x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Talking about talking to the Taliban

Amid a broadening consensus among Afghan political leaders and their western allies that efforts should be made to negotiate with the Taliban, or at least elements among Nato's adversaries, there are few signs that a reciprocal desire exists on the other side. Mullah Omar has sent a clear message to the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, that a military victory is the only option for the Taliban.

Amid a broadening consensus among Afghan political leaders and their western allies that efforts should be made to negotiate with the Taliban, or at least elements among Nato's adversaries, there are few signs that a reciprocal desire exists on the other side. The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, has sent a clear message to the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, that a military victory is the only option for the Taliban. "Whether and how to negotiate peace with the Taliban has become the one issue that no candidate in the Afghan presidential election can avoid taking a stand on," The New York Times reported. "There is broad agreement that the war must end, but debate swirls around whether the government of President Hamid Karzai is moving effectively toward persuading the Taliban to end their insurgency. "Although Mr Karzai has often talked about negotiating with the Taliban, little concrete has happened. The government's reconciliation programme for Taliban fighters is barely functioning. A Saudi mediation effort has stalled. Last-minute efforts to engage the Taliban in order to allow elections to take place remain untested. Meanwhile the Obama administration has just sent thousands of additional troops here in an attempt to push back Taliban gains. "Mr Karzai, who polls indicate is still the front-runner, is the most vocal in calling for negotiations, pledging that if he is re-elected he will hold a traditional tribal gathering and invite members of the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another opposition leader, to make peace. And just in the past few weeks, his government has started several initiatives to approach local Taliban commanders through tribal elders. The government also has started work to win over the tribes by hiring thousands of their young men to be part of a local protection force, primarily to ensure security for elections. But each of Mr Karzai's three main opponents is critical of his record in following through on such promises." The Sunday Times reported earlier this month: "Talks with the Taliban must include the movement's leadership or they will not result in peace, the top United Nations official in Afghanistan has warned as differences emerge within the international community about a strategy to end the eight-year war. " 'If you want important results you need to talk to people who are important,' said Kai Eide, the special representative for the UN secretary-general, in an interview with The Sunday Times. " 'We won't get where we want by negotiating with local commanders on the ground. That's an inadequate peace process and that won't work.' "His views contrast with those of David Miliband, the foreign secretary, who called last week for talks with local Taliban commanders and what he referred to as 'second or third tier Taliban' or 'moderate Taliban'.[...] "Talk about talks has been going on since last September, when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited key figures to a reception in Mecca. Subsequent meetings have taken place in Dubai but little progress has been achieved." In July, Syed Saleem Shahzad, reporting for Asia Times said: "This year, the Saudi efforts seemed about to enter a significant phase when Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz became directly involved in the mediation process. "An Afghan-American, Daoud Abedi, a close aide to Afghan commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, became involved in negotiations with the Americans. Prince Aziz planned to contact Mullah Omar through the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. Despite much effort, this did not happen, although contact was made with Mullah Bradar, Mullah Omar's anointed supreme commander of the Taliban and his most trusted lieutenant. "The dialogue developed to the point where al Qa'eda leaders began to feel threatened - many Taliban commanders in the southwest were desperate to strike peace deals with Nato and talked of al Qa'eda as a liability. Prince Aziz was optimistic enough to say that by the end of the year the stage would be set for the US and the Taliban to begin discussing peace formulas. "Following the grand shura and the military consolidation in Afghanistan, though, Mullah Omar has sent a clear message to Prince Aziz that a military victory is the only option for the Taliban and that nothing can stop the war except a clear defeat of the Western occupation armies in Afghanistan." Selig S Harrison wrote in The New York Times: "As the debate intensifies within the Obama administration over how to stabilise Afghanistan, one major problem is conspicuously missing from the discussion: the growing alienation of the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtun tribes, who make up an estimated 42 per cent of the population of 33 million. One of the basic reasons many Pashtuns support the Taliban insurgency is that their historic rivals, ethnic Tajiks, hold most of the key levers of power in the government. "Tajiks constitute only about 24 per cent of the population, yet they largely control the armed forces and the intelligence and secret police agencies that loom over the daily lives of the Pashtuns. Little wonder that in the run-up to Thursday's presidential election, much of the Taliban propaganda has focused on the fact that President Hamid Karzai's top running mate is a hated symbol of Tajik power: the former defense minister Muhammad Fahim. "Mr Fahim and his allies have been entrenched in Kabul since American forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001 with the help of his Tajik militia, the Northern Alliance, which was based in the Panjshir valley north of the capital. A clique of these Tajik officers, known as the Panjshiris, took control of the key security posts with American backing, and they have been there ever since. Washington pushed Mr Karzai for the presidency to give a Pashtun face to the regime, but he has been derided from the start by his fellow Pashtuns with a play on his name, 'Panjshir-zai'. " 'They get the dollars, and we get the bullets,' is the common refrain among Pashtuns critical of the government. 'Dollars' refers to the economic enrichment of Tajiks and allied minority ethnic groups through an inside track on aid contracts. The 'bullets' are the anti-Taliban airstrikes and ground operations in Pashtun areas in the south and east of the country." Last month, Rory Stewart, the Harvard professor and former British diplomat, wrote in the London Review of Books: "the Taliban can exploit the ideology of religious resistance that the West deliberately fostered in the 1980s to defeat the Russians. They can portray the Kabul government as US slaves, Nato as an infidel occupying force and their own insurgency as a jihad. Their complaints about corruption, human rights abuses and aerial bombardments appeal to a large audience. They are attracting Afghans to their rural courts by giving quicker and more predictable rulings than government judges. "Like some Afghan government officials, the Taliban have developed an ambiguous and sometimes profitable relationship with the drug lords. They are able to slip back and forth across the Pakistani border and receive support there. They have massacred Alokozai elders who tried to resist them. They are mounting successful attacks against the coalition and the Afghan government in the south and east. They are operating in more districts than in 2006 and control provinces, such as Wardak, which are close to Kabul. They have a chance of retaking southern district towns such as Musa Qala and perhaps even some provincial capitals. "But the Taliban are very unlikely to take over Afghanistan as a whole. Their previous administration provided basic road security and justice but it was fragile and fell quickly. They are no longer perceived, as they were by some in 1994, as young student angels saving the country from corruption. Millions of Afghans disliked their brutality, incompetence and primitive attitudes. The Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek populations are wealthier, more established and more powerful than they were in 1996 and would strongly resist any attempt by the Taliban to occupy their areas. The Afghan national army is reasonably effective. Pakistan is not in a position to support the Taliban as it did before. It would require far fewer international troops and planes than we have today to make it very difficult for the Taliban to gather a conventional army as they did in 1996 and drive tanks and artillery up the main road to Kabul. "Even if - as seems most unlikely - the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security. Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al Qa'eda? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al Qa'eda land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al Qa'eda still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?"

pwoodward@thenational.ae