- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | The negotiations in Kabul between the Afghan government and the Taliban did little, and claims that they achieved a major breakthrough were inflated, participants and local analysts said.

The talks were merely an “intellectual and academic discussion,” said Saleem Safi, a Pakistani journalist and participant.

“What happened in the Serena were not negotiations so much as a regional studies association inviting some people from Pakistan to discuss the issue of negotiations,” said Soheil Sanjar, the Kabul-based publisher of the Hasht-e Sobh weekly newspaper.

The talks were organized by the East-West Institute, a Brussels-based think tank, and the government of Abu Dhabi, which held exploratory discussions between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban earlier this year. Saudi Arabia presided over similar talks last year and was involved in hosting Ramadan fast-breaking meals with Taliban representatives in September.

“There was no progress in these discussions because the parties to the conflict were not represented,” Mr. Safi said. “Even if there were Pakistani politicians and government figures, they were there in their personal capacity as analysts or regional specialists.”

Mr. Safi said he and another journalist in attendance would not have been allowed to stay if sensitive negotiations with armed opposition groups were taking place.

Meanwhile Sunday, CNN released the transcript of an interview with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in which he acknowledged that his government has had unofficial contacts with the Taliban “for quite some time.”

“We have been talking to the Taliban as countryman to countryman, talk in that manner,” Mr. Karzai told Larry King when the CNN host asked him about a recent Washington Post report on “secret high-level talks” between the two sides.

Mr. Karzai seemed to confirm that the talks were exploratory, saying they were not “a regular official contact with the Taliban with a fixed address, but rather, unofficial personal contacts.”

The interview will air Monday.

The talks began a few days after a 69-member official peace council was announced to guide peace efforts with the insurgents.

Speaking Oct. 7, the ninth anniversary of the U.S. attack against the Taliban, Mr. Karzai described the council as “the greatest hope for the people of Afghanistan.” The Afghan establishment hopes the body will help bypass the Pakistani army and reach out directly to Pashtun activists on the Pakistani side.

On Sunday, Burhanuddin Rabbani was elected chairman of the council. Mr. Rabbani is an ethnic Tajik whose government the Taliban overthrew in 1996 and subsequently led the Northern Alliance.

“Now that the peace council has come into existence, these talks will go on and will go on officially and more rigorously, I hope,” Mr. Karzai said Sunday.

Yet the prospect of an eventual reconciliation with the Taliban still has worried Afghanistan’s former Northern Alliance, ethnic-Tajik establishment sufficiently to spur it into action.

Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief who resigned over the summer in opposition to Mr. Karzai’s negotiation gambit, is forming a mostly ethnic Tajik and Uzbek, youth-based movement he hopes will act as a counterweight to the “Talibanization” of Afghanistan, his close associates said. Mr. Saleh was out of the country and unavailable for comment.

The current formula for negotiations has been dubbed “push and pull,” reflecting the mix of incentives and penalties presented to the Taliban, Afghan government officials told The Washington Times.

According to this game plan, NATO will inflict military defeats on the Taliban in the field, pushing them in the direction of government incentives to lay down their weapons and join the political process. Pakistan’s role is to deny the movement sanctuary.

“The Taliban is a very frustrating entity to speak with, because they have no structure,” said a NATO official speaking on the condition of anonymity. “To compound this, many Talibs are afraid of breaking cover because they might end up on a targeting list.”

Included in the talks were representatives of the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network, two rejectionist Pakistan-based insurgent groups with strong influence on the Taliban, press reports claimed.

The Taliban repeatedly has refused to negotiate before a timetable is agreed upon for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country, while the Afghan government has demanded that the Taliban surrender its weapons and accept the constitution as a precondition to talks.

Afghan and Pakistani local media identified some of the former Pakistani and Taliban officials in attendance as Esfandiar Wali Khan, Afrasiab Khattak and Aftab Sherpao, who are prominent leaders of the majority-Pashtun northwestern province of Pakistan. Also present were Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister heading the government negotiating team, and Asif Durrani, a former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which maintains close links with the Taliban.

On the Taliban side were Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban envoy who was incarcerated at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for four years after the fall of the Taliban.

“They’re not the real thing, but they have the ability to convey the message,” Davood Moradian, chief of strategic studies at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said of the Taliban interlocutors. “The Taliban need to be convinced that they will not prevail and they will not win.”

Signaling a softening toward the Taliban, Mr. Karzai ordered a review of cases of militants who were detained for “links with the armed opposition” and referred to members of the insurgency as “our Taliban brothers.”

In his CNN interview, Mr. Karzai said that while there have been “no official contacts with a known entity that reports to a body of Taliban and that comes back and reports to us regularly … we hope we can begin that as soon as possible.”

The Afghan president is said to doubt privately that the 48-member NATO military presence in Afghanistan is capable of defeating the Taliban ahead of the 2011 deadline for downscaling the Western presence.

The talks were carried out against the backdrop of pressures on Taliban militants by ISI to escalate attacks on NATO forces, the Wall Street Journal reported, quoting turncoat Taliban fighters.

Afghan efforts to reach out directly to rejectionist Pashtuns in Pakistan are likely to be hobbled by the control that ISI exerts over the Afghan Taliban, Afghan analysts added.

“The Taliban are obsessed with the revival of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan,” said Syed Saleem Shahzad, author of “Al-Qaeda: Ideology, Strategy and Tactics.” “Accepting its revival negates the U.N. sanctions in the late ‘90s and the dislodging of the Taliban in 2001, amounting to a complete Western defeat in Afghanistan.”

On the dusty streets of Kabul, the public mood reflects exhaustion with a war largely fought in the countryside that last week entered its 10th year.

“It’s about time the Taliban were brought back in since during their time there was utter security and no corruption,” said a street sweeper named Hamidullah, reflecting a widely held view in the Afghan capital.

A failure to come to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban could open the door for partitioning Afghanistan as proposed by former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill. According to the plan, NATO would accept that defeating the insurgency was a lost cause and retreat behind a steel wall in a Tajik-majority remainder state. South of the new border, a new “Pashtunistan,” centered in Kandahar, would emerge.

“If you have the partition of Afghanistan, then you open the door to partitioning Iran, Pakistan, some Central Asian countries and perhaps even China, as the Baloch, Uzbeks, Tajiks and ethnic Turks demand independence,” said Mr. Sanjar, the publisher. “It would conjure up the very potent specter of Islamic terrorism mixed with nationalism, and threaten the very weak post-Soviet countries of Central Asia with collapse.”

“If the Pakistani establishment makes a concerted and sincere effort to complete the talks, this process could be completed in three to six months’ time,” said Mr. Moradian, the Afghan Foreign Ministry official. “The Afghan conflict won’t be over, but we’ll see huge breakthrough in integrating the Taliban into the government by accepting the Afghan Constitution and severing ties to international terrorism.”

• Iason Athanasiadis can be reached at iathanasiadis@washingtontimes.com.

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