“Not all that much substance there, or perhaps much reality but what seems clear is that the Taliban are getting our messages. We suspect that their communications … are not perfect but they appear to be telling one another what US concerns are. We are in the cultivating mode with these people, whom we meet only fleetingly.”
This confidential American cable, obtained by Dawn through WikiLeaks, is not dated 2011, the year the US has gone public about reconciliation efforts with the Afghan Taliban after 10 years of combat. It was written in August 1997, when the US consul general in Karachi sent a report to the State Department about a meeting with his Taliban counterpart over dinner at the Sindh chief minister's residence. The topics of discussion: Taliban involvement in the narcotics trade, and their sheltering of Osama bin Laden.
Here's another, from March 1997, that could easily be mistaken for a report written today: “On several occasions the [Islamabad] embassy has asked whether a meeting with [Mullah] Omar might be possible, but nothing has ever come of it. This is unfortunate because it is important that US views get through to the Omar accurately … At this point, based on the Taliban's human rights record and determination to end the conflict by military means, it would seem that if he is hearing our message from other high-level Taliban and from US public statements, he is not listening to it.”
As America tries to reconnect with the Taliban once again, reading these and other historical cables invokes a distinct sense of déjÃ vu, a feeling that nothing has changed after a decade of war.
Starting in September 1996, years before US troops would go into Afghanistan, these documents paint a picture of America's struggle to establish a relationship with the organisation and push for demands that remain largely unchanged 15 years later. They reveal the same mistrust that characterises relations today, the same difficulty of access to the Taliban and limited understanding of them, the same wariness of, and reliance on, Pakistan's stronger ties to the group. Mostly, though, they are filled with the same concern about the Taliban providing safe havens to anti-American terrorists. After years of pouring soldiers and money into Afghanistan, has the US simply come full circle?
Although referred to at the time simply as “the Saudi financier”, bin Laden had moved beyond his role in sponsoring the mujahideen in Afghanistan and was on the American radar for his statements against the US and his attempts to plot international attacks. He may have been taken out this year, but abandoning Al Qaeda, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, is one of the “necessary outcomes” of the current talks.
Back in September 1996, US Ambassador to Pakistan Tom Simons was asking for the same thing. Islamabad Embassy officials, he wrote, “urged [Taliban Deputy Foreign Affairs Advisor Mullah Abdul] Jalil to ensure … that no form of 'safe haven' is extended to terrorists. In addition, [they] emphasised that it is important that the Taliban put out the word that Osama bin Laden's presence in Afghanistan is not wanted.”
By March 1997, cables report that official Taliban interlocutors have admitted bin Laden is in their territory, although on the condition that he will not carry out terrorist activities against western or Saudi Arabian targets. But an American analysis of “the enigmatic Mullah Omar” reveals disconnects there is no reason to believe have disappeared today. A Taliban provincial governor tells the Americans “he had attended a meeting March 1  in which … 'Omar told us that we have to help bin Laden because he is a good, Islamic person, who is fighting the kafirs (unbelievers).'”
And in the 1996 meeting, Jalil had already pointed to an issue that will continue to dog reconciliation in 2011: Omar is, for the Taliban, Amir-ul-Mumineen, the commander of the faithful. “The basic point,” Jalil explained then, “is that as far as the Taliban are concerned they already have a leader, Amir Mohammed Omar, and do not need another one.”
American efforts to remove these roadblocks are constrained, as they continue to be today, by the difficulty of reaching the chief. Omar “is a man of few words” who is hard to access, and “one of the problems in trying to get to know [him is that] he does not meet with many non-Muslims.”
It is hard not to detect a note of envy in a note that follows. “The Pakistani consul general in Kandahar,” the report adds, “has easy access to Omar.” The familiar cast of characters is rounded out by “intra-Afghan dialogue figure” Hamid Karzai, who in 1999 is worrying about the lack of a Pashtun leadership that could challenge the Taliban. Despite his coming to power, that arguably hasn't changed.
If anything is different now, it is that the relationship has only become more difficult. At least the right noises were once being made, even if their sincerity was questionable. “Jalil concluded the meeting by stating that the Taliban had great respect for the United States based on its assistance during the war against the Soviets,” reported the Islamabad Embassy, “and he urged US support for the Taliban now that they controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan. [Political Officer] responded that the [United States government] … supports the formation of a broad-based government. In this spirit, the USG wants to continue to engage the Taliban whenever possible, PolOff noted.”
9/11 did change everything, and may well have merited a military strike. But what the following years didn't do is make the Taliban any more amenable than they were then, a concern now that they have managed to survive.
The organisation's approach, wrote Simons in 1996, “leaves only the continuation of war … and Jalil provided every signal that the Taliban are aiming for a military solution to the Afghan conflict.” Given how reminiscent today's tentative, painstaking moves are of the wary dance enacted in the 1990s, it is hard not to conclude that this has been a decade lost to war. Thousands of casualties, 15 years and $120bn later, the conversation with the Taliban remains the same.
All cables are available on Dawn.com.
The writer is a member of staff.