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Flexibility has never been a notable feature of the Taliban's worldview. But the London-based Royal United Services Institute released a report this week suggesting the opposite.
Based on interviews with four important Taliban leaders, researchers from the RUSI say that the Taliban leadership might be ready to dissociate the organisation from
al-Qaeda, one of the principal demands of the United States.
In a major surprise, the report says, the Taliban might be willing to accept the residual presence of American military forces in Afghanistan well beyond 2014, when the Obama administration plans to end the US combat role there. Conditions, of course, will apply.
The RUSI report comes as the US steps up its diplomatic efforts to engage the Taliban and find a political solution to the long-festering war in Afghanistan. Sceptics would want to hold their breath.
The Taliban had opportunities in the past to cut a deal with the US by separating itself from al-Qaeda. Washington reached out to the Taliban in the wake of the bombings on US embassies in East Africa in 1998 by al-Qaeda, which had secured a sanctuary in Afghanistan.
After the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York, the Bush administration embarked on an intensive effort to separate the Taliban from al-Qaeda. The supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, did not bite and was willing to accept the consequences.
The RUSI report now says the interviews "revealed for the first time the emerging consensus of the Taliban leadership, a far more pragmatic picture of the Taliban than has previously been made public, with the Taliban willing to take part in peace negotiations in exchange for political leverage after 2014."
The Taliban apparently will not negotiate with the Hamid Karzai government but is ready to engage the US. The Taliban's flexibility in the proposed negotiations with the US, the RUSI report says, is subject entirely to the approval of Mullah Omar.
Pessimists would say the hints of moderation are part of a Taliban deception to trap the US into a negotiation, play on the eagerness in the West to find any face-saving solution, divide the international coalition and separate Washington from the Karzai government in Kabul.
Whatever the motivations of the Taliban might be, optimists would argue, it is worth engaging them and winning over at least a section of them. The realists would demand that the US maintain pressure on the Taliban even as it prepares to talk to them.
Central to any peace process that seeks reconciliation among warring parties is a ceasefire. The RUSI report says Mullah Omar is open to a ceasefire as part of a general political settlement in Afghanistan.
Such a ceasefire, according to the Taliban, must be a "bridge between confidence-building measures and the core issue of the distribution of political power in Afghanistan."
According to the RUSI report, the Taliban leaders prefer a "general ceasefire" linked to a national reconciliation plan rather than district-level ceasefires focusing on the reintegration of local commanders and fighters. The former would clearly give the Taliban better control over the peace process than the latter. The Taliban leaders interviewed by RUSI believe that a ceasefire would "require strong Islamic justification" to avoid any impression of political surrender.
With the stage being set for a possible dialogue between the US and the Taliban, Pakistan has reportedly agreed to provide "safe passage" to the Afghan leaders willing to join the talks on reconciliation.
The "safe passage working group" involving officials from the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan met in Islamabad last week to discuss procedures for facilitating travel by the Taliban leaders. The first meeting of the working group took place in April.
The top leaders of the Taliban stay in Pakistan, which in the past has been rather reluctant to let them engage the rest of the world on their own. The Pakistan army has sought to be the sole window through which any international transactions with the Taliban must be conducted. Rawalpindi had to ease up on this claim amidst great pressure from Washington. The softening of the Pakistani position does not in any way reduce the extraordinary influence that the ISI wields over the Taliban.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor with 'The Indian Express'
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