant efforts to buy, coerce or cajole Pakistan’s military and political elite into doing things that they consider suicidal simply has not worked. Pakistan’s government will take the money, but it will not deliver the product.

In this article, as well as the one on Mumbai, Zaidi takes pains to describe the current Afghan government as primarily a Northern Alliance one:

As an alternative to the Kandahari Taliban, despite the presence of 100,000 US and NATO troops, billions of dollars and the support of 43 countries, the Northern Alliance has failed its sponsors.

Conflating the Afghan government with the Northern Alliance is a very important step in making a case for the inevitability of the Taliban resurgence as well as the inability of Pakistan to accept the current Afghan set up. The second important step is emphasizing that there is no connection and no shared goals between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, so much so that he even comes up with the new label of Kandahari Taliban. Both these points serve to build Zaidi’s argument that US acceptance of Pakistan’s proxies, the Kandahri Taliban is the only pragmatic policy option left to the US.

As I have said before on this blog, I find such one-sided pragmatism curious. Zaidi seems unimpressed by the pragmatic argument for using drones to target terrorists within Pakistani territory. Surely this too is a policy necessitated by pragmatism, especially considering Zaidi’s own admission that the Pakistani policy of providing safe havens to the Afghan Taliban is non-negotiable. But Zaidi does not deal with this contradiction in his thinking. Instead Zaidi goes on to describe Pakistan’s “insurmountable advantage” in Afghanistan due to its 30 year long “experience in cultivating and leveraging assets in Afghanistan that have a demonstrated record of strategic success”. So while he takes care not to express a moral preference for the Taliban, he goes out of his way to demonstrate the effectiveness, practicality and pragmatism of such a choice.

Nobody is expecting foreign policy analysts to be moral. But one is surprised that the change in Pakistan’s domestic security situation in the last 8 years has had no impact on Zaidi’s pragmatic thinking. In essence, Zaidi is calling for a return to the 90s when Pakistani analysts had no compunction making such pragmatic arguments back when such policies had (apart from the constant threat of sectarian attacks) little impact on Pakistan’s domestic security. The obvious difference between today and the 90s is that Pakistan faces the daily occurence of terrorist attacks within its own borders. Surely one would not be wrong in expecting that this point should influence the decision of pragmatists like Zaidi. Instead, they continue to advocate the same fatal path as their counterparts in the last decade. Furthermore, given the inability of reality to penetrate or alter this point of view one has to question how much it really is motivated by pragmatism as opposed to being a basic agreement with the military establishment’s world view.


2 responses to “The Kandahari Taliban

  1. Rabia,

    Great post. My only thing though – what could be the incentives for them to fight the Afghan Taliban? I don’t think we should take the support as fait accompli but I’m also at a loss for our current alternatives – Arif from Pakistan Policy said one option would be to get China to provide pressure on Pakistan, but then that opens a whole can of worms with regard to the U.S. player in the equation. I personally think (and this is more long-term) that if the reason the military chooses to not go against the Afghan Taliban is because they’re wary of Indian influence in the region, then shouldn’t there be some kind of regional solution/acknowledgment presented to eliminate that root cause? Acknowledging the fact that this is a regional chess game may help in coming up with proper incentives to challenging this current status quo.

  2. Rabia

    Hey Kalsoom,
    I agree with you that there isn’t one particular solution in sight. A change in mindset would be a good thing but I suppose that’s wishful thinking.

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