The recent capture of the number two Afghan Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Bahadur in Pakistan is a blow to the Afghan Taliban and their ability to coordinate the insurgency in southern Afghanistan. Bahadur’s arrest will help reestablish Pakistan’s counterterrorism credentials with Washington. The Pakistan military leadership also may be seeking to ensure a role in determining the future direction of Afghanistan, at the same time U.S. and coalition forces begin an important offensive in a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. While it is too early to say whether the arrest of Bahadur signals a sea change in Pakistani thinking toward the Afghan Taliban, it shows at least a willingness to exert influence over the movement at a crucial moment in the Afghanistan war.
While the administration should encourage these signs of fresh cooperation from Pakistan, the U.S. must remain clear-headed about Pakistani goals in the region and accept that Pakistani interests often diverge from those of the U.S. While the U.S. seeks to prevent Afghanistan from again serving as a safe haven for international terrorists, Pakistan’s primary goal is to curb Indian influence in the country. Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani restated in press interviews last week that India remains the primary threat to Pakistan and the focus of the Pakistani military.
Pakistan’s fixation on India should give pause to U.S. policymakers when considering Pakistan’s expressed interest in brokering peace talks with the Taliban. While reintegration of local Taliban fighters into the mainstream democratic process is indeed part of the overall counterinsurgency strategy, it is necessary to distinguish this process from one that would legitimize the Taliban’s ruthless ideology. The enhanced focus on supporting Afghan-led reintegration has fueled speculation in the region and in some European capitals that the U.S. is seeking a political deal with senior Taliban leaders as part of an exit strategy from the region. Seeking to negotiate a political deal with the Taliban leadership (primarily based in Pakistan) before U.S. and NATO forces gain the upper hand on the battlefield in Afghanistan would be a tactical and strategic blunder with tremendous negative consequences for U.S. national security.
The U.S. should back with diplomatic and financial support Afghan efforts to pursue reconciliation on the ground inside Afghanistan, and at the same time squeeze the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan that is still closely linked to al-Qaeda. These actions should occur simultaneously so that the local Taliban fighters view the U.S./NATO/Afghan authorities as being on the winning side and at the same time see a process through which they can switch sides. If, on the other hand, the U.S. appears overly anxious to negotiate with the senior Taliban leadership in Pakistan, this would likely undermine efforts to coax local fighters into the political mainstream, thus jeopardizing General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and prolonging instability in the region