At the center of the simultaneous tumult faced by both Afghanistan and Pakistan stands the ultimate taboo: Pashtunistan. How does the dream of a common Pashtun land connect to the secession of Crimea from Ukraine? And what does China think about all this?
Let's start with Pakistan. US counterinsurgency "experts" such as disgraced former Gen. David Petraeus' guru, David Kilcullen, insist Pakistan is imploding. No wonder; hacks like himself get paid to predict chaos.
It's much more nuanced, as usual. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is actually trying to prevent Pakistan from imploding. That's why he wants a deal with the TTP -- the Pakistani Taliban.
Sharif's party, the PML-N, is conservative in religious and neoliberal in economics terms. It's intimately connected to Pakistani religious parties. Sharif knows he has to be careful in the Punjab region because of the local popularity of anti-Shiite jihadists -- the Sipah-e-Sahaba outfit.
A derivation of Sipah -- the dreadful Lashkar-e-Jhangvi -- also routinely kills a lot of Shiites in Sind and especially Balochistan. What Sharif has concluded is that he cannot allow an alliance between the TTP -- the Pakistani Taliban, based in the tribal areas -- with jihadi groups active in the Punjab.
Sharif is also a businessman. He knows the only way to get the Pakistani economy back on track (as if it ever was...) is to end this civil war. That's the rationale behind the current "peace process." It's what he told the Chinese (key allies) last summer, when he visited Beijing.
For the moment the really nasty issues in the peace process have not been addressed. The TTP wants Sharia law all over Pakistan. No Pakistani government would ever accept that.Enemies of the state
The contact groups on both sides are immensely interesting. On the government side we find a retired general, Muhammad Amir, an ex-honcho of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani CIA. But also ace journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, based in Peshawar, arguably the top authority anywhere on the Pak tribal areas.
On the TTP side we find none other than super-mullah Samiul Haq, the director of the "Taliban Harvard" in Akhora Khattak near Peshawar, which formed generations of Taliban (disclosure; it was thanks to a letter signed by Haq that myself and my photographer were not thrown in jail by the Taliban in Ghazni in 2000, when we "invaded" an abandoned military base.)
The Pakistani army does not like this "peace process" one bit. Especially the ISI, as they keep their very cozy connections with a lot of jihadi groups to serve Islamabad's strategic interests vis-a-vis Afghanistan and/or India. It goes without saying that the Afghan Taliban, with Mullah Omar almost certainly still in Quetta (how come no Obama drone could ever find him?) as well as the Haqqani outfit, in North Waziristan, are still very close to the ISI.
And back to Punjab, another jihadi nest of nasties -- Lashkar-e-Taiba, which perpetrated the Bombay bombing in 2008 -- are sort of "protected" by the Pakistani army.
But the TTP is something completely different. Unlike all these other jihadists, they attacked the Pakistani state and its army head on. That takes balls. No wonder the army sees them as an enemy of the state -- on top of it manipulated by foreigners (guess who).
The TTP is an impenetrable maze. There are at least 30 different outfits, who all pledged allegiance to Baitullah Mehsud in 2007. Obama's drones keep killing Mehsuds (Baitullah in 2009, Hakimullah in 2013), but the TTP never dies. And the Mehsud family stays in the lead.
I'd define the Mehsud family as a Pashtun guerrilla group based in the tribal areas very close to Afghanistan. The guerrilla is, yes, against the state, which they consider a bunch of traitors because they've been American collaborators since 9/11. Alternatively, one may see the US in Pakistan as essentially at war -- for over a decade -- with a Pashtun family.
Now things have changed a bit. The new TTP leader is Mullah Fazlullah. He's from Swat, and his base is in the Mohmand tribal areas, and even Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan (very hardcore places, ultra-conservative). So the key base is not Waziristan anymore. One wonders whether the Nevada drone gang is fully aware of it.
There has been a lot of talk in Pakistan that Mullah Omar himself has intervened, trying to unite the now disparate TTP factions to go on with the dialogue with Islamabad. Why? Because with NATO out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, what the Afghan Taliban want is to assemble all Pashtuns on both sides of the border, and then advance to take over Kabul, in a replay of 1996.
Washington, predictably, is quite fearful of an Islamabad-TTP peace process. This would allow that perennial bogeyman, "Al-Qaeda," free rein in the tribal areas again. Yet there may be only a handful of remaining "Al-Qaeda" there; everyone's gone to the Levant.