January issue 2012
US Looking to Negotiate With the Taliban
Over much of the last decade, fighting was deemed the only viable option by the US and its allies to defeat the Taliban and bring an end to the Afghan conflict. However, there has been a shift in emphasis during the past year and now the mention of talking to the enemy is frequently heard along with the need to continue the fight.
It was in February 2011, at an Asia Society event in Washington, that Secretary of State Hillary Clintonmade her little noticed remarks that heralded an important change in the US policy with regard to the Taliban. Henceforth, she said, the US would not put any conditions for initiating peace talks with the Taliban. Instead, the three conditions that the US stressed earlier for the Taliban to meet would now become the objectives that Washington would try to achieve through unconditional talks with the hitherto shunned group. The Taliban were, therefore, no longer required to first renounce violence, accept Afghanistan’s constitution and dissociate from Al Qaeda before they could be recognised as a negotiating partner.
During a visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan some months ago, Hillary Clinton used the words fight, talk and build to explain her government’s new strategy towards the Taliban. Her emphasis, though, was still on the fight against the Taliban as the idea was to weaken them to such an extent that they would agree to hold peace talks and accept a deal on US terms. Critics weren’t impressed as they felt fighting and talking could not go together. It was pointed out that the Taliban, like the US, would want to talk from a position of strength. A weakened Taliban would rather continue to fight than make peace on terms unfavourable to their cause. The critics of the new US strategy also felt building war-ravaged Afghanistan would be a challenge due to the insecurity that has now taken hold of much of Afghanistan.
Once the US unveiled its new strategy, certain new developments have taken place in the context of the Afghanistan situation. Following a NATO summit in Portugal, 2014 was decided as the deadline for the withdrawal of all US-led international forces from Afghanistan and a phased security transition to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) was drawn up. Under this plan, 10,000 US troops were to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and another 23,000 by the next autumn. Security in a number of Afghan provinces, cities and towns has already been transitioned to the Afghan forces, though NATO troops are still deployed there to offer back-up support in case of emergency.
Apart from sustained military operations in Taliban strongholds, a greater effort was put into practice to establish contacts with the Taliban. To avoid previous mistakes and the embarrassment of talking to fake Taliban, the US made contacts with the Haqqani Network, a powerful faction of the Mullah Omar-led Taliban movement, through Pakistan. It also allowed some of its western allies to establish contacts with the Taliban. Finally, it managed to talk to some Taliban officials using the contacts developed by Germany. These talks have reportedly taken place in Qatar and Germany over the past several months and have reached a stage that now there is talk of opening a formal Taliban office in Qatar’s capital, Doha. Still there has been no real breakthrough in the preliminary talks and some media reports say these are presently stalled.
Though the Taliban aren’t confirming that they are ready to establish an office in Qatar, there are signs that they are seriously considering the option. In the past, the Taliban had rejected opening an office in Turkey by arguing that being a member of NATO, with troops fighting alongside the US in Afghanistan, it wasn’t neutral. The Taliban also said they would prefer having an office in Afghanistan instead of a third country.
A top Taliban representative Tayyab Agha, who is a brother-in-law of Mullah Omar, has been living in Qatar for the past several months and meeting officials from Qatar, the US and Germany. It is also said that an unofficial Taliban office is already being run in Qatar as some other Taliban including the political committee member, Shahabuddin Dilawar, have also joined Tayyab Agha there. Earlier, the US had confirmed contacts with the Taliban and it was reported by sections of the media that Tayyab Agha and some other Taliban representatives had met American and German government officials in Qatar and Germany. The Taliban, too, had indirectly confirmed these contacts by arguing that they have been discussing the release of Taliban prisoners held by the US in Guantanamo Bay and Bagram.
The Afghan government has been supporting the opening of a Taliban office so that they have an address and could be contacted for peace talks. However, the Afghan government was apparently unhappy with the Qatar government for not informing it before allowing the Taliban to open an office in Doha. The Afghan ambassador in Doha was summoned to Kabul for consultation as a spokesman of President Hamid Karzai’s government pointed out, though media reports said it was to register protest with the Qatar government for not taking Afghanistan into confidence about the Taliban office.
Qatar’s prime minister responded by arguing that there cannot be a solution to the Afghan conflict without the Taliban. He said Qatar wanted to promote peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. It is obvious that Qatar would have consulted the US before offering to host a Taliban office. The small Gulf state of Qatar, it may be added, is ambitiously pursuing an aggressive foreign policy and punching above its weight while trying to act as a broker in resolving difficult issues in the Middle East, Central Asia and other regions. Hosting the US Central Command base, Qatar is an ally of the US and is, therefore, trusted to take care of American and western interests.
After initial dithering, the Karzai government has now relented and backed the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar. President Karzai made it clear their first choice for a Taliban office was Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but he argued that Qatar was being accepted for the sake of peace. The fact remains that the Afghan government cannot say no to the US and has to go along even if it isn’t taken into confidence while important decisions about Afghanistan’s future are being made. The US and all other major and regional powers and international organisations never tire of saying that the peace process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led, but it is also a fact that the Afghan government is too weak and vulnerable to lead any such effort or survive without outside support.
While explaining its future roadmap for negotiating with the Taliban, the Afghan government has made the same three conditions that the US was insisting upon earlier but has now withdrawn in a bid to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. Afghanistan’s High Council for Peace, set up by the Afghan government to pursue peace with the Taliban and former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s much-splintered and weakened Hezb-i-Islami, has added a few conditions of its own by demanding that the Taliban should identify their negotiators and liaison office and agree to a ceasefire. It also wanted that the US should not strike independent deals with the militants. The High Council for Peace has taken a tough stand after its head Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed in a suicide bombing, apparently carried out by a faction of the Taliban.
On their part, the Taliban have refused to talk to the Afghan government. In fact, there has been no direct contact or talks yet, between the Karzai government and the Taliban. The Taliban don’t recognise President Karzai’s government and its High Council for Peace. However, the Taliban appear ready to talk to the US as they believe it is the power behind the Afghan government and holds the key to any deal for ending the conflict in Afghanistan.
This is the reason that the Taliban are now reluctantly admitting that they are in contact with the US for discussing the release of Taliban prisoners. However, they refuse to say these things clearly as most Taliban fighters and field commanders don’t want to talk to the US until the withdrawal of NATO forces, in line with the old Taliban stand on the issue. It is obvious that selling any deal that is short of the expectations of the Taliban field commanders won’t be easy. For that matter, Mullah Omar too is a hawk, as he had refused to deliver Osama bin Laden to the US and now seems to be heading the Taliban camp that is willing to fight the US and its allies until the last man is down.
Pakistan is considered crucial to making both war and peace in Afghanistan. But the Pakistan government, like Afghanistan, was apparently kept unaware by the US and Qatar about allowing the Taliban to open their office in Qatar. Pakistan is unhappy that the US is ignoring it despite its offer to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. However, this is understandable due to the bitter relations between Pakistan and the US, following the NATO airstrike on November 26 that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in Mohmand Agency and injured another 15. The US and Pakistan aren’t cooperating much these days in the so-called war on terror or in taking forward the stalled Afghan peace process. In the past, Pakistan managed to arrange talks between US officials and the Haqqani Network. Nobody important from Haqqanis attended those talks as only Ibrahim Haqqani, an uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani, met the Americans. Ibrahim Haqqani isn’t a military commander and doesn’t really represent the Haqqani Network. Even otherwise, there isn’t much incentive for Islamabad to help Washington in concluding a face-saving peace deal in Afghanistan when its own relations with the US are inimical instead of being friendly.
STOP PRESS: Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, in an email statement announced that negotiations are underway to set up an office in Qatar and that an initial understanding has been reached with the Qatar authorities – January 2, 2012.
This article was originally published in the Annual 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “A Face-Saving Deal.”
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.