Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Back to Qatar? Talks about talks, again

Thomas Ruttig 15 min

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. AAN’s 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 Omar’s latest Eid message has made the Taleban’s 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 ‘shaky, erratic and vague’ 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 subject here). In fact, it seemed both of the two sides, while ‘talking prisoners’, 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 ‘events.

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. He repeated one of his usual offers to the Taleban to come and talk:

‘Mullah 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.’

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. Pakistan’s government responded relatively quickly with indications that it would help facilitate contacts with the Taleban. According to Pakistani media, ‘efforts to convince the Taliban for talks with the Kabul government have been expedited’ at the conference; these would allow Afghan officials to confer with Mulla Baradar, Mulla Muhammad Omar’s former deputy. Baradar, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2010, is still in custody there. When it was announced that a delegation of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) led by its chairman Salahuddin Rabbani would soon travel to Pakistan, speculations were aired that he would conduct the meeting with Baradar and that both countries might even negotiate Baradar’s release.(1) The former was publicly confirmed by the HPC deputy chairman Attaullah Ludin.

German magazine Spiegel reported on 23 July that, while in Tokyo, Karzai had also requested Germany’s help to reopen a channel with the Taleban. Germany had done this 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 – that mainly dealt with Syria – Karzai also asked for Saudi Arabia’s and this organisation’s support.

More recently, though, at least on three occasions, Karzai was talking ‘harsh’ 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 of the recent bombings 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 a statement 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 – the first time something like this had happened publicly – as a member of the ‘Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (their body for talks) and therefore as a member of the movement’s current leadership. He presented their position on a number of issues, including the ‘Stance of the Islamic Emirate Regarding Reconciliation’:

‘The 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. […] It is to be said that [the] Islamic Emirate is still committed to the peaceful solution of the imbroglio in Afghanistan.’

Even a few days earlier, almost all Afghan factions had attended a meeting organised by a think-tank in Paris. According to 8 Sobh daily (26 June), this included leaders of the political opposition (Qanuni, Mohaqqeq, Zia Massud, Ulumi), the deputy leader of the insurgent wing of Hezb-e Islami, Ghairat Bahir, some ‘reconciled’ Taleban like their ambassadors Abdul Salam Za’if 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 Karzai’s 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, AP reported that the US was ‘considering’ a new approach, or even ‘proposal’ 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 ‘is effectively under US control for now [but] scheduled for transfer to full Afghan control in September.’ There are 17 Afghan Taleban prisoners remaining in Guantanamo(2) including the five high-ranking ones 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 Karzai made it clear he wants jurisdiction over all Afghan Taleban prisoners.

The AP report also mentioned that Qatar had ‘recently’ sent a letter to the US to rekindle the talks.

Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed replied to the US ‘thoughts’ that simply shifting the prisoners to a detention facility in Afghanistan was not good enough: ‘Our demand is the release of prisoners and we have expressed our readiness for an exchange of prisoners.’ He also hinted at the originally discussed exchange: putting the Guantanamo 5 under Qatari control in exchange for Bergdahl (and possibly some other US hostages abducted in Pakistan).

In August, Reuters reported new details, that the ‘revised proposal’:

‘…would 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[…]. 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.’

The events so far led the outgoing US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker to say that ‘[p]olitics is [sic] breaking out all over’.

Event 4: Motassem emerges
Crocker also said that ‘moderate Taleban’ were ‘sending out feelers’ and had declared ‘interest’ in a renewed ‘peace process’. 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. According to The Hindu – which for several months, now has always been very well informed about details of these developments (here it cites ‘intelligence sources in Kabul’) – 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 treatment following an assassination attempt on him in Karachi by what are thought to be ‘anti-talks’ elements, either in the Taleban or among their Pakistani backers. In two exclusive interviews (with the AP on 14 May and the BBC Persian Service, quoted here on ToloNews) Motassem said, echoing Qari Din Muhammad’s statement in Kyoto in June:

‘…the majority of the Taliban and the Taliban leadership want a broad-based government for all Afghan people and an Islamic system like other Islamic countries…’ and ‘peace 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 BBC’s Persian service, Motassem appealed to ‘all sides’ to ‘stop fighting and solve all their differences through dialogue and negotiations.’ He hailed his de-listing by the UN, adding that extending ‘such 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]’ (here the audio in Pashto; here the text in Pashto and here the text in Dari; some quotes in English are here and 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, the New Statesman published an interview by Harvard University’s 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 Taleban’s 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 ‘would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taliban to win this war’ and that ‘the Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect’. He also said that if ‘they [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 Afghanistan’. The commander also said that most in his movement saw al-Qaeda as a ‘plague’ who have destroyed the Taleban Emirate (extracts from the interview here).

In August, the Sunday Times said 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 ‘in the light of the Taleban constitution’ 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. The Times 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 ‘elections’ but rather consultations, or reaching agreements with other (Islamic) factions.

Event 6: Taleban ‘justice’ – a not unimportant sideshow
In two cases the Taleban appear to be trying to show their ‘real’ 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 the execution of a woman accused of adultery in Parwan by a group of Taleban that sparked deserved outrage. In July, Taleban reportedly publically lashed two men in Charkh district, Logar province who had been accused of an attempt to kidnap ‘the son of a rich man’. In August, it was reported 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: ‘Militant group cashes in on corruption and rich donors’, CNN, 3 August; ‘New Boldness From Militants Poses Risk to US-Pakistan Ties’, New York Times, 30 July). Already in mid-July, the US State Department had stated that ‘[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 Pakistan’. 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 the Heritage Foundation  support the listing, Tom Gregg, Director of the Afghanistan regional project at Center on International Cooperation in New York, says that, ‘the latest push comes at a particularly inopportune time for the administration, as it hopes for a Qatari-brokered prisoner exchange’ including Private Bowe Bergdahl who is being held captive by the Haqqanis and whose ‘safe return will require the Haqqanis’ cooperation’. Furthermore, ‘to designate the Haqqanis a FTO would derail State Department attempts to resume preliminary talks with key Taliban interlocutors’ who claim ‘that the Haqqani Network recognizes Mullah Omar as the head of their movement’.

During the summer, but particularly in August, there were a whole series of setbacks to these events which – at least in the media – had looked like quite hopeful. In June, already, Karzai’s remark in Tokyo that he was calling for talks only with those Afghans ‘who aren’t the puppets of others’ had angered the Taleban who themselves consider Karzai a puppet. Consequently, they rejected Karzai’s statement as ‘false and irresponsible’ on the same day, adding that ‘the Emirate’s delegation attended the [Kyoto] conference but there were no negotiations or agreement between us and a delegation from the government.’

Then, HPC chairman Rabbani’s planned trip to Pakistan was ‘delayed’, 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 the downfall of two key Afghan ministers.)

The Taleban denounced Motassem, although with considerable delay. In mid-August, their Voice of Jihad website published a statement:

‘Agha 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.’ (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 ‘no’ to a resumption of talks. In his latest Eid message, however (quoted from a pro-Taleban website – the Taleban’s own Shahamat 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:

‘The 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.’

The Mulla Baradar farce
In August, reports came up that an Afghan official had actually already met Baradar two months previously . This was confirmed by the chair of the Afghan National Security Council, Rangin Dadfar Spanta: ‘We have met Mullah Baradar. Our delegation has spoken to him to know his view on peace talks.’

It was also confirmed by Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik:

‘They had access at the required and appropriate level.’

But this was all denied one day later by the Afghan Ambassador in Pakistan, the presidential spokesman in Kabul and by a spokesman of Pakistan’s 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 ‘events’ 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 ‘the agencies’ 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 ‘round one’. 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 ‘Haqqani network’ exists (see Mulla Omar’s Eid statement emphasising their ‘single flag and command in all areas, extending from Badakhshan to Helmand, and from Nangarhar to Herat’, including the Haqqanis’ 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 ‘terrorist’ for them, and they see de-listing as a major confidence-building measure. So they will have another argument: ‘you still do not respect us’.

More importantly, the Taleban are aware that there will still be foreign troops after 2014, particularly western Special Forces with the mandate to continue fighting them, preventing an easy take-over of Kabul and keeping in power whoever becomes Karzai’s successor.

In general, the Taleban have made their position rather clear. They do not rule out dealing with the Kabul government (or let’s say the ‘Karzai camp’) at some point, see the ‘all-Afghan’ remark in Mulla Omar’s Eid message. This might be a shift of position, or just a sweetener for Kabul. Surely they realise that the ‘Karzai camp’ has become a political force to reckon with, with its economic strength, its fire power and its hold over the country-wide administrative system – and particularly in the current existing ‘coalition’ 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 Taleban’s actions over the past months – from the Kargha hotel attack in June to the killing of 17 civilians 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 Omar’s Eid message. The Taleban’s vision of what a post-withdrawal Afghanistan would look like has never been made as clear as in this statement. The abandoned ‘first round’ of talks with the US were just about ‘specific matters [namely] to initiate exchange of prisoners [and] open [a] political office’ but they ‘had not meant submission or abandoning our goals. Rather the step had been taken [to] reach our goals’, 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 – maybe (see above) in a somewhat more ‘pluralistic’ 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:

‘The 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 corruption’.

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 ‘slots’) 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 ‘talks front’ has now developed its own, realistic – and very slow – 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 ‘Karzai camp’ 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. Karzai’s ‘harsher’ 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 – and finally unsustainable – ‘solution’ 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 byReuters’ Matthew Green here. There are still a lot of ‘ifs’, though.

(2) President Karzai wants full Afghan control over them (read here).

(3) The Taleban have not been declared a ‘terrorist organisation’ 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 the latest drone attack that killed one of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s 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 to Hasht-e Sobh 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 ‘any reasonable price’ to the Taleban in order to achieve that (source: AAN media monitoring).



Government Taleban Thomas Ruttig