- 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.

A recent Associated Press report from Kabul quoted an anonymous Afghan official as saying Jalaluddin Haqqani was taking part in the talks.

Western officials are unable to confirm Haqqani’s participation but note that this is not the first time that Haqqani has interacted with the Karzai government. Mr. Haqqani and Mr. Karzai were in talks during the George W. Bush administration, but those discussions collapsed over a disagreement over what each side would deliver.

Pakistani support is a key ingredient for the success of any reconciliation effort.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has had historical links with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which provides safe havens for Taliban and al Qaeda leaders in North Waziristan province along the Afghan border.

Peter Galbraith, a former U.N. deputy special representative for Afghanistan, said Pakistan has a crucial role to play in the region.

“Like it or not, Pakistan is a big player here, and you can’t have a peace deal unless it involves Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban,” Mr. Galbraith said in a phone interview. “That is not ideal, but that is the reality.”

During the course of an ongoing strategic dialogue in Washington this week, the Obama administration has been encouraging Pakistani officials to work toward a peaceful solution in Afghanistan.

However, Pakistan’s reluctance to release a key Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to take part in the talks in Kabul is seen by some Western and Afghan officials as a sign that Pakistan does not support the reconciliation effort.

Mullah Baradar was arrested by the ISI in Karachi in February. According to some accounts, the Pakistanis were upset that he was freelancing peace deals with the Karzai government without taking Pakistani interests into consideration. He continues to be held by the ISI.

Mullah Baradar has been “contaminated by his detention” in Pakistan, Mr. Waldman told The Washington Times, noting that many Taliban commanders now would wonder whether he has their interests in mind.

Mr. Karzai and Mullah Baradar share a close bond. Besides the fact that they both belong to the Popalzai tribe, Mullah Baradar once saved Mr. Karzai’s life when Mr. Karzai entered Afghanistan to build an anti-Taliban force.

Mr. Ruttig said there have always been contacts between people in the Afghan government and the Taliban because of the nature of the structure of Afghan society.

“We tend to think of the Taliban and the Karzai government as enemies. But, in fact, there has always been a degree of collaboration between the Taliban and Karzai,” Mr. Galbraith said, adding that people in Mr. Karzai’s inner circle who run security companies regularly deal with the Taliban to ensure safe passage.

Mr. Waldman said the biggest obstacle to reconciliation is the deep mistrust among the Taliban of Western intentions and hostility toward Mr. Karzai and his “mafia elite.”

“They do not believe the U.S. or the Karzai government are serious about negotiations,” he said.

Many Afghans, especially minority Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks, are reluctant to strike any deal with the predominantly Pashtun Taliban.

A former Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing fears for his safety, said the majority of Afghans do not want to see the Taliban get a seat at the table in Kabul.

“History has taught us not to trust the word of the Taliban. Any deals they strike with Karzai won’t be worth the paper they are written on,” the former Afghan official said.

“What happens when the Americans leave? Karzai will be hanging from a lamppost,” he said, referring to the fate of former Afghan President Mohammed Najibullah, who was executed by the Taliban in 1996.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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