War & Peace

Meeting Mullah Baradar… or Maybe Not: Confusion over Taleban Talks


Yet again there is the impression of something being afoot on the matter of talks with the Taleban, at least as far as Afghan government aspirations go. During the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, to Kabul on 30 November 2013, both leaders had nice words to say about the peace process, with Sharif promising to “extend all possible facilitation.” There were also reports, albeit unconvincing, that an Afghan delegation visiting Pakistan had finally been allowed to see the former Taleban deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, recently ‘released’ from ISI custody. Yet hopes that Islamabad would use its influence on the Taleban to stop the fighting in Afghanistan have been stirred – and dashed in Kabul before. AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark (with input from Thomas Ruttig) asks if, this time, there is anything of real substance to be hopeful about.

Pakistan, which supports the Taleban, giving the movement sanctuary, is the one actor that could presumably get the Taleban to end the insurgency, whether the movement wanted to or not. Otherwise, the Taleban would have to be persuaded to negotiate despite Pakistan’s opposition. Either way, Pakistan is important – a major helper or a major hindrance to peace talks. That is the theory anyway.

However, why exactly the Afghan government should now – yet again – be more optimistic that Pakistan is playing a positive role is not at all clear. (See AAN’s reporting on earlier ‘roller-coaster’ changes of attitude here). The ‘mood music’ during Sharif’s visit was certainly good. “The key to sustainable peace in Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond is an inclusive political settlement,” Sharif said. “I… urge all the stakeholders to seize this moment and join hands to support peace efforts… It is imperative to reverse the destructive cycle of conflict.” Karzai was also positive, telling journalists that since Sharif took office “cooperation and relations with Afghanistan has expanded.” He said they had talked about “how to proceed with the peace process, the American role in the peace process and how America, Pakistan and Afghanistan can jointly cooperate.” (See the transcript of the press conference in Dari here and press reporting here, here, and here. The fine words were dismissed by some as “platitudes”. They were certainly vague, but that would only be expected in a public forum and is no indication that anything substantial is – or indeed is not – happening.

Hopes were also stirred by reports that a delegation of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) visiting Pakistan on 19-21 November had finally managed to meet Mullah Omar’s one time deputy, Mullah Baradar. He was arrested by the ISI in 2010 (see AAN reporting here and ‘released’ – according to the Pakistani foreign ministry for the explicit purpose of having a role in the reconciliation process – in September 2013 (see AAN reporting here, including a biography of Baradar. Baradar is seen by the Karzai government as a key figure for bringing peace (see, for example, comments by the foreign ministry spokesman ahead of the recent HPC visit, here). But Baradar is clearly not free – neither in terms of travel or speech, something which both the Taleban and the Afghan government have complained about. Most likely it seems, he is under house arrest in Karachi. This, anyway, is where anonymous Afghan government officials speaking to The Wall Street Journal claimed the HPC delegation had met him. However the confusion surrounding the HPC’s reported visit is enough to make anyone suspicious as to whether it even took place.

According to the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, quoting anonymous senior Pakistani officials, a delegation headed by HPC Chairman Salahuddin Rabbani, and including the head of the secretariat Massum Stanekzai and Karzai advisor and former Helmand governor Assadullah Wafa, met Baradar who had been flown to the meeting from Karachi to Islamabad and he sent a message to Kabul from the Taleban shura (council). Other sources told AAN that Rabbani had described to them a one-to-one meeting, but that Baradar was sedated and unable to speak. The ‘sedated line’ was picked up by The Wall Street Journal, which, quoting Afghan officials, said the meeting had taken place in Karachi. To complete the confusion, HPC member, Qazi Amin Waqad, (it is not clear whether he was part of the bigger delegation to Pakistan or not) reportedly told Tolo News on 27 November, almost a week after the visit, that there had been no meeting with Baradar:

It would have been better if this meeting [had been] held, but it is planned for the next time when the next group visits and will meet him. … Meeting with Mullah Baradar is not possible without the approval of the Taliban, because every time the President or Peace Council have visited, that was their demand.(1)

During his Kabul visit press conference, Prime Minister Sharif promised to facilitate Afghan access to Baradar, something which would only make sense if Waqad was right and a meeting had not yet taken place.

There are simply no independent sources on Baradar’s condition, his whereabouts and whether he wants to meet Afghan officials or indeed has any independent say on this or any other matter. Moreover, beyond this plethora of contested details, it is still not obvious why the Afghan government thinks he might be useful for negotiations – other than that Karzai knew him from before 2001 (it seems Baradar helped him get permission to bury his father in Kandahar in 1998) and that they are from the same tribe, the Popalzai. This, however, would seem the flimsiest of hopes on which to pin peace talks. Moreover, the assurance by Sharif at the trilateral meeting in London that he would ensure the Afghans could meet Baradar, in the context of his apparent failure to do so, indicates Sharif has not yet succeeded in wresting authority over key foreign affairs from the hands of his country’s military and its intelligence agency, the ISI. The ISI still appears to have the last word on the Afghan file, which it has held over the past 35 years, and it looks it is the ISI, not Sharif, who controlling the access to Mullah Baradar.

The confusion and possible misinformation over Baradar, much of it emerging from Pakistan, is very familiar. Following all the twists and turns of Pakistani reporting on the ‘peace process’ is tiresome, although occasionally reports are accurate. In August, for example, The Express Tribune, reported that the Taleban were about to open their Qatar office (see AAN reporting here), here and here). Now the same paper, quoting a senior Pakistani official, has reported that, during Sharif’s visit, Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to “evolve a new mechanism that seeks to accelerate efforts for bringing a peaceful end” to the conflict and were exploring “options on an ‘urgent basis’ to open a political office for the Taliban in either Turkey or Saudi Arabia.” The paper also said Islamabad had turned down President Karzai’s request to establish a Taleban office in Pakistan. Although the definiteness and detail of the reporting looks convincing, seen amid the surfeit of anonymous briefings and reported moves and counter-moves, the claim looks as shaky as everything else.

Other indications of movement in the peace process are equally shady. There were reports about new ‘releases’ of Taleban leaders after the recent HPC visit, including Mullah Omar’s former special secretary Abdul Ahad Jahangirwal, who was arrested at around the same time as Baradar. Earlier reported releases, however, were followed by continuing confusion as to whether the named Taleban leaders had actually released at all, where they were and whether most could even be described as ‘leaders’.

There have also been positive remarks about the ‘peace process’ from the participants at the London trilateral summit in London, as well as from would-be Taleban representative and former Taleban finance minister, Agha Jan Mutassem. He told Tolo TV on 27 September 2013 that the Taleban were ready for a ceasefire, comments which were reported by Tolo as having been welcomed by HPC spokesman, Shahzada Shahid: “He doesn’t only speak for himself, he talks on behalf of the Taliban’s top commander Mullah Omar, and Omar is the leader of the Taliban group, so it’s really positive and we support it.” Mutassim had been quietly visiting Kabul for a few days, although whether his visit was useful or futile depends who you ask. As for him being a Taleban representative, the Taleban disowned him in 2010; in August and October 2013 they said no representative of the ‘Emirate’ had met government officials and no-one, unless officially mandated, could claim to represent the movement.

Floating on this sea of confusion and speculation are Karzai’s comments on the last day of the consultative loya jirga (24 November 2013) which suggested he believes a breakthrough on talks is possible and possibly imminent. He even made the US’s sincere backing of a peace  process one of his conditions for signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). Yet it is simply not known whether anything is actually happening, or whether talk of a ‘peace process’ is purely aspirational on the part of the Afghan government. Given the high stakes game Karzai is playing with the Americans over the BSA, it could all just be a distraction, to give the impression of activity and movement and dangling the possibility of a breakthrough in order to make continuing support to his government necessary, while obscuring any impression of him as a lame duck president about to lose power.

However, at the end of the day, it takes two to make peace – as it does to tango. The Taleban might have uttered rare words of praise to Karzai yesterday for ‘standing up’ to America over the BSA (2). Yet they have been unwavering in their utter disdain for actually talking to him or laying down their arms. Moreover, there is absolutely no sign that Sharif has the clout, or even the real desire, to force them to the negotiating table in order to end the Afghan insurgency.

 

(1) Pakistani media in September 2013 also said Baradar was speaking to “various factions” in Waziristan.

In October 2013, Reuters reported that “no senior Taleban” had been ready to meet the released Baradar when he was brought to Peshawar “because he was accompanied by Pakistani security agents” – ie not able to speak independently.

(2) The statement, emailed to journalists from Taleban spokesman ‘Zabihullah Mujahed’, on 2 December 2013, included the lines:

Now that Karzai has apparently shown signs that he conditionally opposes these plans [the BSA], if he was true in this opposition, it would appear as if the truth had finally dawned upon him, and may God grant that this opposition is based on Afghan honour.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace