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Taliban ready to talk?

July 18, 2012


FROM time to time in the last four years there have been reports indicating that the Taliban were becoming war-weary and looking for an opportunity to seek reconciliation. Most of these reports proved to be a distorted interpretation of the contacts that Afghans customarily maintained even in warlike conditions.

Part of the problem was what Kai Edie, the UN secretary general’s special representative to Afghanistan for two tumultuous years, identifies in his book Power Struggle over Afghanistan. “The UN had never been really involved or consulted by Washington on critical strategy-related questions, nor had even the closest Nato partners,” he writes. “More importantly, Afghan authorities had mostly been spectators to the formation of a strategy aimed at solving the conflict in their own country.”

Given this reading of the situation by the senior-most UN representative in the country and given Edie’s own rather futile attempts to conduct secret talks with the Taliban, it was perhaps understandable that the latter were unresponsive to the calls, nay pleas, from President Karzai to his “misguided brothers” to negotiate a return to mainstream politics in Afghanistan.

It was not the Americans alone who were responsible. The Karzai administration expelled Michael Semple, a diplomat with long experience in Afghanistan who was working in 2007 as the European Union’s deputy representative there, when he established contact with some Taliban leaders to try to persuade them to engage in reconciliation. His protests that Afghan officials had blessed his efforts went unheard.

Semple maintained his extensive contacts in Afghanistan and was able to interview a man he identifies only as Mawlvi who he says is “a veteran of the Taliban movement, has been with them since the early days. He’s held senior posts in their administration when they were running the country. He’s remained loyal … and he’s done a stint in Guantanamo.” These are impressive credentials, and Mawlvi’s views, which Semple says are the views of the pragmatists among the Taliban, deserve careful attention.

“It is in the nature of war that both sides dream of victory,” Mawlvi says in the interview published this month in British magazine New Statesman. “But the balance of power in the Afghan conflict is obvious. It would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taliban to win this war. The Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect.” He adds that the “Taliban are fighting to expel the occupiers and to enforce shariah.... If they fall short of achieving national power they have to settle for functioning as an organised party within the country.” Regarding Al Qaeda he says, “At least 70 per cent of the Taliban are angry at Al Qaeda. Our people consider Al Qaeda to be a plague that was sent down to us by the heavens.”

There are other good reasons to suggest that this may well be the view of many pragmatic Taliban. They have suspended talks in Qatar but their delegates are still there, presumably because they hope to resume talks.

They also sent to a Kyoto conference Qari Din Mohammad Hanif, an ethnic Tajik who had been a minister in the Taliban regime. The Taliban spokesman said he was there to clarify their position and contradicted the Kabul government’s claim that he had talked to the Afghan High Peace Council’s secretary general and a leading Afghan interlocutor about reconciliation. The fact remains, though, that his presence there was significant.

Separately, Salahuddin Rabbani, son of the late Burhanuddin Rabbani and his successor as the head of the Afghan High Peace Council, said in a recent interview that he was asking Pakistan to have Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other Pakistan-based Taliban talk to him to carry forward the reconciliation process.

And in recent statements, Karzai has said he has asked the United States not only to release Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo but also to let them go wherever they please. In a subsequent statement he called upon Mullah Omar to contest elections and become president if the people choose him.

These developments have to be read in tandem with the famous August 2011 Eid message by Mullah Omar in which he stated that “Contrary to the propaganda launched by the enemies, the policy of the Islamic Emirate is not aimed at monopolising power” and that “all ethnicities will have participation in the regime and portfolios will be dispensed on the basis of merit.”

From the Afghan government’s point of view, however, there is a fly in the ointment. Every Taliban spokesman has dismissed the notion of talking to Karzai, who they say is no more than a stooge of the Americans. In the interview quoted above Mawlvi remarked that the people they should be talking to in an intra-Afghan dialogue are the members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance.

At the moment it seems that not all opposition figures will agree. “We are obeying this government because it was sort of anti-Taliban,” opposition leader Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief dismissed by Karzai after a security failure, told an American correspondent this month. “If it becomes pro-Taliban, we topple it. Simple.”

Salahuddin Rabbani’s plea for Pakistan’s assistance in talking to the Taliban has been reinforced by Karzai, who said this month in Tokyo, “Pakistan’s contribution to the peace process in Afghanistan can have many layers, it can have many elements. The most important element would be for Pakistan to arrange where it can dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban representatives who are in Pakistan.”

Pakistan can argue that such facilitation is useless until Karzai can ensure that he represents the views of ethnic minorities as much as he does those of his Pashtun supporters. This, however, is not something we should seek to determine.

No other country will suffer more than Pakistan in the event of continued turbulence in Afghanistan. More than any other country, Pakistan needs to push reconciliation even if chances of success seem slim.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.