A struggle between war and peace
KARACHI - Since 2006 in Afghanistan, coalition forces battling the Taliban-led insurgency have alternated between all-out offensives and ceasefire deals. Similarly in Pakistan, the authorities have chopped and changed between peace accords and military action against militants in the tribal areas.
This vicious - and unproductive - cycle in the South Asian "war on terror" theater can be expected to continue unless the major players drop the idea of piece-meal peace agreements and adopt a broad and consistent policy of grand reconciliation.
In the latest "peace' phase, Islamabad agreed a ceasefire this month with the Taliban in the tribal areas along the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The ink on this accord had hardly dried than Ghairat Bahir was released last week from the United States Bagram air base near Kabul.
Ghairat Bahir is the son-in-law of veteran mujahid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and a top leader of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA). He was arrested by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Islamabad in 2002 on American pressure when he was making desperate moves to activate the HIA's jihadi network in favor of the Taliban. He was handed over to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and kept in various secret locations before being moved to Bagram. He was recently sent to Pul-i-Charki jail in Kabul after apparently agreeing to cooperate with the administration of President Hamid Karzai.
Immediately after his release, Ghairat Bahir was received at the presidential palace in Kabul and offered powerful ministries for the HIA if he agreed to act as a power-broker between top insurgent commanders, including Jalaluddin Haqqani and Hekmatyar, on one side and the US-backed Karzai administration on the other.
While Ghairat Bahir's release has been welcomed in top jihadi circles - he is being feted in Kabul by top mujahideen leaders both a part of the government and in the opposition ranks - the development is being touted in the corridors of power as a major breakthrough in helping stabilize the weakening Karzai administration.
In the months prior to Ghairat Bahir's release, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had entered into ceasefire agreements with the Taliban in several districts of Helmand and Farah provinces, Badghis in the northwest and Herat in the west. The agreements were terminated when the Taliban launched their spring attacks in April and May.
Playing with peace
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are aware of the shortcomings of such accords, yet they have persevered with them even though they offer little chance of enduring peace.
Under the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, hammered out by the international community after the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, a framework was established for the country to stage elections and build a reliable political and economic infrastructure.
By the end of 2005, this had by and large happened, but none of the state actors and the international institutions working in Afghanistan had any idea what to do next, especially in the face of the Taliban's successful spring offensive of 2006, which took all by surprise.
The response was the implementation of ad-hoc peace deals with the insurgents, but the face of the is changing: many are now true radicals and extremely unreliable from the perspective of any establishment.
The best example is pro-Taliban Pakistani tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud. He has been cultivated by al-Qaeda and is now part of a nexus headed by Takfiris (those militantly intolerant of "infidels") belonging to al-Qaeda and a group of former Pakistani jihadis who cut their teeth in Kashmir under Baitullah.
Although Baitullah has been touted by US intelligence as one of the world's most dangerous men against American interests, his contribution in fighting against NATO is nothing compared to the network of another Pakistani Taliban commander, Haji Nazir, a rival of Baitullah who has been accused of links with the ISI.
Baitullah sees a very broad role for himself and for his comrades. They do not want simply to be members of a local resistance movement. They are riding the global ideological bandwagon of al-Qaeda and envisage a complicated strategy to win a war against the West.
Taliban leader Mullah Omar has openly opposed Baitullah's penchant for fighting against the Pakistani security forces, especially after Baitullah established the Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban - the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan - last year. When Baitullah did not heed Mullah Omar's advice, Omar distanced himself from Baitullah, as did other top Taliban leaders, such as Hafiz Gul Bahdur.
Baitullah did, however, recently agree on a ceasefire, but most people believe he is looking for a chance when it suits him to end the deal and resume attacks on the Pakistani security forces.
In Afghanistan, Karzai had made deals with several Taliban commanders, including Abdul Salam Rocketi and a group of the HIA. They were even elected as members of parliament, but time proved they were not helpful in making further peace deals with Taliban-led insurgents.
The reason was the rapid emergence of new commanders close to al-Qaeda, such as Baitullah. They are likely to outnumber the veteran Taliban commanders soon and the chances of dialogue will be further reduced.
In another development, the United National Front of Afghanistan, representing the strongest northern Afghan warlords and politicians, and the strongest force in the south, the Taliban and HIA, have admitted to opening channels of discussion. The US-backed Karzai is the only stumbling block - at this stage he is not acceptable to the southern strongmen or the northern ones.
Despite this, the development offers the Western coalition a chance to exploit the situation through leading Muslim countries which still have influence over the Taliban, notably Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. If the Western coalition gives leeway to such countries to play a major role and at a later stage even replace NATO with Organization of Islamic Conference forces, a consensus government of the northern and southern forces could emerge. This would effectively sideline al-Qaeda elements. The Taliban are undoubtedly natural allies of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, while al-Qaeda is a common enemy of all.
However, this approach will only be useful if people like Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are in command. If these powerful persons are pushed into the background, the future of the region will be in the hands of people like Baitullah Mehsud, who only dream of a global war launched from Afghanistan.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org