Al-Qaeda fights back at Afghan peace bidKARACHI - Similar to US General David Petraeus' plan of reconciliation with the Iraqi tribal-based national resistance and alienation of al-Qaeda, Washington has a two-pronged approach of political settlement with "reconcilable" insurgents and all-out war on radical extremists in the theater of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This initiative was given a fillip this week by both the government in Kabul and the Taliban, while al-Qaeda, which stands to lose the most, is already on the offensive - as in Osama bin Laden's latest video - in a bid to re-energize itself to maintain its support in the Afghan struggle.
A Taliban spokesman on Tuesday responded that they were prepared for talks with Kabul after President Hamid Karzai offered on Sunday to stage negotiations. "Peace cannot be achieved without dialogue," Karzai said.
Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi was quoted in the media as saying, "For the sake of national interests ... we are fully ready for talks with the government." He added that the Taliban had a "limited" number of conditions, but he did not explain further.
Let's talk about it
Tribal elders and clerics in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province are now active in canvassing for a jirga (tribal meeting) that would include the Taliban. These endeavors are backed by both Pakistan and the United States.
The lessons of last month's grand "peace jirga" in Kabul have been learned. While that meeting was groundbreaking in bringing together hundreds of tribal elders, clerics and others from Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was always doomed to be nothing more than symbolic without the participation of the Taliban, who were not invited.
The Taliban realize that jirgas are an Afghan tradition in which rivals attempt to hammer out their differences, and there are now high hopes that once the Taliban and members of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan sit down face-to-face with Afghan government officials, the ice will melt.
Whatever the results of such jirgas, one thing is sure - the Taliban's relations with al-Qaeda, which have had their ups and downs before the present reconciliation, will deteriorate.
Despite optimism in Washington and Islamabad over the latest peace moves, in the meantime there will be no let-up on the part of coalition troops in Afghanistan, as they are committed to applying maximum pressure on the Taliban.
Operations have already been increased in the southwestern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. However, with the number of casualties rising, most member countries want to see tangible results, such as the Canadians, who are engaged in operations in Kandahar, the second-toughest area after Helmand.
Six years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, there is also war fatigue in the militant camp, as well as among the population. The indigenous segment of the Afghan resistance, drawn from the tribes, especially wants to see results.
Men want to get back to their fields and to the routines of life. The tribes of southern Afghanistan want dominance in the central government and prosperity in the Pashtun heartland. And they don't mind whether the Taliban achieve this target through the bullet, the ballot or the jirga - they just want results in the near future.
The Taliban are aware of this, and that the tribals are not ideologically motivated to fight an indefinite battle. This is one of the factors in their willingness for talks with Kabul.
An alert al-Qaeda
For the al-Qaeda ideologues sitting in Iraq and the Pakistani tribal areas, they face a situation similar to the one they now have in Iraq.
Four years ago, after Saddam Hussein fell, al-Qaeda saw the opportunity to grab the resistance by the scruff of the neck and transform it from a low-level guerrilla war into a real "surge" against the US military.
Al-Qaeda's calculated strikes at the nerve center of the US-Shi'ite alliance abruptly sharpened the round edges of the resistance and stoked the fires of sectarian strife. In the atmosphere of intense insecurity that resulted, many common Iraqi people lost their impartiality, joined the resistance and helped al-Qaeda by providing bases and logistics. Al-Qaeda emerged as a leader of Iraqi resistance.
The situation has changed over the past months, though, as the US has been relentless in pursuing al-Qaeda and courting Iraqi tribes, which are turning their backs on al-Qaeda. Many top al-Qaeda commanders have been assassinated by tribals and they are increasingly calling for al-Qaeda to leave and allow the Iraqi national resistance to fight its own battle.
In Pakistan, al-Qaeda adopted a similar approach in North Waziristan and South Waziristan in 2005 by breaking the natural alliance between Pakistani militants and tribals on the one side and the Pakistan army on the other. The result was the establishment of the Islamic State of North Waziristan and the Islamic State of South Waziristan, with al-Qaeda as a key player in both.
But under relentless pressure from the US to crack down on foreign militants in Pakistan, Islamabad was able to drive a wedge between locals and al-Qaeda. This culminated in January in the Pakistani Taliban massacre of hundreds of Uzbek militants and the expulsion of al-Qaeda commanders from the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. They have since been able to re-establish themselves. (See The Pakistani road to German terror, Asia Times Online, September 7.)
Osama bin Laden's videotape can be seen in this context. Al-Qaeda has lost its supremacy in Iraq, and risks being sidelined in Afghanistan and Pakistan should the nascent peace process take hold.
Bin Laden's appearance is a powerful reminder that al-Qaeda is still the leader in the global resistance. One can expect a "surge" in al-Qaeda's activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan in an effort to justify this tag and reclaim the resistance movements.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]