x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

UN takes top Taliban officials off blacklist

Five ministers in regime overthrown in 2001 are no longer subject to travel bans, arms embargoes or freezing of their assets.

LONDON // The United Nations removed five former Taliban officials from its sanctions blacklist in a highly significant step towards bringing lasting peace between the Taliban-led insurgents and the Afghan government. The five figures, all mid- to high-ranking ministers in the regime overthrown by US Coalition forces in 2001, are no longer subject to international travel bans, arms embargoes or the freezing of their assets.

The most high profile is Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, 39, the former foreign minister and confidant of Mullah Omar who has been living openly in Kandahar and Kabul since the US military released him from detention in Bagram airbase in 2003. Another figure, Mohammad Musa Hottak, 55, is currently an elected member of parliament for Wardak province just north of Kabul, which has largely fallen under the insurgents' control.

Crucially, both men recognise the legitimacy of the Kabul government and have stopped fighting, two criteria for a major reconciliation plan backed by the president, Hamid Karzai, and some of his western supporters. The decision was made by the UN Security Council in New York. The wisdom of making peace with the Taliban has become a heated topic of debate among Afghan civil society activists, politicians, ministers and their western counterparts who are arriving in the British capital for a major conference on Afghanistan which starts today.

Kai Eide, the UN special envoy, has said he favours a full review of the sanctions list. "To start on a person-by-person basis to take people off that list, to get that process going, I think that would have an important psychological effect and it would have a political effect," he said recently. The UN sanctions were imposed in 1999 under UN resolution 1267 after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to face trial in the United States for masterminding the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa. The men on the list were suspected of having ties to al Qa'eda. Another 142 Taliban members remain on the blacklist in addition to 256 al Qa'eda figures.

Mark Sedwill, who on Tuesday was appointed Nato's senior civilian representative in a newly expanded role that will see him co-ordinate the delivery of aid and development, expressed hesitation. "Three quarters of the insurgents are not hardcore," he said. "My view is we should work on the 75 per cent of the insurgency and the issues that underpin it rather than political reconciliation with the hardcore, but it is up to the Afghans to decide," he said at the Frontline club for journalists on Tuesday evening.

Several Afghan observers said lifting the sanctions was a good move. "It is a very positive development," said Janan Mosazai, a political activist who will stand as an independent candidate in the next parliamentary elections scheduled for September. "The requirement is now to give them the space to reach out as mediators between the current Taliban leadership and the government. A lot of them have expressed their preparedness to work for political solution. These men who are released are not part of the current leadership circle but they can play a constructive role between the international community on one hand and the Taliban element of the armed opposition."

But there is also concern that allowing the Taliban to be part of the reconstruction of the country could result in an erosion of women's rights in such areas as forced marriage and education, which are guaranteed under the constitution. "People are not convinced in Afghanistan about the Taliban because it evokes the dark days," said Jawed Nader, a social activist and official in the ministry of agriculture. "There must be no concession to the Afghan constitution with regards to the rights of women and in fact they will have to go forward."

Today's conference will try to build international political support to turn around the failing Afghan mission. Aid organisations are worried that as the 30,000-strong US surge gets underway later this summer to claw back territory from the Taliban, the militarisation of the aid effort will increase. The agencies said that the US military alone has budgeted an extra US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) for the coming year to win hearts and minds in quick impact projects such as building wells and schools.

One leading development worker described the long-term impact of such an approach on building the country as "zip". @Email:hghafour@thenational.ae