KARACHI: For those watching from the sidelines, the Afghan Taliban’s decision to suspend talks with the United States was not unexpected. In fact, within days of the formal setting up of a Taliban office in Qatar, voices of dissent were being heard among the ranks in Afghanistan.

The formal declaration of the office in January came after several months of unofficial meetings between the Americans and Taliban representatives. According to Waheed Ahmed, a former Taliban leader, the contacts started well before the Bonn conference on Afghanistan in December.

“Initial talks had been held in a Gulf state,” he says. Finally, on the sidelines at Bonn, representatives met US officials and agreed to start formal talks in Qatar.

The trouble started when members of the Taliban delegation were appointed. The lead role was given to Tayyab Aga, a former secretary of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Other members included Maulana Shahabuddin Dilawar, Maulvi Sohail, Syed Rasool, Maulvi Abdul Aziz and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai. But it was Mr Aga’s appointment that raised the initial questions.

“Many within the movement — and even within the governing council — saw Tayyab Aga as too inexperienced to lead the dialogue,” says Dilshad Mansouri, another Taliban insider. The fact that Mr Aga is not a senior member of the Taliban also made his appointment controversial.

But the governing council’s hands were tied due to one major problem: many senior Taliban leaders cannot travel because of United Nations’ restrictions on their movement. Instead they have to make do with former Taliban leaders or mid-level functionaries who have Pakistani passports. It goes without saying that such people would then have to listen not only to the Taliban leadership but also to those issuing the documents.

As such the Taliban in general felt that the talks in Doha were not just between them and the US, but in fact between Pakistan and the US with the Taliban acting as intermediaries.

Meanwhile, the discontentment with Mr Aga’s appointment also grew with his handling of the talks in Qatar. The Taliban delegation demanded immediate release of six leaders being held at Guantanamo Bay and the removal of the active leadership’s names from the UN’s Taliban list.

The prisoners included the Taliban’s former military chief Mullah Abdul Fazil, Mullah Abdul Haq Wateeq, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, Munnawarullah Noori and Mullah Naeem Khusti.

The Americans accepted, but made this contingent on the Taliban agreeing on the parameters of a broad-based national government. This was obviously beyond the delegation’s ability to decide, and led to a flurry of calls to Taliban leaders back home.

Increasingly, Mr Aga appeared to be at a loss. This led to further acrimony among the delegation, with Mr Dilawar, the most senior member, quitting in disgust and returning to Pakistan. Eventually the situation led to a standoff, and the Taliban council unanimously chose to suspend the dialogue.

The Qatar talks, then, may well have been doomed from the start, as what little goodwill was present in the beginning was washed away as the high command’s uneasiness with the situation grew.

The Taliban have said the main reason for suspending the talks is that the US was procrastinating on a deal and aimed to achieve what they call “other objectives”.

Scholar and journalist Anatol Lieven hinted at this in a recent piece for The New York Times. “Powerful sections of the Washington establishment,” he wrote, “wish to use these talks not to seek an agreement with the Taliban as a whole, but to try to split that organisation”.

And since the killing of Osama bin Laden, fears have also emerged among the Taliban about similar raids against their leaders.

One senior leader says on condition of anonymity that the movement believes the US wanted to use the dialogue to find out where the Taliban’s top commanders were located.

The writer is BBC’s correspondent in Karachi. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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