Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Guest Blog: ‘What are the Taleban supposed to do if they won?’

Sven Hansen 7 min

Berlin daily die tageszeitung (taz) met former Taleban ambassador Mulla Abdul Salam Za‘if and Muhammad Massum Stanakzai, head of the APRP secretariat, together and asked them about negotiations, red lines, preconditions and Afghanistan’s future. It was ‘as if the war already was over’, as taz interviewer Sven Hansen* remarked.

taz: Mr Stanekzai and Mullah Za‘if, why are talks the only solution for the Afghanistan conflict?

Stanakzai: We need to overcome the legacy of thirty years of conflict, disunity and suffering. To include all sides in such a process and come together in a peaceful life is only possible by talks, regardless of who is in government and who in the resistance.
Za‘if: None of the sides can win the war or keep on fighting for ever. Nevertheless, the war will continue for a while although the suffering has already been continuing for so long. But political talks are the only way to solve the problem of the war.

The Taleban can’t win, too?
Za‘if: What are the Taleban supposed to do when they win? Afghanistan is part of the world and needs good relations with it. This needs to be organised politically, and this should be started rather today than tomorrow.

Many people would prefer to see the Taleban leaders in court rather to negotiate with them.
 Afghanistan doesn’t work like this. It is important to have peace first. To try some people and others not will not bring about peace. This division into good and bad is propaganda of the ongoing war.
Stanakzai: During the conflict, there wre victims and perpetrators on all sides. Therefore, one cannot point the finger at one group only. The crimes must be recognised, but also forgiven, otherwise there can’t be peace. The circle of violence can only be stopped this way. Then, reconciliation can follow. And in this, we cannot exclude anyone, both in the political as well as in the subsequent economic and social development.

How will you, then, prevent impunity and a repetition of such crimes?
Stanakzai: As long as the war is not stopped, impunity cannot be prevented, too. War also undermines the establishment of the rule of law, of security and justice. To decrease violence and suffering needs to be the first step. After that, we need to implement a common vision of all Afghans. In that, forgiveness and reconciliation is the only way to stability.

Does Osama bin Laden‘s death increase the chances for talks?
Za‘if: No. Osama‘s name was misused only. He was a powerless and helpless person who had nothing to do with the conflict in Afghanistan. If the Americans and Europeans want to use this for talks, they can do so. But it does not play any role for the other side because they are Afghans and not al-Qaeda and they fight in Afghanistan.
Stanakzai: Al-Qaeda has a global agenda which is different from the Taleban’s national agenda. Therefore, the UN Security Council has divided the sanctions list now. Bin Laden‘s death makes it possible for Pakistan now to overcome a policy of negation because Islamabad has always said that he is not in the country. But his death has no impact on Afghanistan, also not on talks because that is a completely separate process. Prasident Karzai has announced a policy of reconciliation long before which also had been decided by the international community at the Afghanistan conference in London.

Mullah Zaeef, Western diplomats who want to talk with the Taleban now often ask for your advice. What do you tell them?
 First, the Taleban leaders must be taken off the black list, secondly the Taleban need a recognised and protected address through which they can be contacted and to which also their leaders can come, without the risk of being arrested or killed. As long as there is a bounty on their heads, they cannot trust the process of talks. Thirdly, the Taleban should not be verbally condemned because they are a political, not a criminal movement. The 6-7,000 imprisoned Taleban in the numerous Afghan and American prisons, from Bagram to Guantánamo, must be treated better. Prisoners from Guantánamo must be brought to Afghanistan or released. When all these confidence-building measures are implemented, the Taleban will see that the talks are serious.

Mr Stanekzai, what do you think about these recommendations, and which are yours?
 My advice, first, is that not every country follows its own policy of talks but that the international community acts jointly and supports the Afghans in this process. Otherwise, each country sends out its own signals and this will only create confusion. My second advice when it comes to confidence-building measures is the establishment of a Taleban office, preferably in Afghanistan but, if necessary, also abroad – a number of countries are ready to do this. This needs guarantees for safe travels. On this, we fully agree. We also should use a reconciliatory tone and leave the language of war behind. In the High Peace Council we have established a commtitee that deals with prisoner issues in order to really create room for confidence. All countries should support this.

You agree with Mulla Za‘if too a high degree?
 Yes, we have agreed on many things and achieved some progress.

But why should the Taleban seriously talk when the international combat forces will be withdrawn by the end of 2014 anyway? The Taleban can easily wait this out.
 There is a proverb in Pashto that says that if you can open something with your hands, why use your teeth: If the international community really wants to talk to the Taleban, they will always be ready to do so. We are a part of the world, and we are in connection with it, that’s important. For us, the qustion is whether the international community is ready to talk.
Stanakzai: Talks need to take place because all Afghans are tired of war. All sides are responsible to end the war. Secondly, 2014 will not be a date when everything will completely change. It rather represents the chance to stop the killing when everybody is ready to talk. And there is increasing pressure both inside Afghanistan as abroad to find a political solution. To think that if the US troops leave in 2014 the Taleban will win is rong. There simply will be no military winner.

There already have been talks but the Taleban deny that they participated, despite claiming that they are ready to talk, as you say, Mulla Zaeef. Why?
Za‘if: The situation is not ready yet. Participants have disappeared after that. There are security problems. When the Americans provide guarantees, the Taleban can confirm talks.
Stanakzai: There are different stages of talks. We are still in the phase of establishing contacts and building trust that’s why we cannot go public. The time is not ripe for this yet. For escurity reasons, the Taleban need to be very careful.

There are talks by Kabul and Washington with the Taleban. Why not jointly?
 That has to do with building trust. Many have doubts whether the US really back talks. Up to now, these are no peace talks but only first contacts to build trust. The aim is talks of the Afghan parties in the conflict with the support of the international community, otherwise they will lead to nothing.
Za‘if: There are two kinds of problems: national and international ones. The first ones need to be solved by Afghans themselves, without external intervention. But first of all, the international problems must be solve, namely why the Americans and other foreigners are in our country in the first place. That is the cause of the problem, and without solving this the national problems cannot be solved.

The Taleban demand a withdrawal of all foreign troops before any talks.
 This is the aim, not a precondition. No Afghan wants that foreign forces stay in the country. If the Taleban achieve the withdrawal of foreign troops by talks, that is better than by war.
Stanakzai: The aim is peace and stability in Afghanistan. If the foreign troops withdraw before, our experience with the Soviet withdrawal will be repeated: Peace did not come. Now there is a timetable for withdrawal that starts this month. That shows that neither the international community nor the Afghans want to see the country under foreign rule. Afghanistan will gain its full souvereignty, in close partnership with the rest of the world. That’s what it is about. The demand of the Taleban is negotiable. But first we must build trust and come to serious talks.

The international community talks about three ‚red lines‘ for negotiations with the Taleban: an end to the cooperation with al-Qaeda, renouncing violence and recognition of the constitutional framework.
Stanakzai: Both sides have reached a point now where demands are no preconditions anymore but issues to be taken into account. Negotiations are a process. The conditions in Afghanistan cannot be compared with those in Western countries, our culture and our traditions must be considered. But this doesn’t mean that we undermine the rights on women, children or minorities.

Are women’s rights negotiable?
Stanakzai: This is one of the questions that Afghans need to solve themsleves within the constitutional framework. This cannot be decided in a deal by the government and the Taleban. Here we need to include the nation and respect this. In everything we do, we must stick to the legal and constitutional way. Only this way, there can be progress. The women and civil society are very active on this.
Za‘if: ‘Red lines‘ exist in every society, but in negotiations there should be no preconditions. This undermines the building of trust. The Afghans need to decide as one nation what kind of country and which future they want.

Why should women, who suffered a lot under the Taleban regime, now trust them?
 They should remember the time before the Taleban took power. There was no security for women, no education and no dignity. The Taleban brought security and dignity. Education was no Taleban problem, but a result of economic problems. The Taleban were also unable to provide education for men. The whole annual budget was only US$ 80 million. That was nothing. We asked the international community for support, but they wanted to interfere all the time what we did not allow. We wanted an education system that fitted with the Afghans, not with the foreigners. But they had no interest to help.

Mr Stanekzai, do you see the past in the same way?
 Then, it was a mixture of circumstances, Taleban politics and the ressources available. The Taleban regime was really very isolated.

(*) The interview was done at the margins of the 59th Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs: European Contributions to Nuclear Disarmament in Berlin in early July that took part in the German Foreign Office which organised the event in cooperation with the Federation of German Scientist.

Working translation: Thomas Ruttig, with the kind permission of the author.

Read the German original here or in taz, 8 July 2011.


APRP Taleban