LONDON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - With the war in Afghanistan dragging into its tenth year, Pakistan is increasingly talking up the need for a political settlement which would force al Qaeda to leave the region.
And while there is little sign yet Washington is ready to hold serious negotiations with Afghan insurgents, analysts detect a new tone in Pakistani comments about driving Osama bin Laden’s organization out of its haven on the Pakistan border.
A senior security official said the Afghan stalemate could be lifted by setting a minimum agenda in which insurgents broke with al Qaeda. There were indications, he said, they could renounce the organization and ask it to leave the region.
Senior politician Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, a pro-Taliban member of the ruling coalition, also said a settlement ”would squeeze the room for al Qaeda.
“Al Qaeda will have to fall in line or leave the region,” he told Reuters in an interview in London late last month.
Analysts differ on how far the Maulana -- a respected spiritual leader of the Deobandi Islamic tradition followed by the Taliban -- can influence leaders of the Afghan insurgency, but they nonetheless saw his comments as significant.
“He is very, very influential,” said Noman Benotman, an analyst at the Quilliam think tank in London and former al Qaeda associate. “(Afghan Taliban leader) Mullah Omar cannot ignore Maulana Rehman. He always respects him and will respect him.”
Islamabad denies having strong influence over the Taliban, whose leaders Washington says are based in Pakistan.
Some also argue its capacity to wield influence is limited by the risk of a backlash from its own domestic Islamist insurgency if it puts too much pressure on the Afghan Taliban.
But it still has enough sway over, and contacts with, the Taliban movement which it supported when it was in power in Kabul from 1996-2001 to hold some of the keys to a settlement.
“The Pakistani military establishment remains the Taliban’s most critical patron,” Gilles Dorronsoro at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a research report.
“If the United States wishes to negotiate an orderly withdrawal of coalition troops and a guarantee that al Qaeda will not return to Afghanistan, it must make a deal with the only parties who can deliver on it: Pakistan and the Taliban.”
Official sources outside Washington speak of confusion about its Afghan plans, and say until there is more clarity, talks with insurgents are unlikely to make much progress.
Nonetheless sources from several countries say that “talks about talks” are continuing despite the high-profile collapse of one strand of that dialogue when a man claiming to represent the Taliban in negotiations in Kabul turned out to be an impostor.
The Pakistani security official said Washington needed to identify “end conditions” in Afghanistan, rather than sticking to its current preconditions for talks that insurgents renounce al Qaeda, give up violence and respect the Afghan constitution.
He suggested instead a process in which violence was brought down, insurgents renounced al Qaeda, and a consensus then negotiated on a future Afghan constitution.
The Taliban have said before they would ensure Afghanistan would not be used for attacks on other countries and there has been a steady drip-feed of reports that they were annoyed with bin Laden for bringing the U.S.-led war to their country by launching the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
There also appeared to be a great deal of consensus at the moment among the Taliban on breaking with al Qaeda, said Kandahar-based researcher and writer Alex Strick van Linschoten.
But the language of suggesting al Qaeda would have to leave the region altogether is new -- in nuance if not in substance.
Security analysts believe al Qaeda’s core leadership will do everything it can to preserve its haven on the Pakistan border -- as soon as they start moving their risks rise exponentially.
But however slim the possibility of a peace deal which forced al Qaeda to seek other bases in Yemen, Somalia or elswhere, it would have such huge consequences that it is likely to weigh heavily on diplomatic maneuvering in the coming year.
Saudi Arabia is already deeply anxious about the presence of al Qaeda in neighboring Yemen.
A May 2009 U.S. embassy cable published by WikiLeaks quoted Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the son of powerful Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, describing Yemen as a failed state that is “very, very, extremely dangerous.”
As a result Saudi Arabia -- which has been cited as a possible mediator in Afghan peace talks -- is unlikely to want to help broker any settlement which sees al Qaeda leave the Pakistan border and re-emerge as a threat in its backyard.
“Saudi Arabia is more worried about stability in Yemen, which shows signs of ‘Somalisation’,” said Shafiq al Ghabra, professor of politics at Kuwait University.
That could ultimately strain relations between Saudi Arabia and its close ally Pakistan, which are already suffering -- according to WikiLeaks cables -- from Riyadh’s impatience with the civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari.
Saudi Arabia has long insisted the Taliban sever ties with al Qaeda. But while Pakistan talks of al Qaeda leaving the region, another cable quoted Riyadh’s former intelligence chief as suggesting Saudi Arabia, the United States, China, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan join forces to capture or kill bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
“This would break the terrorists’ ‘aura of invincibility’ and allow the U.S. to ‘declare victory’ and move on,” the cable quoted Prince Turki al-Faisal as saying.
The fate of al Qaeda could also help Iran -- already at loggerheads with rival Saudi Arabia and the United States over its nuclear programme -- to extend its regional clout.
Though Shi‘ite Iran has little sympathy for the Sunni Islamist Taliban or al Qaeda, it could play a major role if al Qaeda cadres were to try to flee through its territory.
That would give it the option of letting them through to undermine Saudi Arabia, or keeping them bottled up on the Pakistan border to challenge the United States in Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Ulf Laessing in Riyadh and William Maclean in London; Editing by Louise Ireland