Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Taleban Contacts between Smoke and Mirrors: Karzai’s 18 June speech

Thomas Ruttig 5 min

Nothing is what it appears in the T2T drama series. Talking to the Talebs is a cabinet of mirrors. The mirrors make it appear that smoke is rising from one place while the fire is burning at another. And it is not even clear whether this is real smoke and fire, or just Javanese-style shadow play. Karzai’s Saturday speech in Kabul ‘confirming’ US direct contacts with the Taleban, mirrored as a sensation in the international media, is just the latest act of an ongoing performance the direction of which remains opaque, concludes AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig.

President Karzai, in a speech before delegates of a National Youth Conference, presented his latest version about where talks with the Taleban are standing. ‘Peace talks are going on with the Taleban. The foreign military and especially the United States itself is going ahead with these negotiations,’ he said according to Reuters. ‘Peace talks have started with them already and it is going well. Foreign militaries, especially the United States of America, are going ahead with these negotiations’, translates the BBC. In the New York Times version it reads: ‘The negotiations have started with those people [the Taleban], and God willing, these talks will continue. But foreign military forces and especially America are continuing this process.’ (An official full version of the speech is not available yet; the GoA media centre has just a four-sentence summary, see here.)

That follows a number of claims that his government also is in contact with Taleban also not yet on a decisive level.

What is common in all three translations of the Karzai speech (it was broadcast over state-owned RTA): the President hints that he has not been involved in or informed about these contacts. This would be another breach of the Western mantra of ‘Afghan-led’ which is particularly strongly emphasised when it comes to ‘reconciliation’. (Okay, except from ISAF spokesman no one seriously was buying this in Kabul since a long time.)

However, this contradicts the initial reports about direct US-Taleban contacts – allegedly with German support and involving Mulla Omar’s former chef-de-cabinet Tayyeb Agha – that had emanated from nowhere else than Karzai’s own palace (see here). The hunt of the whistleblower that reportedly followed seems to indicate that there was some fire to the smoke – and information about contacts in Karzai’s environs. The whistleblower did definitely not want to help the contact to succeed because, by definition, it should have been kept out of the public, at least initially. But who was he? A Karzai man who was annoyed that the President had not been put in the loop? An opposition sympathizer who was concerned that Karzai would abruptly enter into a deal with the ‘estranged brothers’, sacrificing what has been achieved since 2001, the constitutional rights that do not go down well with the Taleban? In any case, Karzai has ignored this fact in his speech on Saturday.

Also Karzai’s terminology was inaccurate. If something has been going on, it had not been more than exploratory talks, not negotiations – and definitely not about ‘peace’. Negotiations would mean that there is already something like an agenda. But was this inaccuracy on purpose or the result of his rather emotional speech? Was he conscious that talks about ‘peace’ talks would only harden the position of those who are concerned about a possible sell-out and for whom ‘talks’ is synonymous for ‘surrender’?

It is even not clear whether every actor involved in the T2T drama really wants peace: The US military continues to try crushing the Taleban militarily and possibly to avoid substantial talks. The Taleban have started their own kill campaign of key Afghan security forces leaders, particularly of Northern provenience. (Not much ‘capture‘ here, except for non-famous people, in order to intimidate.) Taking yesterday’s attack in the centre of Kabul into consideration, it also does not speak of any will for peace – or of an inability to control some hawkish ‘faction‘, or of the famous ‘hidden hand’ that doesn’t want to have talks outside its control. In that case, someone should have another word with Islamabad.

And whether the President himself wants to share power and access to the Western resources as long as they are flowing (and some will continue to flow also after 2014) one can only doubt. The business networks around his brothers make profit most when the status quo is kept: a not-too-intensive war without complete state breakdown. Talks (about talks) as delaying tactics? That wouldn’t be new in world history.

That there is an agenda already is probably one of the few things that can really be discarded. Not least because no one knows what exactly the Taleban want: A monopolistic Emirate or a somewhat pluralistic ‘Islamic order’? (HPC chairman Rabbani recently stated that they have dropped the former idea. But who knows? Has he really talked to them when in Islamabad recently? It seems he only met HIG people.) Some provinces and ministries – or the whole country? Girls’ schools or maybe in the future? Al-Qaeda money or to be left alone to deal with Afghanistan? The Taleban have not very enthusiastically commented on OBL’s death and not at all at al-Zawahri’s succession. Is this a subtle sign?

It would be really helpful to learn that directly from the – pardon – horse’s mouth. But it cannot be seriously expected that the Taleban tell us everything we want to hear before serious talks commence and while General Petraeus’ kill-and-capture teams are after them. Admittedly, they have not caught or killed a really high-ranking Taleban since a long time and seem to concentrate on middle-level cadres. But who can be sure about this?

And will the Taleban really be impressed about Secretary Clinton’s February speech at the Asia Society indicating that Washington has now opted for a political approach? I am sure they read it; they apparently read a lot. But does Mrs Clinton’s apparent change of mind also extend to the Pentagon which is seeking post-2014 access to Afghan bases and a CIA that soon will be headed by Pentagon man Petraeus?

Karzai, Obama and all the remaining actors in this shadow play have quite something to clarify before 2014, the end of ‘transition’ and the intended (partial) troop withdrawal: First of all, which Taleban strategy, deal or real reconciliation? One thing is clear: A military solution does not work, whatever Petraeus says. Every day on which they do not seriously work towards genuine and inclusive talks, with the Taleban and those who oppose them, armed or not, diminishes the chances for a peaceful solution. There are still more than three years time before takmil-e enteqal. Although it would be good to be quicker – to prevent a lot of unnecessary deaths, Afghan and otherwise.


Now, T2T has again distracted me from some equally important points in the President’s speech. There, he also spelled out his conditions for signing the Afghan-US strategic agreement. He said he has stopped thanking the foreign troops for what they were doing for his country (and that it was only Spanta who always forced him to do so), that the foreign troops used weapons that threaten Afghans’ health and Afghanistan’s environment, criticised NATO’s campaign in Libya, warned that he would boycott the Bonn 2 conference in December if the Taleban were not there and reproved the listening youth against ‘Westernisation’. He did not elaborate: Was he against the use of mobile phones, watching Indian ‘un-Islamic’ soap operas or other bad influences of Western democracy? In any case, this part not only caused the ulema sitting in the first row to applaud but also the otherwise indifferently listening young people.


Kabul Taleban