The much heralded Taleban office in a third country seems finally about to be opened. The news that this will happen in Qatar, broken by an Indian newspaper on Wednesday* and picked up by Kabul-based Tolo TV a day later, was followed by President Karzai calling back his ambassador in Doha ‘for consultations’ claiming that he was not consulted again. This will probably settle soon and, if the news is confirmed, there should finally be an address for talks with the Taleban, a major minor step on the long and thorny way towards a political solution in Afghanistan, says Thomas Ruttig, senior analyst at AAN.
When an assassin killed the head of the High Peace Council (HPC), Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, in September, President Karzai chose a well-used truism in one of his reactions:
‘We’ve said we don’t know who to talk to. We’re not dealing with an identifiable individual as a representative of the Taliban, or a place that we can knock on and say, “Well, here we are. We want to talk to you.” Until that place emerges — an address and a representative — we will not be able to talk to the Taliban because we don’t know where to find them’. [my italics]**
This is not really an accurate description of the situation, but there is a grain of truth here. Karzai’s sentences reflect the whole ambiguity and inconsistency that shrouds this subject, including Kabul’s position on it.
Of course, ‘we’ know who to talk to: to Mulla Omar and the so-called Quetta Shura. They still are the Taleban movement’s official leadership, no one has ever challenged this. The German, Qatari and US governments were indeed talking to an identifiable representative of Omar earlier this year, Tayyeb Agha, and – if The Hindu and its Indian diplomatic sources are right – at least the US government has continued doing so:
‘Final arrangements have been put in place for the opening of a Taliban mission in the state of Qatar — the Islamist insurgent group’s first formal diplomatic office since it was evicted from power after 9/11 and internationally proscribed for its links to al-Qaeda.
Indian diplomatic sources have told The Hindu the mission will be designated as a political office for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban calls itself, and have the privileges but not the formal protection of a diplomatic mission.
Taliban envoy Tayyab Agha, former private secretary to Mullah Omar, met representatives of the United States in Qatar last week to hammer out details on the role of the office, the sources said. Shahabudin Dilawar and Sohail Shaheen, both former Taliban diplomats, accompanied Mr. Agha.’
Yes, there is no political arm of the Taleban indeed, in the way Sinn Féin functioned for the IRA, just their political commission which is not very high-profile. But if The Hindu got the names of those involved in the talks about the Qatar office right, it played a role here. And yes, there has not been one address, in Quetta or Karachi, where one would be able to ring and ask for a meeting with the Taleban leadership. There were rather multiple addresses, their safehouses, and the ISI knows them. This is beyond any doubt.
The list of evidence for the ISI’s intimacy with the Taleban is long. During the wave of arrests (some of these ‘arrests’ were rather invitations) in early 2009, following the capture of Mulla Omar’s then deputy Mulla Baradar, the Pakistani authorities had no difficulty in rounding up an impressive number of Taleban leaders within a short time in order to swear them in on their line: ‘talks are okay, but only through us’. The work of their ISI minders has also been described repeatedly, including by Taleban commanders themselves. Afghan sources have reported how the ISI decides about access to them and in what timeframe. Taleban commanders have reported that ISI people (not necessarily Pakistani citizens) sit in their shuras. It has been reported in Pakistani media how Taleban – and members of other jihadi outfits – move openly in Quetta and elsewhere, using special vehicles and permits. It has been reported, amongst others by New York Times reporter David Rhode describing his captivity in Waziristan, how his captors were waved through checkpoints of the Frontier Corps. US soldiers in southeastern Afghanistan have reported time and again how insurgents freely move across the Pakistani-Afghan border under the eyes of Pakistani paramilitary forces. The New York Times wrote recently, with reference to ‘military and political analysts who follow militant activity in Pakistan’ that the Haqqani family ‘maintains several town houses, including in Islamabad and elsewhere, and they have been known to visit military facilities in Rawalpindi, attend tribal gatherings and even travel abroad on pilgrimage’.***
Voilà, the problem with talking to the Taleban is not so much an issue of an unknown address but of access to them which is controlled, restricted and instrumentalised by Pakistan. It is a matter of political will, on Pakistan’s part, whether it allows talks to happen – or whether it tries to block talks. The address has been there, but someone has simply been standing in front of the doorbell.
One way around all this, of course, would therefore be to move the Taleban out of Pakistan’s reach. But this is easier said than done. Karzai, and the Jihadi leaders he immediately convened when the report broke, suggest that they are not against a Taleban office, but that it should rather be in Afghanistan itself. Indeed, this would is a good idea (and has been tried elsewhere, in Colombia, with the establishment of a kind of ‘no fire’ zones when there were still attempts to negotiate with the FARC) – but it is completely unrealistic in the current climate of mutual mistrust between all stakeholders in the Afghan conflict. Why should the Taleban give up their main access to the battlefield and, even more importantly, disavow their main protector, Pakistan? The Taleban simply need Pakistan for their logistics, as a launch pad for operations and an R&R venue and, last but not least: their families live there, and most of their commanders part-time. And if such Colombia-style safe havens inside Afghanistan were agreed, why should they trust the Americans to keep any promise – if given – not to kill-or-capture them? So, Karzai’s rage against Qatar might be another act in the political drama.
All in all, the opening of a Taleban office – giving them ‘an address’ – is a step into the right direction. Potentially, it would make the Taleban more independent from Pakistan. Don’t forget that they are not simply Pakistan’s puppets and might be interested in more room to manoeuvre. It might help to get the stalled process of exploratory talks with them back on track again. Setting up such an office is also useful because it can facilitate third-party mediation. (Read what the head of the AAN Advisory Board says on the role of third party mediation here.) Last but not least, it would be a signal that the Taleban are not completely against negotiations, as recently has been claimed by US and Afghan politicians, as well as many western media after the Rabbani assassination.
Furthermore, it would open a way to explore a set of questions that are important for possible future negotiations like: What do the Taleban really want? Has Mulla Omar’s Eid message, with its hints at the Taleban’s readiness to accept some form of political pluralism, been read correctly? Is this a sign that they are shifting their positions in a direction that is more acceptable for both the international community and for Afghans? What are they willing to do to implement the regulations of their rule book, the layha, in terms of protecting all civilians and on other law and rights issues? One even could ask them about their stance on education in general and on girls’ school in particular, an issue we cover in our latest report.
On the other hand, opening a Taleban office in a third country, would bring up the same problems as no-fire zones in Afghanistan. Simply going to Qatar without Rawalpindi’s consent would be political suicide for the Taleban, too. A break with Pakistan would cost them their lifeline. So, can it be assumed that Pakistan has been consulted and agreed on this, or has it been bypassed, too?
The situation remains ambiguous also beyond the Pakistani issue, and there is a number of other open questions. Will a possible Pakistani involvement bode well for peace in Afghanistan or rather be a step towards a Pakistani dominance loathed by most Afghans? Why is an office in Qatar suddenly not acceptable for Kabul – while one in Saudi Arabia or Turkey is, as Karzai and his Jihadi leader council suggested? Does this have to do with the not very smooth Saudi-Qatari relations? (In his speech at the recent Bonn conference, Karzai again requested the Saudi King to play a role: ‘I would like to reiterate our eager desire for Khadem-e- Haramain Sharifain, His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to continue to guide and support the Afghan peace effort.’)
Will the Qatar office be an instrument to get the US and its allies the quick fix between the Taleban, Karzai and Pakistan they need, so that they can cut their costs and exit? Or will they help to embed it in a broader process that really deserves the name of a ‘peace process’ or even ‘reconciliation’? And what does it mean that the office initiative has been leaked in India? Is this a reflection of Indian concern about a strengthened role of Pakistan in this affair? These are questions that need to be answered before it can be judged whether opening a Taleban office in Qatar is a good thing or not.
* The Taleban have not confirmed the report. A spokesman was quoted as saying that: ‘We are waiting on our officials to comment, so we cannot confirm or deny [the] idea of a Qatar office’. There are also already speculations who could be running the office: Amongst the names mentioned is the former Taleban ambassador tot he UAE, Jan Muhammad Madani, and ex-Taleb Mulla Muhammad Zaeef – who denied any knowledge about an office deal. In contrast, his former colleague and acting HPC chairman Abdul Hakim Mujahed claimed knowledge about the talks.
** Deb Riechmann, ‘Karzai: Taliban can’t move finger without Pakistan’, AP, 7 October 2011.
*** Some reports are here: Qaiser Butt, ‘Kharotabad: A Taliban safe haven’,
Express Tribune, 17 October 2011; Matt Waldman, Dangerous Liaisons with the Afghan Taliban: The Feasibility and Risks of Negotiations, USIP Special Report 256, October 2010; David Rohde, ‘Inside the Islamic Emirate’, New York Times, 19 October 2009; Ron Moreau/Mark Hosenball, ‘Pakistan’s Dangerous Double Game’, Newsweek, 22 September 2008; Ilyas Khan, Pakistan’s Afghan policy in post-Taliban period, paper presented at the seminar ‘Future Trends of Afghanistan’, organised by the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), Beijing, November 2002, manuscript with the author.
Photo: AAN office, Doha (only kidding)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020