ISLAMABAD – United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s October 27 briefing to a congressional committee on foreign affairs, saying that any Afghan-led peace process would have to include the Quetta shura Taliban and its leader, Mullah Omar, clearly shows that the US approach has evolved further after her recent high-profile visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan where she discussed strategy with the top political and military leaders of the two countries.
Testifying at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Clinton did not dismiss the prospect when asked by Republican Representative Steve Chabot, whether reconciliation talks with the Taliban and other insurgents would include talks with Mullah Omar.
The US would be willing to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban leader if he met conditions that had been laid out. Her statement also emphasized several other key points reflecting a major change in the American approach towards seeking a peaceful end to the Afghan conflict that has raged for 10 years. “There is no solution in the region without Pakistan and no stable future in the troubled region without a partnership,” she added.
As she returned home after concluding trips to Kabul and Islamabad, Clinton told the US media:
The United States and Pakistan had reached 90-95% agreement on the issues that at one stage appeared close to breaking up their relationship. The United States needs to negotiate with the Haqqani network while continuing to work with Pakistan to destroy the safe havens it has inside the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. US aid to Pakistan should not be conditioned to disbanding the Lashkar-e-Toiba [militant group].
Earlier, during her trip to Pakistan, Clinton clearly changed the sharp edge of the much-touted American policy for a more conciliatory stance towards Pakistan’s aggressive response to demands for launching a massive military operation in the North Waziristan tribal area to oust the Haqqani network from there. The network is a key player in the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.
Instead, she proposed that Pakistan facilitate the US peace talks with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as the Haqqani network, adding that the US had no evidence that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was hand in glove with the Haqqanis or that the ISI had encouraged them to attack foreign targets in Afghanistan.
As Clinton returned to Washington, the State Department said on October 26 that Pakistan and the US had agreed on a framework for holding direct talks with the militants and were now working to operationalize the plan.
At a press briefing, two State Department officials explained what the secretary meant when she said in her recent interviews that the US and Pakistan had agreement on 90-95% of issues they confronted. They said the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan had already reached an understanding on holding a “trilogue” with the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan had to play its part in this by encouraging reconciliation.
“That Pakistan has to play its part in this; it has to encourage reconciliation. And that as efforts are made at reconciliation, if the US can play a helpful role, that we would be available to do that,” said one of the two US officials. After agreeing on this framework, the US and Pakistan were now working on the need to operationalize it.
“What does it mean and particularly in the context of the awful, horrific experience that the Afghans had with the death of [Afghan Peace Council head] Burhanuddin Rabbani. We’re all working off the script that is going to protect against that kind of thing happening again,” the official said.
Operational details like where to hold the dialogue, who to talk to and in what form and formats and for how long were now being worked out, the State Department official added.
“We needed to start with ensuring we were all on the same page in terms of the framework.”
The two officials explained that in their recent meetings with the US delegation, which included the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and military chiefs, Pakistani leaders kept referring to the resolution passed by the all-parties conference on the proposed talks with the militants.
“What does the all-parties conference mean to them? It means that every party in Pakistan got together and agreed that reconciliation, if it can be done right and if it is Afghan-led and if it meets the red lines, is in Pakistan’s interests,” said the State Department official.
Well-informed diplomatic circles in Islamabad say the State Department’s briefing indicated a significant change of attitude on Washington’s part and Clinton’s powerful delegation, which visited Pakistan, stood guarantee to it. This included CIA director General David Petraeus; Special US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman; US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter; US chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey; and Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser Lieutenant-General Edward Lute, who oversaw the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, earlier in the year.
Therefore, Clinton refrained from brow-beating Pakistan during the US congressional briefing on October 28, despite the fact that US lawmakers, many of whom are still upset with Pakistan over its alleged links to militants, created several opportunities for her to do so. Congressman Chabot asked Clinton if the US was prepared to negotiate with Mullah Omar “and if so, under what circumstances and what would our conditions be?” Clinton replied:
Well, congressman, the negotiations that would be part of any Afghan-led peace process would have to include the Quetta shura [council of advisors] Taliban [in Pakistan’s Balochistan province] which is still led by Mullah Omar. However, we really don’t know if the Quetta shura is willing to participate in such a process. We are pursuing every thread of any kind of interest expressed.
Mullah Omar, being the supreme commander of the Afghan Taliban, who has been declared one of the most-wanted fugitives by the American Federal Bureau of Investigation, has already rejected the possibility of holding peace talks with the Americans until and unless US-led forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
In a statement carried by the SITE online monitoring service on August 30, 2011, the one-eyed reclusive Taliban leader said the ongoing battle against US-led forces would lead to an imminent victory for the Afghan Taliban.
The allied forces stationed in Afghanistan are already racing against the clock to train Afghanistan’s poorly equipped army and police force by the end of 2014, the deadline set for US combat troops to leave and when all security responsibilities will be handed over to Afghans.
On the other hand, Mullah Omar views the scheduled withdrawal as a victory for the Taliban and the defeat of the West’s high-tech military.
It has been almost a decade since Mullah Omar vanished into the inhospitable, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, never to be seen again. American intelligence agencies as well as senior US military officials are almost certain that he continues to guide his forces and run his shura while hiding somewhere in an urban locality of Pakistan, either in Quetta or in the southern port city of Karachi.
Pakistan has steadfastly refuted this claim, but American military officials now openly allege, especially after the May 2 Abbottabad episode, that elements within the ISI have been protecting Mullah Omar and other key Taliban leaders.
Analysts believe the Pakistani security establishment is in no mood either to give up the Afghan Taliban or to harm Mullah Omar due to the fact that any deal in Afghanistan realized after talks among various parties needs to have the blessing of a central Taliban figure who can serve that purpose effectively.
And that central figure is none other than Mullah Omar.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.