Taliban Halts Talks With U.S., Puts NATO on Collision Course with Pakistan

The Taliban’s halting of talks with the U.S. increases the likelihood of confrontation with Taliban-friendly Pakistan, Bruce Riedel writes.

Ishtiaq Mahsud / AP Photo

The Afghan Taliban’s suspension of talks to start a political process in America’s longest war is a serious setback and puts the NATO alliance even more clearly on a collision course with Pakistan, the Taliban’s essential patron.

The Taliban suspended the preliminary talks about prisoner exchanges because they argued the United States had moved too slowly to release five Taliban operatives apprehended at the start of the war during the collapse of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and held in Guantánamo. The release of the five to Qatari control in Doha, reunited with their families, was a key confidence-building step for the Afghan’s Quetta Shura, the command council of the Taliban led by Mullah Omar. The Taliban probably thought releasing prisoners was a fairly straightforward process for American leaders. They did not reckon how complex Guantánamo prisoner-release issues are for American politics today. The legacy of Guantánamo’s poison has claimed yet another casualty for American national interests.

The Taliban’s statement accuses the American side of failing to live up to its promises on the prisoners and constantly making new demands. It calls on the Americans to “clarify their stance” and carry out alleged past promises on the prisoners. It is hard to see how in an election year it will be possible to get a solution to the Guantánamo morass.

The suspension, of course, also follows a series of self-inflicted wounds on the American mission in Afghanistan this year: the Marine urination video, the Quran burnings, and the slaughter of innocents by a deranged soldier. But the Taliban did not link their suspension to these incidents. They have denounced them separately as evidence the NATO allies are the “true inheritors of the Nazis” and promised Americans will pay a “very hefty price” for them.

The Taliban leadership also was balking at opening a political process that NATO quite rightly demands must be Afghan led. If the Taliban are truly interested in a political solution to the war, they must agree to talk to President Hamid Karzai’s government, which is the internationally recognized, elected, legitimate government. Karzai, for his part, has now called on NATO to stay in its bases to avoid further tragedies. Karzai has a long track record of making impossible demands on NATO, which he knows are impossible to implement and still fight a war. The Taliban would love to drive a wedge between Washington and Kabul. Unfortunately they seem to pushing on an all-too-open door.

The breakdown in the Doha process, if it proves permanent, will make the war even more a proxy struggle between America and its NATO partners on the one hand and the Pakistani army and intelligence service on the other. We both back Afghan protégés who depend on our support to stay in the fight. Karzai’s army needs NATO supplies, money, and combat troops. If those are withdrawn precipitously, his government will either collapse or find new patrons. Several are waiting in the wings, including Iran and India who already collaborate extensively in Afghanistan. None are ready to provide the full extent of aid NATO provides, but the war would continue much like it did before 9/11 as a civil war between Afghanistan’s ethnic blocks, in which al Qaeda can find a vacuum to fill.

Pakistan, as many studies have shown for years, is the essential partner of the Taliban. Without their safe havens across the Durand Line in Pakistan, the Taliban leaders would be on the run with no place to refit and train their foot soldiers. They also need Pakistan as a place to raise funds. A leaked NATO study based on the interrogation of 4,000 captured insurgents earlier this year concluded that funds raised in Pakistan under the eyes of the government’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are crucial to Taliban finances. It also estimated that the Taliban need only $100-150 million a year to fund their war effort. The NATO report concludes that Taliban leaders know the ISI has no intention of allowing the Taliban to end the war except on Pakistani terms, which include the expulsion of foreign invaders from Afghanistan.

Both the Taliban and the ISI have doubtless been influenced in the last month by the debate in the American presidential race over Afghanistan. The ISI monitors war weariness and polls here (and in Europe) very closely. Newt Gingrich’s public assessment that the war is unwinnable doubtless reinforced their appraisal that time is on their side. Officially Pakistan publicly denies any role in helping the Taliban and claims to be Karzai’s friend. No one believes that in Kabul.

Proxy wars are dangerous even if the combatants pretend they are not really enemies. NATO and Pakistani soldiers are dying in this proxy war along with many more Afghans. For years Washington and Islamabad, for understandable reasons, have preferred not to acknowledge publicly the harsh reality of the Afghan conflict: we are at war with each other. Steadily the ugly reality has become clearer and clearer. The Doha process offered a fig leaf and corridor to find a way out of the proxy war. Now one more veil is gone, at least for the moment.