COMMENTARY
 
Talking Peace with Taliban
Weekly Pulse
October 10-16, 2008
There were several reported indicators in the past week alone confirming a multi-faceted international effort might be under way to make Taliban and other Afghan insurgents a part of the political process in Afghanistan. These indicators include a recent Saudi-sponsored meeting between Taliban and Afghan government representatives in Mecca, UN envoy, and British ambassador and commander in Afghanistan publicly admitting the war against Taliban cannot be won, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent invitation to Taliban leader Mulla Umar to join political process in the country.

Another indicator suggesting the United States may be getting ready for an alternative leadership in Afghanistan, which may be inclusive of moderate Taliban, is the reported US concern about the drug dealing by President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.

Even though it will be premature at this stage to foresee any concrete outcome of such an international bid, the very fact that a process away from finding a political solution to the terrorism quagmire in Afghanistan and its consequent militant ramifications in Pakistan seems to have begin is crucial.

If all the reports indicative of the possible start of a new chapter in ending the violence in Afghanistan and the region are taken as several pieces of the same puzzle, then a pattern of strategic re-thinking on the part of principal players involved in transforming strife-torn Afghanistan into a stable and peaceful nation—such as the United States, Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or all the Afghan stake holders, including the Taliban—clearly starts to emerge. Consider the following:

Saudi Initiative

On October 6, CNN correspondent Nic Robertson reported about Saudi Arabia’s bid to broker talks between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives. The report, citing an anonymous source, said the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz hosted a four-day meeting in late September in Makkah. The Saudi leader broke the fast with a 17-member Afghan delegation—an act intended to show his commitment to ending the conflict.

The report further said that it had taken two years of behind-the-scenes meetings to get to this point. The talks involved 11 Taliban delegates, two Afghan government officials, a representative of Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and three others. While Mullah Omar was not present at Mecca talks, the source said the Taliban leader had made it clear he was no longer allied with al Qaeda—a position that has never been publicly stated but emerged during the talks.

The same day, the Associated Press confirmed CNN report by quoting former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mulla Abdul Salam Zaeef as saying he met last month in Saudi Arabia representatives of the Taliban, the Afghan government and Mr Hekmatyar at an Iftar hosted by King Abdullah. About the people present in the meeting, he said it was former Taliban foreign minister “Mulla Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, some from the Taliban, some from Hekmatyar, some from the government.”

However, Mulla Zaeef added there were no “official” representatives from the Taliban or Hekmatyar’s group, meaning no one authorized to carry out peace talks.” For their part, the Taliban have officially denied participating in any such talks in Saudi Arabia.

Another report in the Pakistani press published on October 7 suggested that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who spent his years in political exile in Saudi Arabia and was present in the country during the time may be mediating the renewed Saudi-led Afghan peace process aimed at accommodating Taliban and other insurgents in the political governance of Afghanistan.

Before undertaking his recent trip to Saudi Arabia to perform Umra during the month of Ramadan, Mr Sharif had met British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in London to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

British Concerns

Although Britain and its NATO allies are engaged in a fierce campaign against Taliban militants in Afghanistan, British officials have voiced interest in trying to talk the Taliban into laying down their arms and joining the government. British commanders have already cut deals with the Taliban in the drug-infested Helmand province.

On October 6, Christina Lamb of The Sunday Times quoted Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith, senior British commander in Afghanistan as saying the war against the Taliban could not be won”…it was “neither feasible nor supportable." and, therefore, the British public should not expect a “decisive military victory” but should be prepared “for a possible deal with the Taliban.”

Brig. Carleton-Smith’s assessment followed the leaking of a memo from a French diplomat who claimed that Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul, had told him the current strategy was “doomed to fail.”

Carleton-Smith, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan, said: “We’re not going to win this war…We want to change the nature of the debate from one where disputes are settled through the barrel of the gun to one where it is done through negotiations…If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”

UN Stand

On October 7, Kai Eide, UN special envoy in Kabul supported the assessment by British commander, while saying the international forces in Afghanistan cannot win the war against the Taliban by military means.

“I have always said to those that talk about the military surge... what we need most of all is a political surge, more political energy…We all know that we cannot win it military. It has to be won through political means. That means political engagement,” the UN envoy said.

Former Italian general and ex-commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Mauro Del Vecchio, said he also agreed with Carleton-Smith a day before.

”We need to help Karzai engage in dialogue with those elements of the Taliban who are most open to this,” Del Vecchio said in an interview with Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

Afghan Call

For his part, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had also made a surprising announcement on October 3, asking Taliban leader Mulla Umar to return to Afghanistan, and promising all possible safety.

“I propose Mulla Umar to get back to Afghanistan as I will be wholly solely responsible for his security and I shall be answerable to the whole of the world on his behalf,” the Afghan President said in an interview with a Pakistani TV channel.

Karzai invited Mulla Umar to join him in the political process of Afghanistan by being hopeful for the next presidential election, while terming his return in the best interest of the prosperity and safety of the country.

This is not the first time the Afghan leader invited Mulla Umar to join the peace process. He had made similar calls on the eve of parliamentary elections in the country few years ago probably in an attempt to woo moderate Pashtun Taliban. There have already been voices in the Afghan parliament for declaring amnesty for leading insurgent figures, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Mulla Umar.

Last year, Asia Times had reported about secret three-party talks to establish teega (a Pashtu word for a peace deal that resolves a conflict) between Western coalition forces in Afghanistan (along with Pakistan), the Afghan government, and the anti-coalition insurgents of Afghanistan. Then, earlier this year, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was reported as saying the country’s political leaders had been meeting Taliban and other anti-government groups.

Karzai’s Future

Elected as President for four years in September 2005, President Karzai’s term expires next September, and there have already been many reports suggesting the United States was seriously contemplating about the next choice for Afghan presidency. Even the name of top Bush Administration official Zalmay Khalilzad, an American of Afghan origin, has been floated for the purpose.

Apart from Karzai’s failure to generate an indigenous Afghan response to Taliban militarism, there is growing concern in the US administration about the alleged involvement of Karzai’s brother in the drug business, which is considered an important source of financing Taliban-led militancy in the country.

On October 4, The New York Times reported that successive incidents of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s alleged involvement in drug trade since 2006 have “deeply worried top American officials in Kabul and in Washington. The United States officials fear that perceptions that the Afghan president might be protecting his brother are damaging his credibility and undermining efforts by the United States to buttress his government.”

The report cited US officials as saying “the White House believes that Ahmed Wali Karzai is involved in drug trafficking, and American officials have repeatedly warned President Karzai that his brother is a political liability.”

This is another way of saying President Karzai himself may have outlived his political utility as an Afghan leader playing a vital role in the US-led War on Terror, just as happened in the case of General Pervez Musharraf whose dictatorial legacy could not be sustained any longer in the wake of the gathering storm in Pakistan in favour of the restoration of democracy.

Foreseeing Peace

By any account, if the situation in post-Taliban Afghanistan in the past seven years is fairly assessed, the resort to force or military means alone seems to have backfired. Instead of reversing the Taliban phenomenon, this approach has contributed effectively to a surge in Taliban militarism not just in Afghanistan’s Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern regions but also in Pakistan’s tribal Pashtun regions bordering Afghanistan. The ripple effect of this violence can be seen now in the form of recurrent suicide bombings in Pakistani cities and towns.

Such reckless militarism and accompanying chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan may have allowed Iran to strategically strengthen itself in the strife-torn region, just as the chaotic situation in Iraq allowed Tehran to spread its tentacles to that country. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States should be interested in seeing Iran increasing its influence in either Persian Gulf or West Asia.

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were three Muslim countries who had recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The former two had significant clout with Taliban. Saudi Arabia had to cut ties with the Taliban regime after it decided to host al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2006. Pakistan tried to convince the United States to negotiate with moderate Taliban until the US-led attack on Afghanistan occurred on October 7, 2001.

Now if the reported meeting mediated by the Saudi King did take place, then this would mean that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are once again trying to bring in the moderate Taliban factor as a solution to the worsening terrorism-ridden situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

If Taliban officially disassociate themselves from al-Qaeda, then Saudi Arabia being a central place in the world of Islam should have no problem in mediating the Afghan conflict, just as it did many times in the past. The same goes for Pakistan. And, obviously, it is neither in the US interest or that of its key counter-terrorism allies in Afghanistan such as Britain to try to the same troops surge option in Afghanistan, just because it worked in Iraq.

All said and done, however, we have to wait and see as to how Taliban’s hardcore leadership, especially Mulla Umar, responds eventually to this seemingly concerted international effort with an important Muslim component in it. After all, Mulla Zaeef and Wakil Mutawakil are considered to be moderate Taliban leaders. So, even if they were present in the Saudi-sponsored meeting, their participation in what can be described as only a symbolic start to renewed international peace effort to create a broad-based Afghan government will be meaningless without it being unconditionally supported by hardcore Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Access column at weeklypulse.org