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Talking cure

The big idea The Afghan elections,Syed Saleem Shahzad writes, are but a prelude to an ambitious American and Afghan plan to negotiate with the Taliban.

An Afghan policemen searches voters in front of a polling station of Lublan, in southern Afghanistan, on August 20, 2009.
An Afghan policemen searches voters in front of a polling station of Lublan, in southern Afghanistan, on August 20, 2009.

The Afghan elections,Syed Saleem Shahzad writes, are but a prelude to an ambitious American and Afghan plan to negotiate with the Taliban. It would be premature to declare last week's election in Afghanistan a success: many voters stayed away from the polls thanks to threats of violence from the Taliban, while candidates who appear to have lost to President Hamid Karzai have already launched accusations of voter fraud in several provinces. But for the United States and its western allies, the election achieved its purpose: to set the stage for the construction of a consensus government in Afghanistan that will aim to bring the Taliban-led insurgency to an end by isolating and then negotiating with individual Taliban commanders.

The key plank of this post-election strategy - which also envisions a second term for Karzai - is the beginning of a reconciliation process with the Taliban. According to multiple sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration plans to take rapid and firm steps toward reconciliation with an eye toward achieving measurable results before the mid-term US Congressional elections in autumn 2010.

The American plan for Afghanistan, as described, has echoes of the strategy deployed in Pakistan in 2007, when the US supported a broad-based secular coalition that was expected to form a consensus government in order to provide support for the Pakistan army to crack down on insurgent forces within the country. The plan for Afghanistan, similarly, is said to envision a role for all of the major players - including the presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah - and a stronger role for the Afghan parliament.

At the same time, the Americans and British believe that a peace deal can only be struck with certain Taliban leaders willing to reconcile themselves with the elected government. The military campaign will continue, with two aims: to defeat those insurgent leaders who refuse to enter talks, and to pressure those willing to negotiate into doing so: lower-ranking and mid-level Taliban cadres who come to the table are likely to be offered roles in the federal or provincial governments as ministers, advisers or governors.

"A major breakthrough is expected in talks with the Taliban after the presidential elections in Afghanistan," the former Taliban minister and sitting Afghan senator Maulavi Arsala Rehmani told me two days before the election, adding that negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban were already underway. Talks began before the presidential election, via several different channels of approach. Some have involved senior western diplomatic officials (from the UK and US) and military commanders, as well as the Afghan government, which has used several former Taliban leaders as go-betweens.

According to Arsala Rehmani, the dialogue with the Taliban has thus far been of an indirect nature: rather than speaking to senior commanders, he has communicated with Taliban leaders through relatives and mutual friends. In this process written notes were exchanged, and both sides presented demands and proposals intended to begin the negotiations. A senior western diplomat in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Kai Eide, the UN's special representative to Afghanistan, had begun talking with a member of the Taliban's Shura council in Quetta. The diplomat added that the dialogue, which was also conducted through a go-between, involved proposals from the UN that the Taliban, as a gesture of goodwill, halt its attacks on Afghan infrastructure and schools; the Taliban, as a counterproposal, suggested that it be allowed to open up madrassas in Afghanistan. The Taliban also proposed to restrict al Qa'eda activity in Afghanistan in exchange for the ability to open representative offices in countries like Saudi Arabia or Turkey, which would provide a neutral venue for further talks between Taliban leaders and the Afghan government.

According to another UN official, the escalation of the war against the Taliban in Pakistan cut off supply lines for several Taliban commanders in the Afghan provinces of Farah and Nimroz, leading them, for the first time, to approach Nato through UN provincial offices to pursue limited ceasefire deals. Pakistan, which previously turned a blind eye to the presence of top Taliban commanders, has more recently sought to deny them safe haven. Anwarul Haq Mujahid, the head of the Taliban in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, was arrested by Pakistani forces in Peshawar two months ago. Haq, who headed a Taliban unit called the Tora Bora group, was the main strategist behind attacks on Nato supplies coming into Afghanistan through Pakistan's Khyber Agency. Sources in Pakistani security say that he was detained in a safe house run by Pakistan's Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI) and presented as the first top Taliban commander ready for reconciliation with the Afghan government.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, who served as the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, remains sceptical of the plans for reconciliation. "This whole exercise is not trustworthy at all. I don't think that Taliban would respond to such calls, as they very well understand that the agenda is to divide them," he said last week at his home in Kabul. Zaeef has often been used by the Afghan government to communicate with Taliban leaders, but he said he has played no role in negotiations. He was serving in Pakistan at the time of the September 11 attacks, and was handed over to the United States and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Since his release in 2005 he has lived in Kabul with few restrictions.

"Nothing is concrete so far. There is no direct contact with the Taliban leadership. At present, it appears to me that western occupation forces in Afghanistan are more focused on splitting the Taliban rather than on any reconciliation process," Zaeef maintained. There are several obstacles, according to Zaeef, to the Taliban accepting any western proposals for reconciliation. "The biggest problem," he said, "is the trust deficit. Why should the Taliban trust these proposals?"

At the moment, however, while there is a broad consensus among western and local policymakers in favour of dealing with the Taliban, there are significant disagreements over the best means of doing so. The US State Department and the US military remain divided over the proper course of action: the generals want to achieve battlefield victories over the Taliban before beginning any talks, while the diplomats are intent on launching dialogue initiatives without spending any more time trying out new military tactics.

Whether the top Taliban leadership is truly ready for dialogue remains to be seen. "The million dollar question in this whole game is whether Mullah Omar is ready to talk," said Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan foreign minister and current presidential candidate, a day after the election. "I don't think so," he concluded. "I believe in a different approach and that is about reaching out to people," he said. "There should be a strategy to isolate the extremist elements and talk only to those Taliban who are ready to talk. There is a need to tackle this issue with a new perspective. There is a need to reach out on a province-by-province basis. There was a time when Pakistan and the Pakistanis were supportive of the Taliban; Pakistan is now against them and this offers a good chance to isolate the extremists and talk to those who are reconcilable," Abdullah said.

The process of reconciliation, however, cannot but be a complex one. As Arsala Rehmani noted, a great deal of patience will be required to address the competing agendas among the many factions on each side - which include the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and representatives of Britain and the United States and, on the Taliban side, a host of competing factions with very different perspectives on negotiating with the government and its western allies.

For the Taliban, the very prospect of reconciliation may signal a victory of sorts: an acknowledgement that Afghanistan cannot be governed while their insurgency continues to rage. But it is also a major compromise: they may enter the government, but they will not be able to operate as a unified front, and there will be little opportunity to pursue the totalitarian ideology with which they once ruled the country.

Rehmani nevertheless insists that the situation has reached a point where both camps are willing to reach out to each other to break the stalemate. Among the British and American forces, he said, there is a realisation that their attempt to defeat the Taliban militarily has alienated local populations and enabled the Taliban to increase their presence across Afghanistan and Pakistan; they are therefore eager to begin reconciliation talks as soon as possible. At the same time, Rehmani suggests, the existing efforts at dialogue with individual members of the Taliban command will soon force even the movement's top leaders to the negotiating table. "If they all agree on reconciliation," he said, "there is no way that Mullah Omar will fight alone. He would have to agree to talk."

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan bureau chief. His writings have appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique and La Stampa.