Negotiations have begun in secret with the enemy in Afghanistan. Jason Burke reveals the back channels of diplomacy that led to the controversial talks
Sunday September 28 2008
For the past few months an incongruous figure has passed through the airports of the Middle East and Europe: a senior Afghan cleric who defected from the Taliban. Bearded and in traditional dress, he has unsurprisingly needed the help of the Saudi Arabian and British intelligence services - among others - to pass unhindered between capitals.
He has always travelled in great secrecy, his movements known only to a few individuals at the highest levels of the Afghan government, in Riyadh and among certain Western allies. His mission: to talk to the Taliban leadership about a possible peace deal.
The backing given by the West to these talks is a measure of how badly things have gone wrong in Afghanistan, and how far Western governments are prepared to go to stabilise a deteriorating situation which is costing more in men, money and political capital than they ever imagined. The equally worrying situation in Pakistan, where the Taliban are largely based and where a separate but related insurgency has broken out, has given the initiative a new urgency.
That the Saudi Arabians accepted the invitation of the Afghan government to sponsor the initiative this summer is a measure of how concerned those who govern the traditionally leading nation of the Sunni Muslim world are about Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and the consequences they might have for the rest of the Islamic world and beyond. It is also a measure of the esteem in which the Saudis are still held.
This is not the first time the Saudi Arabians have brokered talks with the Taliban, and Western powers have been keen to get Riyadh more involved in Afghanistan for some time. The Saudis, along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, were the only states to recognise the hardline Islamic militia as rulers of Afghanistan in the Nineties. In 1998 they also nearly concluded a deal with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, to hand over Osama bin Laden.
For the West, the sponsorship of Riyadh is essential. Western efforts to negotiate with the Taliban have rarely brought any durable positive results. The reconciliation process launched by the Afghan government has brought in about 5,000 low-level fighters and a handful of mid-level commanders, but has never had the political backing or resources that was needed for it to become a genuine means of sapping the strength of the Taliban.
But these most recent talks also show that, at the very least, some of the Taliban senior command are getting tired. 'They've been fighting for nearly seven years, living undercover, moving regularly, unable to go back to Afghanistan without risking a violent death. Despite the bellicose rhetoric and the successes of recent months, they have lost a lot of people and there is a certain degree of fatigue,' said one experienced Pakistan-based observer.
The Saudi initiative has resulted in the submission of a list of demands by the Taliban to Kabul. One problem was that those demands keep changing, said one Afghan source. A second is the question of whether any potential agreement could be made to stick.
'We could agree something with the high command that won't be put into action at a grass-roots level,' said an adviser to the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban demands are also unlikely to be acceptable to the Western powers, especially the US, which have bankrolled the effort to stabilise and reconstruct Afghanistan. Hekmat Karzai, director of a think tank in Kabul, said that although discussions with the Taliban 'might not be too difficult... getting the international community on board would be extremely hard'.
Another problem would be convincing other ethnic groups in Afghanistan who suffered heavily under the Taliban regime to accept any deal.
However, there is increasing acceptance among Western officials and strategists that some kind of political accommodation to at least divide the Taliban may be inevitable. There are also question marks over to what extent Taliban factions may be manipulated by elements within the Pakistani security establishment. However, Islamabad is unlikely to oppose moves to integrate senior Taliban figures into the political process in Kabul.
Previous attempts to negotiate with the Taliban have been problematic. A controversial truce in Helmand province, where British troops are deployed, was widely criticised for handing the key town of Musa Qala back to the militants and necessitating a major operation to recapture it.
In May, the former Afghan President Burnahuddin Rabbani said he had contacted the Taliban and received 'encouraging responses'. The Taliban published a statement on their website saying they would 'fight until the withdrawal of the last crusading invader', but added that 'the door for talks, understanding and negotiations will always be open' to 'mujahideen' such as Rabbani, who fought the Russians in the Eighties.
One problem with the Saudi-sponsored talks so far is that the go-between has been unable to speak directly to Mullah Omar. However, an Afghan source described the initiative as 'a step in the right direction', whatever the result. 'Anything that might be an ice-breaker and might take us forward is welcome,' he said.