July Issue 2013
Peace or Pipe Dream?
The Afghan Taliban may have been informally operating out of Doha, Qatar for over two years, but the formal opening of their office on June 18 represented a breakthrough in reviving the stalled peace process in Afghanistan.
Finally, the Taliban have an address — something demanded by President Hamid Karzai’s government for
the past few years so that he could contact them. Taliban representatives are now known and could be contacted for holding talks or clarifying issues. There would be fewer chances of imposters posing as Taliban envoys and being welcomed and paid for by naive Afghan, American and other officials of western countries with a troop presence in Afghanistan who are desperate to establish contact with true Taliban representatives.
It is true that the proposed talks between the Taliban and US officials could not begin due to the fiasco at the opening ceremony of the Taliban office in Doha. The controversy over the hoisting of the white Taliban flag and the display of the banner, ‘Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,’ — the name that the ruling Taliban gave to the country from 1996-2001 — spoiled the atmosphere and delayed formal talks between the two sides. This was the opportunity the Taliban had awaited for more than a decade and they tried to make the best use of it to claim legitimacy and score propaganda points. The Taliban were in hiding until now, and operated in a clandestine manner, but henceforth they would have a political arm operating in Qatar along with the military wing fighting it out in Afghanistan. The Afghan government had reasons to be angry as the Taliban office appeared to be a parallel embassy and the headquarters of a government-in-exile. Karzai was also furious with the US and Qatar as his government had been sidelined. He reacted by suspending the fourth round of the talks with the US for finalising a bilateral security agreement that would allow the Americans to retain control of nine military bases in Afghanistan for stationing special forces, jet-fighters, helicopters and drones beyond 2014 for use against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
However, the dispute triggered by the controversial opening ceremony of the Taliban office in Qatar is expected to be sorted out as the government of Qatar has prevailed upon the Taliban to refer to it simply as their political office. If all goes well, the Taliban and US officials would soon resume their talks that ended abruptly in March last year. On that occasion, the Taliban had suspended the talks after accusing the US authorities of going back on their word to exchange prisoners. Obviously, the US held a different view, but it was not publicly highlighted as the Americans didn’t want to overplay the fact that they were involved in secret talks with the Taliban in Qatar. After having demonised the Taliban for years and equating them with Al-Qaeda, the US did not want to provoke criticism of its decision to enter into peace talks with people it had branded as terrorists.
The Afghan government had reasons to be angry as the Taliban office appeared to be a parallel embassy and the headquarters of a government-in-exile. Karzai was also furious with the US and Qatar as his government had been sidelined. He reacted by suspending the fourth round of the talks with the US for finalising a bilateral security agreement that would allow the Americans to retain control of nine military bases in Afghanistan for stationing special forces, jet-fighters, helicopters and drones beyond 2014 for use against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
According to Taliban sources, they were the ones to delay holding talks with the US once again, on the orders of their supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar. The 11 Taliban negotiators present in Qatar are now waiting for orders from Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura (Leadership Council) for resuming the talks with the US officials. Despite being in hiding, Mullah Omar is still the undisputed leader of the Taliban and no decision can be taken without consulting him. It is generally believed that Mullah Omar had personally selected the Taliban negotiators, led by his former office secretary and spokesman, Tayyab Agha, and he issues them directions through some of his trusted aides.
President Karzai’s strong reaction to the designation of the Taliban office as that of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and the announcement by his government that the Afghan High Peace Council delegation would not be going to Qatar to hold talks with Taliban representatives, gave the impression that Kabul was backing out of the peace process as a mark of protest. But, in reality, it is the Taliban who have refused to talk to the Afghan government and there is every possibility that they would refuse to meet the members of the High Peace Council in case they turned up in Doha. While there are bright chances of resumption of talks between the Taliban and the US in Qatar, there is less likelihood of any face-to-face meeting of the Taliban and the Afghan government or High Peace Council officials. On its part, the US would try to persuade the Taliban, with Pakistan’s help, to agree to talks with the Afghan government.
As was the case in the previous round of failed talks held between the Taliban and US officials in Qatar in late 2011 and early 2012, the Taliban would insist, once again, on first reaching an agreement on the swapping of prisoners. They want five of their important men — including the former Taliban deputy defence minister Mullah Mohammad Fazil, intelligence directorate officials Abdul Haq Waseeq and Mohammad Nabi, former interior minister Khairullah Khairkhwa and one-time Balkh province governor Noorullah Noori — freed from the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the American soldier, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who, on June 30 completed four years in the Taliban’s captivity. The two sides had almost come to an agreement on swapping prisoners in their earlier round of talks, but the deal fell through due to President Barack Obama’s political compulsions in the year of his re-election. It is likely that Obama, in his second term, might be able to make such a deal, but the US would also want to use the occasion to get the Taliban to concede willingness to talk to the Afghan government and publicly dissociate from Al-Qaeda.
Furthermore, the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar did not lead to any reduction in their attacks against the US-led NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. Rather, there was a sudden increase in the number of Taliban assaults, as if they wanted to send the message that they weren’t talking from a position of weakness. A Taliban rocket attack reportedly killed four US soldiers at the huge Bagram airbase soon after the opening of their political office in Qatar. Not long after it, Taliban suicide bombers stormed the presidential palace, Arg, and the nearby CIA station in Kabul. However, both the Taliban, and the US and Afghan governments were quick to announce that these attacks would not affect their decision to hold peace talks in Qatar. Their message was loud and clear and surprisingly similar — that they would fight as well as talk. The two sides have been fighting for years without any clear winner and now they seem determined to negotiate a peaceful solution even if its chances of success are minimal.
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.