‘Bazaar du-bara garm shud’ – the market has become hot again. That’s how many Afghans reacted to the breaking news of ‘high-level talks’ between Taleban leaders and the Kabul government (and possibly some US actors) as well as about the not-so-secret-anymore talks in the Kabul Serena. But look at the small print: The talks were of a ‘preliminary nature’ and the sources of the news even ‘differ on how specific they [the talks] were’, where they took place etc. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig has a few footnotes.
It hit like a bomb: ‘Taliban in high-level talks with Karzai government, sources say’ (Washington Post, 5 October 2010). The hype around the 68-member High Peace Council (HPC) created by President Karzai on 28 September – which is so fascinating that the two major ex-Taleban in Kabul Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil and Abdul Salam Za’if declined to join – contributed to heating up the market of ‘talk about talks’.
This is not to say that the Washington Post is wrong – after all, it has a ‘half-dozen [anonymous] sources directly involved in or on the margins of the talks’ on the record – amongst them ‘one European official whose country has troops in Afghanistan’, ‘one Afghan source’, ‘a second European official’ and ‘a senior [US] administration official’. (Update: A senior Taleban figure has indeed met government representatives with the backing of Mulla Omar, basically to feel out the Afghan side and see what they wanted. But this was already in spring.)
But it is similarly possible that these sources are part of all the spin which we are already getting and which will further build up during this so-called transition(*) phase up to 2014 (if the Washington agenda works out). Or that they just have mixed some older stories with some new but minor developments.
For instance the meeting on 4 and 5 October in the Kabul Serena Hotel, funded by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi through the US-based East West Institute (EWI**) of which the President’s cousin Hekmat Karzai, himself head of the Kabul-based think tank CAPS, is a senior fellow. EWI also had brought in former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali, almost a presidential candidate in 2009 (who – as rumour has it – now aspires to the position of the head of the Kabul NSC or probably have been even offered it). This meeting about which a blogger reported first also created some confusion: he initially re-located it to the Abu Dhabi Serena where earlier this year another EWI-organised meeting had taken place.
Apart from this, all the excitement about this meeting was overblown: No Taleban took part in it, just – as al-Jazeera kept repeating all day Tuesday – a former Taleb, namely Za’if. Education Minister (and the only cabinet member in the HPC) Faruq Wardak, Afghan ‘reconciliation CEO’ Massum Stanakzai, Deputy Wolesi Jirga speaker Mir Wais Yasini, some Pakistani politicians, mainly from the opposition but all Pashtuns, who might have some link to or even influence on some or the other group (Aftab Sherpao, Afrasyab Khattak, Mahmud Khan Achakzai, their former Kabul ambassador Rustam Shah Momand and former ISI head Sasad Durrani) also were present.
The WP report also contains a few misunderstandings. One is the following: ‘Several sources said the discussions with the Quetta Shura do not include representatives of the Haqqani group’ (a.k.a. as Haqqani network). Surely not. The Haqqani network, although operating autonomously in its day-to-day operations, is a part of the Taleban movement. When its fighters visited mosques around Khost and Gardez before the recent parliamentary elections, they always introduced themselves as ‘Taleban’ not as ‘Haqqani’s men’, as local sources confirm. And people who met its leader Serajuddin Haqqani recently say that he replies to questions about his willingness to talk that one should turn to Mulla Omar whom he considers as his leader. He even stated of late that there is not something like the Haqqani network:
‘The 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.’
(Update: It looks as if the Haqqani network is independent from the Quetta shura in the command-and-control sense, but politically part of the Taleban movement. So the Haqqanis dictate their own strategy and conduct their own attacks, have their own shura and their own hierarchy, but for political purposes cannot brand themselves as a group separate from the Taleban. Fighting under the Taleban’s banner gives the network self-perceived legitimacy, for otherwise it would just be a regional faction. So it would be surprising if the Haqqanis negotiated a peace separate from the Taleban. However, the converse is not true — a situation can be imagined where the Quetta Taleban negotiate a peace and the Haqqanis continue to fight, for in that case the Haqqanis could always claim that the rest of the Taliban were sellouts. It also is possible that this one of the ISI strategies.) Talking of a ‘division of the Taleban into “several groups”’ is therefore a simplification.
The same goes for the ‘resurgent Northern Alliance’ (NA) as a ‘potential roadblock’ for talks. That is giving it too much honour. If something is resurgent in Afghanistan, it is skepticism and even rejection of a deal with the Taleban amongst a lot of ordinary Afghans who are afraid that it might result in the scrapping of everything they value and enjoy – from women’s employment to Indian soap-operas on TV. This people, however, just cannot find a trustworthy political force that would take up their qualms and lead it into a political channel. The NA definitely is not seen as such a force, at least not countrywide and beyond its clientele in a relatively small part of the north.
In Kabul, the NA currently presents itself as a group of scattered individuals oscillating back and forth between ‘opposition’ and government, and almost everyone at a different time. See Professor Rabbani who was made the head of a half-dozen post-NA alliances by the younger ‘northern’ leaders but who currently doesn’t want anything more urgently than being appointed the chairman of the HPC. Marshal Fahim has settled for the vice-presidential post while freshly sacked NDS chief Amrullah Saleh has nothing better to do then to create his own movement (with a posh-looking but still almost empty website, see here and a facebook site with currently 2,319 members) instead of joining his former NA colleague Dr Abdullah in his struggling ‘Hope and Change’ movement. Nice ‘alliance’, this.
A final misunderstanding – at least according to most Afghans we talked to since – is about the HPC which the WP authors call a sign that ‘the Afghan government has also been positioning itself for serious talks’. But does Karzai really want to share power with a movement as strong as the Taleban that, additionally, is known for its anti-corruption attitude, coupled with rude methods to implement it?
Those we spoke to, including some ‘close to the HPC’, do not put much hope into it. ‘Too big’ and composed of people ‘who do not get along with each other’ are amongst the more moderate comments. ‘Muftkhoran’ is another, less polite attribute which was used; indeed, Western funding commitments surely line the horizon in with silver in the eyes of some members. Others mocked the still unresolved competition for its chairmanship between professors – and former interim presidents – Burhanuddin Rabbani (who seems to be Karzai’s favourite if only to further split the ‘opposition’) and Sebghatullah Mujaddedi (who was Karzai’s ‘leader’ in the mujahedin times, stills leads the bankrupt but never dissolved PTS program and would finally render the HPC a PTS 2.0 if he wins).
But the most important argument heard in our meetings was that the idea behind the HPC is seen as trying to make the Taleban to ‘surrender’, i.e. to recognize the constitution, lay down their arms and ‘join’ the current Afghan government. That, most of them agreed, will never happen.
Also, the source that told the Post that ‘Taliban representatives had floated some peace terms, including exile for [Mulla] Omar in Saudi Arabia with protection and treatment as a former head of state’ might be wrong. To us, this sounds more like deliberations on the Western side who might not remember that the Taleban and their leader weren’t particularly interested in status symbols and that living abroad might not sound very attractive to someone like Mulla Omar who – at least during his tenure as ‘head of state’ – had visited Kabul only once or twice and returned to Kandahar with disgust about this ‘Babel’(***) were women still were occasionally walking in the streets.
With regards to the ‘talks’, the usually well-informed Kathy Gannon of AP seems to be closer to the truth. She reports
‘that Taliban officials have engaged in periodic, discreet contacts with Afghan and U.S. officials for months but are unwilling to move to formal peace negotiations until the U.S. agrees to a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. […] Nevertheless, other Pakistanis and Afghans familiar with the process insist all contacts have been limited to indirect message exchanges, using mediators who include former Taliban members. Those contacts were described as exploratory, with all sides trying to assess the other’s positions.’
She also gives US actors a role in contacts:
‘[S]everal 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 […]. 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.’
Apart from the fact that the CIA, rather funnily, ‘denied that any such meetings took place but could not say whether representatives of the U.S. government have met with the Taliban’ (source: Kathy Gannon again; and what a nice additional smoke screen), one important information is missing in this part of her report: when those talks were held.
According to what we hear it looks, however, as if the talks involving Jamal already took place a few years ago, before the Great Surge. That was the time when doors for contacts and possibly talks were still open on the Taleban side. Messages from within their movement were coming in, indicating indeed that they saw that they cannot win militarily and, first of all, that the Dadullah suicide wave ongoing then was ‘un-Islamic’ and cost too many Afghan civilian casualties. Since then, such voices have been shut up to a large extent. (But the individuals are still there.)
If the ‘Jamal’ talks happened recently, it also wouldn’t be very nice to mention his name, just in case there are some colleagues – or even people on the ‘other’ side – who are not thrilled about such contacts. See the same Washington Post article, quoting the ‘European official’: ‘For so long, politically, it’s [i.e. talks] been a deal breaker in the United States, and with some people it still is.’ What if amongst those are some very black Special Forces who just wait for some JPEL(****)-listed Taleb to show up for reconciliation tea. Don’t forget that these chaps also operate outside AfPak, so even a nice hotel in Dubai or Abu Dhabi might not be safe.
These were neither the first nor the last attempts ‘to talk’. The first one was started by a group of ex-Talebs that had established a political party calledJamiat-e Khuddam ul-Furqan in Pakistan in late 2001 which presented itself as ‘the moderate Taleban’ group. But in those days, the ‘we just mop up the Taleban remnants’ strategy was accompanied by the ‘we do not talk to terrorists’ theorem. So, when the group travelled to Kabul to get recognition it was rejected. In 2004, its members returned to Afghanistan anyway and were accommodated in a ‘guest house’ but left alone for years. Only recently, they were very finally – and much too late – incorporated into the HPC. But it can be assumed that the years of neglect have sent a clear message to the Taleban on the ‘other side’ and would have been willing to ‘join the process’ – namely, if you do so you might end up in oblivion. And why should they believe ‘us’ now that all of it is changing? Because de Mistura says so and the HPC is here now? Hardly.
And then, there are still a few preconditions of the Taleban in the way: that they want the troops out first – although that can and might be dealt with through ‘preliminary’ contacts, for example by re-working this into a timetable for withdrawal of troops and eventually bases.
The last attempt to ‘talk’ – if we do not count the Maldives and Abu Dhabi meetings – happened in February 2009 when, in Kathy Gannon’s words,
‘Karzai sent a small delegation of former [my italics] Taliban members to Saudi Arabia to seek the kingdom’s help [again](*****) in kick-starting talks with the Taliban. But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom would not get involved in peacemaking unless the Taliban severed all ties with bin Laden and his al-Qaida terror network […]. One of the [participating] former Taliban members, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said unequivocally at the time that he could not negotiate on behalf of the Taliban. The meeting ended without any results.’
By the way, the ‘Saudi channel’ created a rift between the Taleban and al-Qaida because it involved a statement by the former that they respected the House of Saud and saw it as a possible mediator while the latter – who want to topple the monarchy in Riad – were not amused. (So much to those who like to talk of that undifferentiated ‘terrorist syndicate’ in Waziristan, mixing apples and plums.)
And there were, of course, the contacts of de Mistura’s predecessor Kai Eide with Taleban envoys in Dubai in spring 2009 and early 2010 who – according to some sources with inside into these issues – had indeed been authorized by Mulla Omar and included the current head of the Political Committee (or Shura) of the Taleban, Tayyeb Agha, who was (and likely still is) a very close confident of the Taleban leader. However, the Pakistani intervention – i.e. the arrest of Mulla Baradar and others, some permanently, others as a warning against ‘going independent’ stopped this initiative (see our earlier blog on this here).
Another way to read these latest events would be slightly conspiratorial, under the headline of: ‘The Big ISI Scheme’. The powers-that-be in Islamabad might present some ‘moderate’ and ‘reconciliatory’ Taleban to the US to help it to also show progress on the ‘talks front’ while, on the ground, they empower younger commanders and help them to become more independent of the Quetta Shura or its ‘talkative faction’. Indeed, there are different indications about a growing ‘decentralisation’ of the Taleban – whether intentionally or under US military pressure – and of a ‘manyfold’ increase in money disbursed to Taleban field commanders. If this is true, then the pressure of airstrikes, night raids and ‘decapitation’ operations would help the Pakistanis to play that game – willingly or unintended.
In the result, it would be possible that you finally get a loudly applauded, high-level reconciliation with top Taleban. Pakistan would get credit for its good will, by delivering them. But those leaders, by that time, might be Kings without a Land, i.e. fighters. And the insurgency would go on, ‘leaderless’ like al-Qaida.
Conclusion: If these ‘preliminary talks’ are what CNN calls a ‘new phase in making peace’ (read this report here), then it is only one of many, protracted phases to come. In this light, the current UN envoy to Afghanistan’s statement during a speech a few days ago at the International Peace Institute in New York – and according to the Huffington Post’s account – that he ‘thinks that, by July 2011, the date set by President Obama for the beginning of U.S. withdrawal, the reconciliation process will have been completed, leading to a peace settlement’ sound pretty optimistic.
(*) Have you noticed that the international community has learned another Afghan word, after tashkil (see under: police reform): inteqal? It even appears in the title of the strategy for ‘phased transition to Afghan security lead ’, as it is also called, the Joint Framework for Inteqal, passed by the Kabul conference earlier this year.
(**) The East West Institute organizes the so-called Abu Dhabi process, financed by the same Gulf state. It is governed by Chatham House rules, i.e. the participants are not directly quoted. (There is also no list of participants but this has been partly revealed by the al-Jazeera reports from Kabul.) See EWI’s August 2010 report here.
(***) Babel-khana is one Afghan expression for ‘whorehouse’.
(****) JPEL: Joint Priority Effects (i.e. target) List.
(*****) ‘Again’ because there was the much talked-about but similarly unsuccessful autumn 2008 ‘iftar meeting’ in Mecca, including a joint delegation of Kabul government reps and former Taleban (still including Za’if) as well as – never confirmed – Taleban delegates.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020