In Afghanistan talks with the Taliban are conducted in secret, if they are at all. In India Naxalite rebels exchange phone and fax numbers through the media.
A day after the Maosist’s frontman Koteshwar Rao, alias Kishanji, proposed a "conditional" 72 day ceasefire with India in their 43 year old conflict. Home Minister P. Chidambaram rejected the offer and counter-offered an unconditional ceasefire, demanding a promise from the Maoists to renounce violence.
"I would like a short, simple statement... saying, 'We will abjure violence and we are prepared for talks," Chidambaram said. "I would like no ifs, no buts and no conditions. Once I receive the statement, I shall consult the prime minister... and respond promptly."
Chidambaram said if they could fulfill his demand then fax him directly on 011-23093155.
Kishanji quickly responded, ''If he (Chidambaram) wants to talk on our ceasefire proposal, let him speak to me on my phone number 09734695789. He is welcome to call me on February 25 but after 5pm.'' He explained that Chidambaram should call him on February 25 because, "on that day we will observe martyrs' day to mourn our slain comrades.”
And he left out Chidambaram’s demand.
Communications have gone silent as both sides debate internally. Kishanji’s deadline passed without a definitive reaction from either side, overshadowed by talks with Pakistan. The conflict’s complex history suggests that no matter what happens the Maoists won’t renounce violence and the Indian government won’t trust them either way.
Kishjani is said to consider Chidambaram untrustworthy, while several Indian states have burned themselves with fake ceasefires. President Singh recently called the Naxalites cowards.
So far away they seem from each other, and still light years closer than US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and TTP spokesman Azam Tariq directly communicating through the media. Or, considering Kishanji’s deputy status, a Taliban general on Mullah Omar’s high council.
For reasons we will make clear in later analysis, US leadership in the White House and Pentagon have no intentions of directly speaking with the Taliban, let alone negotiating. Not in public or private. They might if they must, if that’s the only way out of Afghanistan, but America is trying to fight its way out first.
This strategy hasn’t worked for India and many question whether it will for Afghanistan, new strategy or not.
The Taliban and the Naxalites are synchronized at a number of levels, with deep origins and causes rooted in injustice and inequality, however perverse that justification has become through their own actions. No one can refute the existing impoverishment and marginalization that spawned these movements.
The foot count of also seems to equate. The latest estimate from the Institute for Conflict Management (IFCM), a New Delhi think-tank, put the Naxalite rebels at 22,000, up from 15,000-20,000 in 2006. The Taliban is estimated between 20,000 and 30,000.
Both groups employ additional tens of thousands of local cells - part-time insurgents - while at the same time diverging at their potential pools, where the Naxalites possess a massive disparity in the Indian countryside.
Seeking to regain either the entire state of Afghanistan or carve out a regional autonomous zone, many players beyond the Taliban have long dreamt of Pashtunistan. With the Taliban specifically, they could either plot future attacks against international targets (unlikely), or hold the Kabul government in check and wait for it to fall (more likely) and try to make a national move (certain).
The Red Corridor was recently confirmed by Indian officials after the interrogation of senior leader Kobad Ghandy revealed connections to the Maoist leadership in Nepal. This would extend the Naxalities’ domain along India’s entire eastern flank, from Nepal to Kerala state off the Arabian sea.
A more tangible Pashtunistan, the Naxalites are in the process of creating, in accordance with Maoist tradition, an autonomous Compact Revolutionary Zone from which to expand operations outside their territory. They’re open about bringing their war into India’s main cities, Mumbai and New Delhi, along with Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Here is another divergence: the Taliban’s satisfaction with nationalism and the Naxalites transnational ambitions. Still, their ultimate objectives remain similar - overthrow the current political system.
And while the Naxalites operate in an area estimated to cover 40% of India’s territory, over 1.2 million km, their AO is more comparable to the Taliban than most guerrilla groups. The Red Corridor is estimated at 90,000 km; Helmand and Kandahar province at roughly 100,000 km.
Both groups also exploit cross-border action that complicates an counterinsurgency unlike an island or secured territory.
It may seem redundant to compare guerrilla groups since guerrilla tactics are often universal, but some groups succeed more than others. The Taliban and Naxalites have flourished because of extensive history, exploitable oppressed masses, unresponsive governments, foreign corruption, transnational logistics, and scholarly pursuit of guerrilla warfare.
They flirt with negotiations they have no intentions of following. The Taliban show little sincere interest in negotiations without actionable US withdrawal, while the Naxalites are said to merely need three months while the trees shed their leaves and the jungle shield grows back.
They’re forces are capable of launching simultaneous, complex attacks on active intelligence. Powerful despite a number of setbacks, both groups have lost senior leaders and come close to being extinguished. They’re disjointed enough to survive any attack except to the real heads, and those are never easy to confirm.
In another divergence Mullah Omar pulls ranks above Kishanji, yet their mystery is nearly parallel. Unlike the cloud over Omar’s entire life, the Hindustan Times claims of Kishanji, deputy leader Communist Party of India (Maoist), “Almost everything about him is known...”
Dubbing him the “Faceless face of the Maoists,” the Times records his:
Date of birth: July 25, 1956The nexus with Omar - an unknown location. Despite 10 people tracing his phone at all times Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee admits, “I know he makes frequent phone calls to media persons, but it is too tough to catch him.”
Date of marriage: August 8, 1984
Wife’s name: Myna
Favorite color: Green
Favorite weapon: AK 47
Biggest regret: Never meeting Charu Mazumdar
Describing “his feeble voice frail frame and his face wrapped in a striped scarf have by now been a familiar picture” (think the one-eyed Omar) the Times quotes Kishanji as explaining, “People shield me.”
Indeed, “according to police, the secret to Kishanji’s success so far is that despite being tech-savvy and fluent in English, Hindi and Bangla, Kishanji never stepped out of the jungle in 23 years.”
Omar has never stepped out of his own deserts and mountains, a nativeness that contributes mightily to his security and mystery.
Omar and Kishanji are also similarly ruthless as need be. The Taliban’s history can speak for itself, while Kishanji claimed responsibility for the recent attack that left 24 Indian policemen dead and the country rattled.
“We are calling it ‘Peace Hunt,’” he said, referring to the government’s ongoing Operation Green Hunt. “This is our reply to the anti-Naxalite operation the union government has launched.”
Here opens the final nexus between the Taliban and the Naxalites - force alone is futile. Only through full spectrum counterinsurgency, led by political reform, economic opportunity, and social mending, will either one of these guerrilla movements be mowed down for good.
In President Singhs own words, “I would like to state frankly that we have not achieved as much success as we would have liked in containing this menace. It is a matter of concern that despite our efforts the level of violence in the affected states continues to rise.”
These efforts have been mainly confined to security instead of the proper reform necessary. The Naxalites also recruit bottom caste members and it’s hard to see that issue tackled any time soon. Corporations must be regulated, another implausibility.
Violence has increased every year since 2000 in part because India has responded primarily with heavy handed law enforcement, which is another term for guerrilla steroids.
"Government has to stop the violence first, as ours is the only reaction to it," said P. Govindan Kutty, editor of People's March, the Indian Maoists' publication in Kerala state.
Hopefully Singh will heed his advice when he says, "As I have stated before dealing with left-wing extremism requires a nuanced strategy, a holistic approach. It can not be treated solely as a law and order problem."
America is learning the hard way that same lesson with right-wing extremism in Afghanistan. India will get nowhere without a political solution and neither will America - now will they apply the lessons learned?
Will America’s surge simply escalate the conflict in light of the looming political crisis between Kabul and Washington? Will India and America actually wage new counterinsurgency? Will they diverge over negotiations with their enemy, and if so what will the results be?
These are our questions going forward.