On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the US have ‘speeded up’ direct talks with the Taleban. According to this report, such talks have been ‘initiated several months ago’ and that ‘at least three meetings in Qatar and Germany, one as recently as “eight or nine days ago,” with a Taliban official considered close to [Mulla] Mohammad Omar’ have taken place. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig tries to answer the question whether this new report constitutes the beginning of just another wave of talking up talks for the sake of the West’s enteqal (transition), or whether something is moving finally.
Interestingly, the WP quotes a ‘senior Afghan official’ as its source while US officials refused to comment. The Afghan official might be the same one who’s similar story had been printed by a Kabul-based newspaper, Weesa, on 20 March. Then, he also had a name: Tayyeb Agha.
‘A reliable source has told Weesa that America and the Taleban have recently held secret talks twice. The Taleban took part in these talks in Qatar and Germany under the leadership of Taib Agha, Mullah Omar’s spokesman. The delegations of the Taleban and the US held talks for the first time in Spin Boldak six months ago. Then Weesa published a report on this.
Also, western media published reports on talks between the two sides some time ago and then too Weesa, quoting a reliable source, published a report on the talks. The permanent American military bases are a key point in these talks. According to reliable sources, the Taleban have not yet accepted them.’
(quoted from BBC Monitoring)
Tayyeb Agha is a very close confidant of Mulla Omar, both during the Taleban regime when he was Mulla Omar’s ‘head of office’ in Kandahar, and now. (Weesa calls him Mulla Omar’s ‘spokesman’.) For a while, Tayyeb Agha also had worked at the Taleban embassy in Islamabad which might have acquainted him not only with the ISI but also with knowledgable Western diplomats. He was mentioned amongst those Taleban who had been arrested, ‘picked up’ or ‘invited to tea’ by the ISI together with Mulla Baradar early last year, as an apparent warning not to go the avenue of talks without the Pakistani.(*)
Does the new Washington Post report constitute the beginning of just another wave of talking up talks for the sake of the West’s enteqal (transition), or is really something moving finally?
Let’s be optimistic for a moment: It is undoubted that a number of international and Afghan actors have sought to open channels with the Taleban, sometimes in what looked like a competition of who would catch the biggest fish. Enteqal has added further drive to this quest; progress is needed, and real progress is always better than progress just made up. And there has been the debate between ‘splittists’ (those who wanted to break away Taleban groups and make separate deals with them, basically the ‘reintegration’ approach) and the ‘centralists’ – those who have argued, like this author, that it makes more sense to talk to the Quetta shura directly because the Taleban are still maintaining a remarkable degree command-and-control in their movement and have avoided significant splits, a remarkable difference to all other Afghan political groups.
First, it looks as if the ‘centralist’ have scored a point – if Tayyeb Agha, or someone with similar links to Mulla Omar and the Taleban Leadership Council (vulgo: the Quetta Shura), is really involved in the current contacts – and that the right ‘address’ for this approach might finally have been found. (Which should not have been too difficult, given the ISI’s knowledge about their protegees.) Secondly, it looks as if the Germans have the big fish at the line. Maybe, the German Afghan myth spread by the Nazis when active in Afghanistan in the 1930s (that Germans and Afghans are of the same ‘Aryan blood’, which has embarrassed many a German, including this author, but made German-Afghan relations much easier than the average Western-Afghan one) has finally contributed something worthwhile. Finally, and more importantly: If the Taleban are ready to fathom whether a political solution is possible, it signifies that this tendency of ‘moderate’ Taleban – we have called them ‘politically thinking’ – that has been silenced as a result of the US military surge (dissidents are not much liked in times of war) has reappeared again.
A door might have opened, not more but also not less – and of course this doesn’t mean that now successful negotiations are unavoidable. Let’s not forget that talks are not negotiations yet.
For Obama and Chancellor Merkel – who must be aware of such developments – this will deliver what they are interested in for their domestic political agendas: the US President will be able to announce how the troop reduction to be started in July – an election promise – can start; the Germans will be able to present progress at their conference in December and return as a key actor to the international Afghanistan circuit from which they had been pushed – in the eyes of some of their allies – by their caveats against fighting the Taleban and after their non-success stories of police reform and EUPOL leadership.
Now let’s see whether the other side of the coin also is figured into this equation, the one that these contacts or talks needs to serve the Afghans, too: They do not need a Karzai-Taleban deal that opens the exit door for foreign troops, they need and end of the bloodshed that will also physically reopen spaces for economic and political(!) activities, a debate about where their country is going. A deal which does not address main causes of the conflict (namely the monopoly over power of resources concentrated in the hands of a small elite, then possibly with some additional Taleban players) will not bring peace. Therefore, the ‘political process’ (the euphemism for talking to the Taleban in the programme of the Bonn conference) needs to involve a representative cross-section of Afghan society, including former anti-Taleban mujahedin, the ethnic minorities that have suffered most under the Taleban yoke and what usually is called civil society, including the women constituency, another main victim of past Taleban rule. They need to hammer out a much broader political compromise that will guarantee, finally, the political stabilisation of Afghanistan where everyone has to concede something but finally everyone gains.
Here is one of the main open questions: Are the Taleban able and willing to accept plurality? Are recent indications like a more open attitude on educational and health matters and on NGO activities signs that they can make further headway here or just some superficial niceties that don’t mean much? The current channel is a means to find out, whereas the real proof of the pudding will not be what the Taleban leaders say (or communicate through their envoy(s)) but how the Taleban behave in real Afghanistan.
And another question is how much room for manoeuvre people like Tayyeb Agha have, under the control of the ISI and with their families living in Pakistan. An office in Turkey or, more likely as of late, in Qatar will not liberate them from Pakistani influence.
If those who are talking to the Taleban, and particularly the Germans as hosts of the December conference, understand that they cannot hope for more than a Taleban statement of general support for an (open) political process, i.e. that it cannot be expected that an agreement is already signed and sealed in Bonn – and they seem to understand this –, they also must understand that they need to use the time which is still available to meaningfully include those Afghan forces who still are concerned about possible Taleban talks.
Although we do not want to overrate the Bonn conference (as with all the past conferences, the decisions of which have widely been forgotten or not implemented), it can become a symbolic step forward of participation and inclusion. This depends on how much weight the different political and civil society groups will be given there: another ten minutes statement like in London or Paris but no place at the table? A civil society conference in Kabul which would spare the conference organisers to deal with Afghan civil society in Bonn and keep it in a distance? Or – even worse – giving them a briefing about what was decided in Bonn when the conference is over? Or, as needed, meaningful representation and a voice at the big table?
Karzai’s agreement to include his political opponents and civil society will not be an easy thing to achieve, and even if he agrees, a practical way has to be found to broaden this conference’s scope beyond the foreign minister-level (i.e. governments only) which it has been declared prematurely.
The best way would have been to organize two back-to-back conferences, with the different Afghan actors coming together at a round table separately first, and then them joining the internationals as one Afghan delegation on the basis of an agreed united concept. The ‘Afghan’ conference’s last day and the international conference’s first day would overlap.
It might be too late for this already, but if the different ‘civil society events leading up to the conference’ (Amb. Steiner, the German special AfPak envoy, recently at a panel in Berlin) planned by the German government and different civil society actors (German foundations; the German developmental NGO umbrella VENRO; Italian Afgana NGO and the European NGO Network for Afghanistan, ENNA…) are brought together and close to the governmental conference, then the same effect could still be achieved.
(*) Tayyeb Agha is a young educated son of Mawlawi Abdullah Zakeri, chairman of the Afghan Ulema Council in Peshawer established pre-Taleban who visited Kabul during the 1990s, advised the mujahedin leadership and Rabbani and later the Taleban.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020