- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Afghan government’s reconciliation effort with the Taliban is being hamstrung by a lack of participants who wield clout within the militant group and a “peace council” viewed by many Afghans as more eager to maintain the status quo.

Only one or two Taliban commanders are participating in the peace talks, according to a Western official and a former Afghan official who both spoke on the condition of anonymity. They declined to name the commanders to protect the militants’ safety.

“It is not clear that many of these [Taliban representatives] have the power to deliver,” the Western official said.

Matt Waldman, an independent analyst who has interviewed Taliban commanders in Afghanistan in recent months, said he doubts the Taliban representatives who are participating in the talks have the support of militant commanders on the ground.

“There is evidence that there are divisions within the movement and that some of those leaders may not have the influence that they once did,” Mr. Waldman said at the New America Foundation on Thursday.

He noted a “striking lack of deference” on the part of field commanders toward Taliban leaders living comfortably in Quetta, Pakistan.

Taliban leaders publicly have said they will not take part in any talks until foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

Participants in the reconciliation process must meet three criteria: They must give up their weapons, cut ties to al Qaeda and abide by the Afghan Constitution.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has established a High Peace Council to conduct the process.

However, six of the council’s 68 members are former jihadist leaders.

“This is not a step forward,” Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network who also spoke at the New America Foundation, said of the council. “These people are mainly interested in preserving the status quo. [The council] is not able to conduct meaningful negotiations because it is not seen by the Taliban and many Afghans as a neutral body.”

Anonymous Afghan officials have in recent days acknowledged contacts with members of the Taliban.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of coalition troops in Afghanistan, said last week that NATO forces had facilitated the travel of some Taliban commanders from their safe havens in Pakistan to Kabul.

“There is movement in the field of talks with insurgents, but on a scale of 1 and 100, we are between 1 and 2,” Mr. Ruttig said.

A big question mark also hangs over whether any peace deal has a chance of surviving the competing interests of the extremist groups active in Afghanistan such as the Haqqani Network, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin, and former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami.

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