Back to Qatar? Talks about talks, again
This summer has brought news that indicated that talks between the US and the Taleban (or even the Afghan government and the Taleban) might possibly be rekindled. It all started rather sensationally with a member of the Taleban leadership publicly attending an (academic) conference, moving on to speculations about Pakistan allowing Kabul access to an incarcerated Taleban leader and to new US thoughts about transferring key Taleban prisoners out of Guantanamo. AANâs Thomas Ruttig summarises what has happened, before arguing that what looks like a lot of movement has not yet resulted in practical progress. However, he says that Mulla Omarâs latest Eid message has made the Talebanâs vision of a post-withdrawal Afghanistan much clearer than any previous statement.
The summer period that is slowly coming to its end brought with it a string of events that seemed to indicate that a resumption of talks with the Taleban about a political solution in Afghanistan might be on the cards. Initial talks in Qatar broke down in March this year, only six weeks after the Taleban had opened a political office in Qatar. The movement blamed what it called the âshaky, erratic and vagueâ approach of the US; in its view, Washington had reneged on an understanding that five high-ranking Taleban prisoners were to be transferred from Guantanamo to Qatari control. Some of the five were expected to play a key role in possible future negotiations (read the last of a series of AAN blogs on the subjectÂ here). In fact, it seemed both of the two sides, while âtalking prisonersâ, had still not been able to understand how the other side thought, something which is somewhat surprisingly given all the years of mutual inspection.
To make the string of recent developments a bit more transparent, I have divided what has happened this summer into a number of âevents.
Event 1: The Tokyo conference
At the international Afghanistan conference in Tokyo in June, President Hamed Karzai claimed the Taleban had already agreed to contacts with his government. HeÂ repeatedÂ one of his usual offers to the Taleban to come and talk:
âMullah Mohammad Omar can come inside Afghanistan anywhere he wants to. He can open [a] political office for himself but he should leave the gun. He along with his friends can come and create his political party, do politics, become a candidate himself for the elections. If people voted for him, good for him, he can take the leadership in his hand.â
Also at the Tokyo conference, and in its aftermath, Karzai turned for support to several other countries, in particular Pakistan, but also Germany and Saudi Arabia.Â Pakistanâs government responded relatively quickly with indications that it would help facilitate contacts with the Taleban.Â According to Pakistani media, âefforts to convince the Taliban for talks with the Kabul government have been expeditedâ at the conference; these would allow Afghan officials to confer with Mulla Baradar, Mulla Muhammad Omarâs former deputy. Baradar, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2010, is still in custody there. When itÂ was announcedÂ that a delegation of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) led by its chairman Salahuddin Rabbani would soon travel to Pakistan,Â speculationsÂ were aired that he would conduct the meeting with Baradar and that both countries might even negotiate Baradarâs release.(1) The former wasÂ publicly confirmedÂ by the HPC deputy chairman Attaullah Ludin.
German magazineÂ SpiegelÂ reportedÂ on 23 July that, while in Tokyo, Karzai had also requested Germanyâs help to reopen a channel with the Taleban. Germany had done thisÂ before once, before the talks between the Taleban and the US broke down earlier this year. In August, when attending the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Mecca â that mainly dealt with Syria â KarzaiÂ also askedÂ for Saudi Arabiaâs and this organisationâs support.
More recently, though, at least on three occasions, Karzai wasÂ talking ‘harsh’Â to the Taleban. Probably for the first time he stated that the Taleban will be held responsible for their actions, first when he addressed graduates of the Afghan Police Academy in Kabul on 17 July and then when visiting Nimruz in the wake ofÂ the recent bombingsÂ there. In Kabul he said:
‘… they should understand that every murder their perpetrate, every atrocity they commit, these will be in our memory and will not be forgotten. If they are from this country or if they are foreigners, they should understand that they will be held to account one day.’
About a week ago, in aÂ statementÂ on the occasion of Eid, Karzai did not invite the Taleban for reconciliation and, contrary to his usual and much criticised practice so far, did not describe them as ‘brothers’.
Event 2: The Kyoto and Paris conferences
Still in June, meanwhile, and rather sensationally, former Taleban minister, Qari Din Muhammad, was invited to and showed up at an academic conference in Kyoto, simultaneously held alongside the major international conference in Tokyo. At this academic conference, he identified himself â the first time something like this had happened publicly – as a member of the âPolitical Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistanâ (their body for talks) and therefore as a member of the movementâs current leadership. He presented their position on a number of issues, including the âStance of the Islamic Emirate Regarding Reconciliationâ:
âThe Islamic Emirate has repeatedly said that the Afghan issue is two dimensional [sic] with internal and external dimensions. The external dimension, which should be dealt with initially, concerns America and the Islamic Emirate, while the internal dimension of the issue is Afghan-related. [âŠ] It is to be said that [the] Islamic Emirate is still committed to the peaceful solution of the imbroglio in Afghanistan.â
Even a few days earlier, almost all Afghan factions had attendedÂ a meetingÂ organised by a think-tank in Paris. According toÂ 8 SobhÂ daily (26 June), this included leaders of the political opposition (Qanuni, Mohaqqeq, Zia Massud, Ulumi), the deputy leader of the insurgent wing ofÂ Hezb-e Islami, Ghairat Bahir, some âreconciledâ Taleban like their ambassadors Abdul Salam Zaâif and Abdul Hakim Mujahed, some pro-government figures like Hekmat Karzai, head of a think-tank, and ex-governor Haji Din Muhammad who also served as Karzaiâs 2009 campaign manager as well as civil society figures, including ex-human rights commissioner Nader Nadery. Representatives of the insurgent Taleban mainstream were apparently absent.
Event 3: Washington considers a prisoner swap?
Two days after the Kyoto Conference, on 29 June,Â AP reportedÂ that the US was âconsideringâ a new approach, or even âproposalâ to transfer Taleban prisoners from Guantanamo to Afghanistan or elsewhere, in order to get the Taleban to the (Qatar?) table again. Under this new proposal, the report said, they could be transferred to a detention facility in Bagram that âis effectively under US control for now [but] scheduled for transfer to full Afghan control in September.â There are 17 Afghan Taleban prisoners remaining in Guantanamo(2) including theÂ five high-ranking onesÂ that had been the subject of earlier talks in Qatar, reportedly in relation to an exchange with US service man, Bowe Bergdahl who has been captured in Paktika and is held by the Taleban since June 2009. President KarzaiÂ made it clearÂ he wants jurisdiction over all Afghan Taleban prisoners.
The AP report also mentioned that Qatar had ârecentlyâ sent a letter to the US to rekindle the talks.
Taleban spokesman Zabihullah MujahedÂ repliedÂ to the US âthoughtsâ that simply shifting the prisoners to a detention facility in Afghanistan was not good enough: âOur demand is the release of prisoners and we have expressed our readiness for an exchange of prisoners.â He also hinted at the originally discussed exchange: putting the Guantanamo 5 under Qatari controlÂ in exchangeÂ for Bergdahl (and possibly some other US hostages abducted in Pakistan).
In August,Â ReutersÂ reportedÂ new details, that the ârevised proposalâ:
ââŠwould alter the sequence of the move of five senior Taliban figures held for years at the US military prison to the Gulf state of Qatar [and] send all five Taliban prisoners to Qatar first[âŠ]. Only then would the Taliban be required to release Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the only US prisoner of war. Previously, US officials had proposed dividing the Taliban prisoners into two groups, and requiring Bergdahl’s release as a good-faith gesture to come before the second group of prisoners would be moved out of Guantanamo.â
The events so far led the outgoing US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan CrockerÂ to sayÂ that â[p]olitics is [sic] breaking out all overâ.
Event 4: Motassem emerges
Crocker also said that âmoderate Talebanâ were âsending out feelersâ and had declared âinterestâ in a renewed âpeace processâ. He was referring to Agha Jan Motassem, a Taleban finance minister during the Emirate, head consecutively of both their financial and political commissions after 2001, and son-in-law of the Taleban supreme leader.Â According toÂ The HinduÂ â which for several months, now has always been very well informed about details of these developments (here it cites âintelligence sources in Kabulâ) â Motassem had been one of the three interlocutors in talks with the US in Qatar and Germany.
In July this year, Motassem was taken off the UN Taleban sanctions list, after he had arrived in Turkey for medical treatmentÂ following an assassination attemptÂ on him in Karachi by what are thought to be âanti-talksâ elements, either in the Taleban or among their Pakistani backers. In two exclusive interviews (with the APÂ on 14 May and the BBC Persian Service, quotedÂ here onÂ ToloNews) Motassem said,Â echoing Qari Din Muhammadâs statement in Kyoto in June:
‘âŠthe majority of the Taliban and the Taliban leadership want a broad-based government for all Afghan people and an Islamic system like other Islamic countriesâŠ’ andÂ âpeace negotiations can’t be a one phase process. They should have many phases. We prefer to negotiate with the US during the first phase, then with the Afghan government and other foreigners.’
On the BBCâs Persian service, Motassem appealed to âall sidesâ to âstop fighting and solve all their differences through dialogue and negotiations.â He hailed his de-listing by the UN, adding that extending âsuch steps by [the] international community would help in bringing peace and stability and would become a means of persuading leaders of the Islamic Emirate [to talk]â (hereÂ the audio in Pashto;Â hereÂ the text in Pashto andÂ hereÂ the text in Dari; some quotes in English areÂ hereÂ andÂ here).
Event 5: Thoughts from inside the Taleban
There were more signals that the Taleban are in fact ready to resume talks with the US. In July, theÂ New StatesmanÂ published an interview by Harvard Universityâs Michael Semple with a person identified as one of the highest-ranking (but anonymous) Taleban commanders. The commander, by giving a sober assessment of the Talebanâs capability to win militarily, indirectly indicated that the Taleban would have to come to an arrangement with the plurality of forces existing in Afghanistan. He said he believed it âwould take some kind of divine intervention for the Taliban to win this warâ and that âthe Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospectâ. He also said that if âthey [the Taleban] fall short of achieving national power they have to settle for functioning as an organised party within the country. We also know that there are other political forces in Afghanistanâ. The commander also said that most in his movement saw al-Qaeda as a âplagueâ who have destroyed the Taleban Emirate (extracts from the interviewÂ here).
In August,Â theÂ Sunday TimesÂ saidÂ it had received what appeared to be a policy paper by the Taleban (through a go-between claiming to have links to the Quetta shura) written in Pashto that condemned terrorism, contained assurances about the education of women âin the light of the Taleban constitutionâ and the future of the Afghan army and set out a plan for an electoral system that would ensure fair representation for minority ethnic groups. TheÂ TimesÂ adds that it has no way to independently confirm the authenticity of the paper, though, and its major points sound like a US wish-list. The Taleban have also not been known for supporting âelectionsâ but rather consultations, or reaching agreements with other (Islamic) factions.
Event 6: Taleban âjusticeâ – a not unimportant sideshow
In two cases the Taleban appear to be trying to show their ârealâ position on justice and that they do care about the civilian population, by punishing rogue elements and criminals; the acts looked designed to serve as a contrast to theÂ execution of a womanÂ accused of adultery in Parwan by a group of Taleban that sparked deserved outrage. In July, TalebanÂ reportedlyÂ publically lashed two men in Charkh district, Logar province who had been accused of an attempt to kidnap âthe son of a rich manâ. In August, itÂ was reportedÂ that they shot a child kidnapper in Qarabagh district of Ghazni province.
Event 7: Listing Haqqani? (still pending)
It remains to be seen whether a possible listing of the Haqqani network as a terrorist organisation by the US will affect the Taleban position towards talks. President Barack Obama is currently under pressure to do so by Congress (and after a number of media reports focussing on the Haqqanis, see for example: âMilitant group cashes in on corruption and rich donorsâ,Â CNN, 3 August; âNew Boldness From Militants Poses Risk to US-Pakistan Tiesâ,Â New York Times, 30 July). Already in mid-July, the US State DepartmentÂ had statedÂ that â[m]ost attacks on American forces in Afghanistan are now carried out by the Haqqani group, and its members are stationed in the tribal areas of Pakistanâ. The Taleban (and the Haqqani network itself) do not consider themselves separate organisations but Congress finally forced the President to sign the so-called Haqqani Network Terrorist Designation Act of 2012 on 10 August that gives him one month to report on the issue.(3)
While right-wing think-tanks like theÂ Heritage FoundationÂ Â supportÂ the listing, Tom Gregg, Director of the Afghanistan regional project atÂ Center on International CooperationÂ in New York, says that, âthe latest push comes at a particularly inopportune time for the administration, as it hopes for a Qatari-brokered prisoner exchangeâ including Private Bowe Bergdahl who is being held captive by the Haqqanis and whose âsafe return will require the Haqqanisâ cooperationâ. Furthermore, âto designate the Haqqanis a FTO would derail State Department attempts to resume preliminary talks with key Taliban interlocutorsâ who claim âthat the Haqqani Network recognizes Mullah Omar as the head of their movementâ.
During the summer, but particularly in August, there were a whole series of setbacks to these events which â at least in the media â had looked like quite hopeful. In June, already, Karzaiâs remark in Tokyo that he was calling for talks only with those Afghans âwho aren’t the puppets of othersâ had angered the Taleban who themselves consider Karzai a puppet. Consequently, they rejected Karzaiâs statement as âfalse and irresponsibleâ on the same day, adding that âthe Emirate’s delegation attended the [Kyoto] conference but there were no negotiations or agreement between us and a delegation from the government.â
Then, HPC chairman Rabbaniâs planned trip to PakistanÂ was âdelayedâ, as a result of the tensions along the Afghan-Pakistani border – after Pakistani shelling and accusations by Pakistan that Kabul was supporting Pakistani Taleban who have set up safe havens in Kunar. (The same events, in a separate development, also led to theÂ downfall of two key Afghan ministers.)
The Taleban denounced Motassem, although with considerable delay. In mid-August, theirÂ Voice of JihadÂ website published a statement:
âAgha Jan Motassem was sacked by the leader of the Islamic Emirate due to his wilful acts and ambiguity in his work in 2010 and he has no post at present in the Islamic Emirate. His acts and statements do not represent the Islamic Emirate and the fact that he lives in Turkey is his personal matter and the Islamic Emirate does not have any representative office in Turkey. Moreover, Agha Jan Motassem’s visits to Kabul and Ankara were not carried out on the instructions or permission of the leader of the Islamic Emirate. Agha Jan Motassem’s present activities show that he is not independent but he is under the control of other people.âÂ (source: BBC Monitoring)
But this denouncement, although very harsh, is probably more about who has the right to speak for the Taleban than about what was said and may not be a ânoâ to a resumption of talks. In his latest Eid message, however (quotedÂ from a pro-Taleban websiteÂ – the Talebanâs ownÂ ShahamatÂ is down since several days), Mulla Omar did not refer to a possible resumption of the talks. However, he reiterated his reassurance to non-Taleban political forces in the country:
âThe Islamic Emirate does not think of monopolizing power [and it] will make efforts to reach an understanding with the Afghan factions in due time following pull-out of the invaders [my emphasis] in order to establish an Islamic, all afghans [sic] inclusive system, being acceptable to all people.â
The Mulla Baradar farce
In August, reports came up that an Afghan official had actually already met Baradar two months previously . This wasÂ confirmedÂ by the chair of the Afghan National Security Council, Rangin Dadfar Spanta:Â âWe have met Mullah Baradar. Our delegation has spoken to him to know his view on peace talks.â
It was also confirmed by Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik:
âThey had access at the required and appropriate level.â
But this was all denied one day laterÂ by the Afghan AmbassadorÂ in Pakistan, the presidential spokesman in Kabul andÂ by a spokesmanÂ of Pakistanâs Ministry of Interior. Later, President Karzai, while visiting Nimruz province, also denied that any meeting with Baradar had taken place (Tolo TV, 24 August, source: BBC Monitoring).
A resumption of the Qatar talks still seems some way away. The âeventsâ of this summer have hardly moved Afghanistan closer to the end of the bloodshed or even to a more limited political settlement. All in all, they represent much more a clarification of existing positions which have not changed much. Differences of opinion within the Taleban movement (and we still include Motassem) have become more obvious, though.
The Afghan government still does not seem to have a reliable official channel to the Taleban. (This is different from talking and probably meeting members of the Taleban leadership occasionally.) Why, otherwise, does Karzai have to ask for OIC, Saudi Arabia or German support for opening up a channel? And the farce that was performed about the Mulla Baradar contacts shows that there are still different wings of the administration fighting over the access and the control over possible contacts. Kabul urgently needs a unified policy on this.
The same can be said about the US. It does not look as if the differences of opinion between the Departments of State and Defence and âthe agenciesâ have been overcome on the issue of whether talks should be prioritised. The possible Haqqani listing has not made things easier. There are also still a number of hurdles in the bilateral US-Taleban relationship that need to be overcome before talks can start again, like stopping arguing about who is to blame for the breakdown of âround oneâ. And what will happen if the Republicans win the elections later this year?
For the Taleban, the declaration of the Haqqani network as a terrorist organisation would probably not change much. After all, they do not recognise that something called the âHaqqani networkâ exists (see Mulla Omarâs Eid statement emphasising their âsingle flag and command in all areas, extending from Badakhshan to Helmand, and from Nangarhar to Heratâ, including the Haqqanisâ Loya Paktia). They could be pragmatic about it. But they may not. For a long time the Taleban have made a point in demanding that the other side stops using the label âterroristâ for them, and they seeÂ de-listing as a major confidence-building measure. So they will have another argument: âyou still do not respect usâ.
More importantly, the Taleban are aware that there will still be foreign troops after 2014, particularly westernÂ Special ForcesÂ with the mandate to continue fighting them, preventing an easy take-over of Kabul and keeping in power whoever becomes Karzaiâs successor.
In general, the Taleban have made their position rather clear. They do not rule out dealing with the Kabul government (or letâs say the âKarzai campâ) at some point, see the âall-Afghanâ remark in Mulla Omarâs Eid message. This might be a shift of position, or just a sweetener for Kabul. Surely they realise that the âKarzai campâ has become a political force to reckon with, with its economic strength, its fire power and its hold over the country-wide administrative system â and particularly in the current existing âcoalitionâ that includes Hezb-e Islami (with the HIG wing waiting in the curtains), Afghan Millat and even those parts of Jamiat that are in governmental or quasi-governmental positions currently, like Marshal Fahim(4), Rabbani junior and others. But talking to them about how Afghanistan will be ruled, the Taleban say, can happen only at a later stage, after a Western withdrawal. Saying this may actually push a political settlement into a distant future.
Instead, the Taleban continue to prioritise talking to the US. That Mulla Omar, in his Eid message, did not specifically refer to new talks is interesting: he has neither ruled talks out and indeed has kept the door to them open, but nor has he shown much enthusiasm for them. The Talebanâs actions over the past months â fromÂ the Kargha hotel attackÂ in June to theÂ killing of 17 civiliansÂ in Musa Qala earlier this week – show that they currently seem to prioritise fighting anyway.
All in all, negotiations are still on the table for the Taleban, but they are only one option. The other is continuing the fight, wait the withdrawal out and see how strong the Special Forces, the trainers and mentors in the new NATO mission, the grown ANSF and the rag-tag ALP really turn out to be.
The most important document from this summer is Mulla Omarâs Eid message. The Talebanâs vision of what a post-withdrawal Afghanistan would look like has never been made as clear as in this statement. The abandoned âfirst roundâ of talks with the US were just about âspecific matters [namely] to initiate exchange of prisoners [and] open [a] political officeâ but they âhad not meant submission or abandoning our goals. Rather the step had been taken [to] reach our goalsâ, i.e. gaining an international stage and get a step closer to being recognised as an official party to the conflict and its settlement.
Judging from his words, the main strategic goal seems to remain the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate â maybe (see above) in a somewhat more âpluralisticâ way. While he says the Taleban movement does not want a monopoly of power, it aims at political hegemony in what will be made to look like a coalition:
âThe Islamic Emirate [my emphasis] will do its best to dispense (government) positions and slots to those who deserve and have the capacity and wipe out corruptionâ.
So Omar tries to assure those in other (mainly the mujahedin) factions that they will get a share in an Islamic government and, at the same time, appease those within the Taleban ranks who think any talks are a capitulation. Effectively he is saying: the Taleban still want to reach their goals, Afghanistan will still be an Islamic Emirate (with some other people in âslotsâ) and the Taleban will have the biggest weight, determine who will be in government and have the final say on all matters of governance.
Maybe the development on the âtalks frontâ has now developed its own, realistic â and very slow â pace. It is becoming clear that a short-term settlement, even a narrow one between the US and the Taleban, is not at hand. This is bad because it means that the fighting and the bloodletting will continue. But as all things bad, it has an advantage, too. It shows that there is still time to prepare for an inclusive settlement. The Taleban cannot be expected to push for this – a weak and politically narrow Kabul government is in their favour. It is Kabul and (mainly) Washington who need to realise that inclusiveness is desirable because it might save the âKarzai campâ a share in government. If it took, generally speaking, the ex-mujahedin opposition, independent civil society and the so far marginalised pro-democratic groups on board an extended coalition, it will be more difficult to be pushed over. And post-2001 achievements will be more difficult to be thrown overboard. Karzaiâs âharsherâ words at the address of the Taleban might be a step that he understands this.
Unfortunately, Washington and other governments might be ready to live with a narrow, non-inclusive â and finally unsustainable â âsolutionâ as long as it only unravels well after the end of 2014. But can Afghans live with this, regardless where they stand politically now?
(1) Read an analysis of what a role of Mulla Baradar could possibly entail byReutersâ Matthew GreenÂ here. There are still a lot of âifsâ, though.
(2) President Karzai wants full Afghan control over them (readÂ here).
(3) The Taleban have not been declared a âterrorist organisationâ as well, most likely to keep doors open for negotiations. They also had been widely spared drone attacks on the areas in Pakistan where they are believed to operate from. The Haqqanis, meanwhile, have been heavily pounded over all these years. See also theÂ latest drone attackÂ that killed one of Jalaluddin Haqqaniâs sons, Badruddin. In this light, listing the Haqqani network looks more like a symbolic step, although it might also be intended to put pressure on Pakistan to finally crack down on the very Taleban network that is seen as most dangerous, particularly for its attacks in Kabul.
(4) Interestingly, Fahim has for the first time spoken out in favour of talks with the Taleban publicly. According toÂ Hasht-e SobhÂ daily (28 May 2012), he asked the insurgents to join the peace process and said that the people and the government of Afghanistan were ready to pay âany reasonable priceâ to the Taleban in order to achieve that (source: AAN media monitoring).