The Taliban Arrests: Pakistan Setting the Table for Peace Talks?

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Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 8:55 am

Still no confirmation of The Christian Science Monitor’s major story about the Pakistanis arresting half of the Taliban’s senior leadership. But The New York Times has a great piece this morning about the restored closeness of the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. That close-but-uneasy relationship has resulted in a wave of deaths and captures of al-Qaeda, Taliban and aligned extremists in the past year-plus. But it hasn’t resulted in greater U.S. understanding of what’s motivating Pakistan’s newly torrid pace of assaults against the Afghan Taliban leadership it has nurtured for 15 years.

The working theory is a cautious one that takes into account the persistent divergence between Pakistani and U.S. interests. But it’s still beneficial for U.S. interests:

A top American military officer in Afghanistan on Wednesday suggested that with the arrests, the ISI could be trying to accelerate the timetable for a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

“I don’t know if they’re pushing anyone to the table, but they are certainly preparing the meal,” the officer said.

The idea is to compel the Afghan Taliban into peace talks that will leave it alive, reduced but intact, and able to represent Pakistani interests in a Karzai government. That carries with it the implication that the Taliban will survive the next 18 months’ worth of NATO/Afghan military efforts. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Amb. Karl Eikenberry and Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly stated they were launching the current and planned offensives in southern Afghanistan in order to break the Taliban’s momentum and compel a peace settlement favorable to the new Afghan government. So, the strategic differences here may be ones of degree. On the other hand, if the military offensive in Afghanistan, if allowed to continue, can degrade the Taliban to a spent force, that — alongside renewed diplomatic ties between Washington, Kabul and Islamabad — might raise questions among the Pakistanis about whether the Taliban is even a viable mechanism for Pakistani interests in Afghanistan.

If the explanation held by this officer is correct, though, then we might be looking at the beginning of an endgame in the Afghanistan war.

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