Talking to the Taliban

Print edition : July 26, 2013

A spokesman for the Office of the Taliban of Afghanistan speaking during the opening of the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha onJune 18. The Afghanistan government was also supposed to participate in the U.S. administration's talks with the Taliban, but it withdrew angrily after the flag and the insignia of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", as the country was known during Taliban rule, were prominently displayed in Doha. Photo: MOHAMMED DABBOUS/REUTERS

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on January 11. Photo: JASON REED/REUTERS

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in New Delhi on June 24. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters

James Dobbins , U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in New Delhi on June 27. Photo: MANSI THAPLIYAL/REUTERS

The Taliban office in Doha. The recently retired Emir of Qatar lavishly funded the construction of the building. Photo: Osama Faisal/AP

A transfer of authority ceremony of the police academy from NATO-led troops to Afghan soldiers. Photo: Rahmat Gul/AP

The Taliban masquerades as a government in waiting even as the U.S. is more than willing to enter into a negotiated settlement with the very force it helped to depose.

DURING his visit to New Delhi in late June, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had to bend over backwards to persuade his hosts that their interests in Afghanistan would not be sacrificed, even as the American forces were trying to beat an orderly retreat from the country. The Indian government, otherwise described as a key strategic partner of the United States, was not kept in the loop when the Barack Obama administration suddenly decided to open formal talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on June 22. For the past 12 years, the Taliban was the avowed enemy of the U.S. Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, was invaded to get rid of the government run by the Taliban, and more than a hundred thousand Afghans have been killed in the past decade. Now it is back to square one: the Taliban masquerades as the government in waiting even as the U.S. is more than willing to enter into a negotiated settlement with the very force it brutally helped to depose.

The Obama administration seeks to distinguish between the “good Taliban” and the “bad Taliban”. The bad Taliban, for the time being for Washington, is the Pakistan-based Taliban. For that matter, the Obama administration is willing to do business with sections of Al Qaeda, such as Al Nusra in Syria and Iraq, in their fight against the governments there. With the Obama administration’s formal decision to supply sophisticated arms to the Syrian rebel groups dominated by Al Nusra, the U.S. is now openly siding with the Sunni regimes in the sectarian divide that it has helped create. The U.S. State Department has belatedly put Al Nusra on the list of terrorist organisations, but it is still the group doing most of the fighting inside Syria. And the Taliban is essentially a Sunni fundamentalist grouping representing a significant section of Afghanistan’s population.

During his trip to New Delhi, his first after assuming his new post, Kerry praised India’s contribution to the Afghanistan reconstruction programme and efforts aimed at achieving political stability in the war-torn country. India has provided more than $2 billion to Afghanistan so far. In 2011, the two countries signed a defence agreement which said India would train and equip Afghan security forces. If there is no negotiated settlement with a resurgent Taliban very soon, Afghanistan may once again be enveloped in a full-scale civil war after the U.S. military leaves.

The deadline for the U.S. troops departure is 2014, but it may not signal a definitive end to the occupation. President Hamid Karzai revealed recently that the U.S. wanted to hold on to nine of its military bases in the country after 2014. Karzai himself has requested for some of the U.S. troops to stay behind to train the Afghan army. The government in Kabul has agreed in principle to allow some U.S. military presence after 2104 in exchange for economic and military aid.

The U.S. Secretary of State assured India that its interests would not be jeopardised by the latest developments. But, for all practical purposes, the Doha talks symbolise the failure of the U.S. occupation and the political model that was sought to be imposed. Neighbouring countries such as Pakistan are once again bound to play a decisive role in Afghanistan’s affairs. The Indian side noticed that Kerry, unlike his predecessor Hillary Clinton, was very circumspect in talking about Pakistan during his visit. He refused to make any adverse comments about Islamabad’s alleged involvement in terror activities in the region. In fact, senior U.S. officials have in recent months praised Pakistan’s key role in facilitating talks with Taliban leaders, many of whom are said to be based in the country.

The priority of the Americans is to ensure an orderly withdrawal of their troops and equipment from Afghanistan. Most of the equipment will have to be transported through Pakistani territory. The Obama administration has even offered Pakistan the first choice of the surplus military equipment. U.S. media reports suggest that Pakistan’s powerful military establishment played a crucial role in convincing the Taliban leadership to enter into talks with the U.S.

Washington is no longer accusing Islamabad of providing “safe houses” for the top Taliban leadership but is instead lavishing praise on its efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Afghan crisis. Pakistani officials say that peace in Afghanistan will be a stabilising factor for the region. Pakistan has faced the brunt of the fallout of the war in Afghanistan, with the local Taliban becoming a potent force and taking on the Pakistan Army in the tribal areas. The drone attacks launched by the U.S. military against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan have become an emotive issue with the Pakistani public.

India views the Pakistani moves as a thinly disguised manoeuvre to once again convert Afghanistan into its “strategic backyard” and whittle down India’s growing influence in the country. The focus of the “jehadi” forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan is right now on Kabul. Once the Americans leave, they may once again set their sights on Kashmir. Already there are troubling signs for New Delhi, with Indian troops being targeted in the Valley in the last week of June.

James Dobbins, the recently appointed U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was also in New Delhi in late June to apprise the Indian side about the fast-moving developments. His visit to the Indian capital followed his meeting with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and its Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani. Dobbins told Indian officials that all the important factions of the Taliban, including the “Haqqani group”, were united on the issue of peace talks in Doha. A meeting between Kerry, Karzai and Kayani in Brussels in April this year, according to reports, laid the groundwork for the Doha talks. Islamabad, according to Pakistani officials, had arranged for secret meetings between senior Taliban officials and Afghanistan government representatives in European capitals.

The Taliban was essentially a creation of the Americans and the Pakistanis. Its growth can be traced to the war that the two countries waged against a progressive government that was in power in Kabul in the 1970s and early 1980s. The Taliban conquest of Kabul and much of Afghanistan was facilitated to a great extent by the Pakistani military and its agencies. Washington was doing business with the Taliban government in Kabul and had planned grandiose projects, such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline, before it was declared an outlaw government following the events of September 11, 2001.

The recently retired Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had lavishly funded the construction of the building from which the Taliban functions in Doha. Qatar also provided the funds for the logistics and stay of the Taliban delegation in Doha. The Afghanistan government was also supposed to participate in the Doha talks but withdrew angrily after the flag and the insignia of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, as the country was known during Taliban rule, were prominently displayed at the new building. An angry outburst from Karzai and his threat to boycott the talks indefinitely led to the removal of the offending signs. Karzai threatened to scrap all security agreements with the U.S. if the talks were not “Afghan led”.

The Afghanistan government has designated a “High Peace Council” comprising former Taliban officials and politicians belonging to different groups to negotiate with the Taliban. The peace council is part of the country’s internationally recognised “Peace and Reconciliation Programme”. The Taliban has so far refused to recognise the Karzai-led government and prefers direct talks with Washington.

Karzai, who is due to demit office next year, is also mindful of the resentment of his warlord allies such as Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Ishmail Khan and the First Vice–President, Qasim Fahim, to the peace talks. They were all part of the Northern Alliance, which had never reconciled with the Taliban and was engaged in a civil war before the American invasion. The warlords, according to reports, have already started making preparations for a renewed bout of war after the Americans leave. The Northern Alliance was openly backed by Russia, India and Iran.

Meanwhile, the Taliban, while not spurning negotiations, has launched another “spring offensive” with renewed vigour, targeting high-profile locations, including the presidential palace, military installations and the hotel where Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) offices are located. More than 2,000 U.S. soldiers and contractors have been killed in the past 10 years in Afghanistan. Taliban leader Mullah Omar had released a code of conduct that prohibited Taliban fighters from targeting civilians. However, as one of the preferred modes of staging attacks for the Taliban is suicide bombing, civilian casualties are only bound to increase.

The Taliban has consistently stated that it remains opposed to the presence of foreign troops in the country. One of the members of the Taliban negotiating party in Doha told the Al Jazeera network that his organisation would “simultaneously follow the military and political options. Because there is no ceasefire now, they are attacking us, we are attacking them.” But all the three major parties—the U.S., the Taliban and the Afghanistan government—have once again agreed to keep the negotiations in Doha on track.

The Taliban has even expressed a readiness to share power after the American withdrawal. Their spokesman in Qatar, Mohammed Naeem, said that the group was in favour of an “inclusive government” to be put in place in Kabul. “In his speeches and statements, our leader Mullah Omar has repeatedly said that we want a government representing all Afghans. It should give Afghans the hope that it is a government for all of them and this country belongs to all of them,” said Naeem.

That the Taliban attached importance to the talks was clear from the composition of its delegation to Doha, which comprised senior leaders from the “Quetta Shura”, presided over by its supreme leader Mullah Omar, and a Taliban military commander from eastern Afghanistan. Tayyeb Agha, the leader of the Taliban delegation, was the former chief of staff to Mullah Omar. Many of them are on the United Nations “blacklist” but were allowed to travel to Doha for the talks.

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