The initial big wave of reports about talks with the Taleban gathering speed and of a possible short-term ‘reconciliation’ have given way for a slower but steady trickle of spicy detail. A detail dropped here, some names there, mixed with half-denials like Richard Holbrooke’s ‘There is less than meets the eye’ line keep the shurwa(*) boiling. The focus seems to be on the Haqqani network for the moment. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig looks back at how the ‘talk about talks’ developed, what the prospects are and who is flying which ‘airline’ to the talks.
In late September, General David H. Petraeus’ remark that ‘[t]here are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and, indeed, have done that’ struck like a bomb (Alissa J. Rubin, ‘Petraeus Says Taliban Have Reached Out to Karzai’, New York Times 28. September 2010, read this article here).
On 6 October, AP’s Kathy Gannon reported that ‘several Pakistanis and Afghans insist that CIA officials have held clandestine meetings with top Taliban leaders, some at the level of the Taliban’s shadow Cabinet ministers. At least two rounds of meetings were held in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, according to a former Taliban member who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for his own safety. He said the talks were held in the area between the towns of Peshawar and Mardan and included Qudratullah Jamal, the former Taliban information minister.’ The report did not say when these talks had happened. (‘Taliban set preconditions for formal peace talks’, AP 6 October 2010, see it here).
A day later, the British Independent revealed referring to ‘diplomatic sources’ that ‘[s]ecret high-level negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership aimed at ending the war have begun […]. Meetings which included delegates of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s Pakistan-based governing body which is overseen by Mullah Mohammed Omar, are believed to have taken place in Dubai. […]. Talks have also taken place in Kabul with “indirect representatives” of the insurgency.’ (Kim Sengupta and Julius Cavendish, ‘Taliban’s high command in secret talks to end war in Afghanistan’,full article here).
On 10 October, the New York Times quoted an Afghan official ‘with knowledge of the talks’ that ‘[i]n at least one case, Taliban leaders crossed the border and boarded a NATO aircraft bound for Kabul […]. In other cases, NATO troops have secured roads to allow Taliban officials to reach Afghan- and NATO-controlled areas so they can take part in discussions. Most of the discussions have taken place outside of Kabul’ (Dexter Filkins, ‘Taliban Elite, Aided by NATO, Join Talks for Afghan Peace’, 19 October 2010, read article here). On 13 October, a NATO official confirmed that ‘personnel from NATO nations in Afghanistan “have indeed facilitated to various degrees the contacts” by allowing Taliban leaders to travel to the Afghan capital’ (Thom Shanker, David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, ‘U.S. Aids Taliban to Attend Talks on Making Peace’, New York Times, see this one here).
One day earlier, the Independent reported it had ‘learned that there are six sets of negotiations, some more viable then others, taking place with the aim of arriving at a cease-fire and paving the way for Western forces to pull out of the conflict’ (‘Nato launches major offensive to clear Taliban heartland’, read full piece here).
The latest scoop came from Kathy Gannon again. Yesterday, she reported that ‘[t]hree Taliban figures met secretly with Afghanistan’s president two weeks ago’. According to a ‘former Afghan official’ who was cited as the source for the report, the group included ‘Maulvi Abdul Kabir […] from the same Zadran tribe as the leaders of the Haqqani network, an autonomous wing of the Taliban [who had] served as governor of Nangarhar province and deputy prime minister during the Taliban rule’. The two other were ‘Mullah Sadre Azam and Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahed’ the latter ‘credited with helping Osama bin Laden escape the U.S. assault on Tora Bora in 2001. […] The men were brought by helicopter from Peshawar and spent two nights in a luxury Kabul hotel before returning to Pakistan.’
According to her report, these talks are ‘an effort by the Afghan government to weaken the U.S.-led coalition’s most vicious enemy, a powerful al-Qaida linked network that straddles the border region with Pakistan’ – the Haqqani network. ‘U.S. and Afghan officials hope that if Kabir agrees to quit the insurgency, it could split the Zadran tribe and undercut the pool of recruits from which the Haqqani [network] currently draw[s] fighters [and] help shift the power balance in eastern provinces(**) where the network poses a major threat.’
Kabir and Sedrazam are indeed Dzadran (I prefer the exact transliteration from Pashto). Kabir is from Nika district (Paktika), and he was more than just the ‘deputy prime minister’. After ‘real prime minister’ Mulla Muhammad Rabbani’s death in a Rawalpindi hospital in April 2001, he took over his position in an ‘interim’ status – at the head of what the Taleban called their Interim Council (Muwaqati Shura) and later Council of Ministers (De Wuzara Shura). This was the Taleban ‘cabinet’ based in Kabul, while the real leadership remained in Kandahar, far from the ‘Babel’ of Kabul as Mulla Omar saw the capital after two short visits there. At the same time, Kabir remained responsible for economic affairs in the Taleban government.
During all of Kabir’s career, Sedrazam – which literally means ‘prime minister’ (he never made it, though) – apparently remained his deputy. But he was not prominent enough to make it to the UN sanctions list based on resolution 1267.
Anwar ul-Haq Mujahed, however, is definitely not a Dzadran. He is the son of the deceased Maulawi Yunes Khales, leader of Hezb-e islami (Khales), one of the seven major Sunni and Pakistan-based mujahedin ‘parties’ in the 1980s. This party has split, meanwhile, into two wings: One, the Jabbarkhel-Ahmadzai faction, is now allied with Karzai; originally led by Haji Abdul Qadir, killed as a minister in Kabul in July 2002, it is now headed by Haji Din Muhammad, its senior family member and by Haji Qadir’s son Haji Zaher Qadir who is apparently successfully running for the Wolesi jirga. The other one, Khales’ Khugiani wing, is opposing the Karzai government but some analysts have insisted it is more because of its exclusion from the administration – similar to what happened in Southern Afghanistan – than for ideological reasons.
Anwar ul-Haq Mujahed a.k.a. as ‘khalifa’, the son, established the so-called Tora Bora Military Front in early 2007 as an insurgent outfit operating in the Southern Nangrahar home area of the Khugiani tribe which includes the notorious ‘Black Sawdust’ (or ‘Powdered Sugar’) Mountains. But it possibly drifted closer to the insurgency as early as 2004.
Interesting enough, Anwar was rumoured to have been taken out of circulation recently by the Pakistani – for exactly what he is doing now: opening a separate channel with Kabul. To bring Anwar ul-Haq Mujahed in connection with the Haqqani network makes no sense, of course.
Also Maulawi Kabir’s influence on it might be limited. After all, he has never really operated in the Southeast and therefore in the Dzadran areas. While he was reported for a while as trying to establish parallel ‘Quetta Shura’ Taleban structures in Loya Paktia around the middle of this decade (and Sedrazam was with him), this either failed or was stopped by Quetta in October 2007 in order to not upset the Haqqanis who are valuable, although not completely trusted allies. (After all, Haqqani Senior’s jihad history is much longer and more impressive than Mulla Omar’s and he was kept at arm’s length from Kandahar as minister for border affairs in the Kabul-based Interim Shura during the Taleban regime.) Reportedly, Kabir was tasked to lead its regional ‘Peshawar shura’ for eastern Afghanistan then.
As importantly, we had reported earlier this year that Kabir was not exactly difficult to find. He has not been the most active at the Afghan front but led a life of relative luxury – with ‘a beautiful house close to the Pakistani town of Nowshera in the North West Frontier Province [now renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] and placidly driving around in a posh SUV with a diplomatic number plate’ (see: Willi Germund’s 2 March 2010 AAN guest blog ‘Finding Kabir’, the link here). He had been arrested earlier by the Pakistani authorities – and probably would still be easy to deliver to Kabul. The same might be true for Mr. Sedrazam who most probably was still with him.
By the way, the report wave about ‘talks’ had also started with a reference to the Haqqani network. On 27 June this year, al-Jazeera reported that Afghan President Karzai ‘has met Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of a major anti-government faction, in face-to-face talks’ and ‘that Haqqani junior ‘is reported to have been accompanied to the meeting earlier in the week by Pakistan’s army chief and the head of its intelligence services’ (Zeina Khodr, ‘Karzai “holds talks” with Haqqani’, al-Jazeera, 27 June 2010).
Michael Semple, contacted by the Qatar-based station for comment on the same day, hung the story a bit lower – but might have been closer to the truth: ‘Afghans that I talk to… passed along stories of shuttle diplomacy between Ibrahim Haqqani [the brother of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network] and Karzai’s government. They claimed Haqqani would travel between Islamabad, Kabul, and Miranshah.’ By the way, Ibrahim Haqqani’s correct name is Ibrahim Omari. And maybe, he did not travel himself.
If he or someone on his behalf was indeed travelling, it would be an irony of history. Omari had surrendered to the Afghan authorities after Operation Anaconda in the mountains of Shahikot, the southern part of Zurmat district in Paktia province, in early 2002. Then, US special forces had flushed out fighters of the Haqqani and the Mansur networks from this traditional Haqqani stronghold. After that, Omari was kept first in Logar in the Afghan army’s headquarters for the Southeast by General Gul Haidar, a confidant of then Defense Minister (and not yet Marshal) Muhammad Qasem Fahim, and later in a government-run guesthouse in Kabul.
As it was the rule in those days, nothing much was made of this chance. There was Washington’s line about ‘no talks with terrorists’, no ‘reconciliation’, just cleaning up ‘the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida’. Some years later, Omari was somehow gone, back to Pakistan.
The al-Jazeera report came in an interesting time, though. Since quite a while, the Haqqani network has been in a transition period, from the senior mujahed Jalaluddin Haqqani to hiss on Serajuddin who was too young fight the anti-Soviet jihad and received a Wahhabi religious education in Saudi Arabia during this time. That has weakened his grounding in the Dzadran tribe – at least compared with his father. As one result, he has started to kill rival leaders in his tribe, a development unthinkable of under his father.
By the way, this is only one example for a younger, more radical generation of Taleban commanders taking over the movement. Should this radicalisation continue and those Young Turks take over key positions in the movement, we probably can soon talk ‘Neo-Taleban‘ with more reason than even before.
In the meantime, a few questions remain: Is Ibrahim Omari ‘talking’ on behalf of Haqqani the Elder or Haqqani Junior? If he did (or does) on Haqqani Junior’s behalf, did or does he also talk on behalf of the Taleban leadership? After all, Sreajuddin Haqqani had stated in an interview this June that:
‘[t]he Haqqani Group or the Haqqani Network Group is not an official name or a name we chose. This name is used by the enemies in order to divide the Mujahideen. We are under the highly capable Emirate of the Amir of the Faithful Mullah Umar, may Allah protect him, and we wage Jihad in the path of Allah. The name of Islamic Emirate is the official name for us and all the Mujahideen in Afghanistan’ (read the full interview here). He reportedly also told interlocutors sent from Kabul to inquire about his willingness to talk that they should ‘turn to Quetta’ instead.
About what would they talk? And finally, not directly related but as important, why does Haqqani Senior not stop his son killing Dzadran elders? Does he want him to take over his place at any cost to ‘keep it in the family’? Or is he unable to stop him. Then, Tom Gregg’s 22 September appeal on the AfPak Channel (‘Talk to the Haqqanis, before it’s too late’,find it here) might have been almost too late.
A set of very last questions: What kind of planes or helicopters do the ‘Taleban leaders’ board? Kathy Gannon’s report doesn’t answer this. Are these US planes, as the NATO official quoted above might have indicated? If that’s the case, how do the Taleban trust the Americans? Wouldn’t they be afraid that they might end up in Guantanamo instead of Kabul? If I were a Taleb and even if Petraeus and/or Kayani gave me their personal word for a safe return, I would not have wanted to be the first one to take such a ticket.
Or are these Pakistan Army flights? After all, Kayani had promised to ‘deliver’ the Taleban. Although here the same applies – hand-overs and renditions have happened from Pakistan, too – it is possible that people who are under the influence of Pakistan are flown in, without being asked for their consent. Was Mulla Baradar ‘released’ this way? And what kind of result would emerge from talks between the Karzai government and Pakistani-owned Taleban leaders?
Did Kathy Gannon’s source, the Afghan official, leak the report intentionally to make us happy about progress on the ‘talks front’ or is he one of those who doubt that the current approach to ‘reconciliation’ (if it is one) leads into the right direction?
Are we being set up for something?
(*) Pashto and Dari for ‘soup’.
(**) Paktia, Paktika and Khost are part of southeastern region of Afghanistan, but under NATO it belongs to the Regional Command East which also includes the eastern region, with Nangrahar.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020