Secret Taliban talks go nowhere

Afghan peace deal unlikely amid lack of sincerity, deep political hurdles


Secret contacts are again reported to be under way for an Afghanistan peace deal, but neither analysts nor the insurgents see hope they will succeed.

A Taliban official has said that at least two ministers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government have met with Taliban representatives in the United Arab Emirates, at a time when Pakistan has been releasing dozens of Taliban prisoners in a bid to revive talks.

The talks in the UAE have gone nowhere, the official says, and Pakistan’s national security adviser said the releases have not won any concessions from the Taliban.

A peace deal is critical to avoid a return to civil war when foreign troops leave at the end of this year. But there are many obstacles, some of which run in a circle.

The U.S. wants Karzai to accept a residual force of foreigners to stay on and back up the new Afghan security forces, but Karzai says that before accepting the terms governing that force, he wants Washington to help resume peace talks. Yet at the same time, he objects to negotiating with the Taliban as long as the latter continues to call itself “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — something he views as tantamount to running a rival government.

The Taliban official said the rebels will be ready to accept indirect mediation by a broker shuttling between the parties, modeled on the process that led to the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan after their 10-year occupation. He requested anonymity, saying he did not have permission from Mullah Omar, the movement’s leader, to speak to the media.

But the sincerity of both sides is questioned. Many wonder whether Karzai even wants a peace deal before April’s election. He is ineligible for a third term, and stalling until he is out of office will punt the tough decisions to his successor. And the Taliban still needs to prove it can be trusted not to exact revenge for alleged atrocities by Afghan leaders.

The ill feeling resonates in the case of Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord whom the Taliban, as well as Western human rights organizations, accuses of killing thousands of surrendering Taliban during the U.S.-led 2001 invasion. Dostum is running for vice president in the election.

Graeme Smith, senior Afghanistan analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says everyone is stalling.

“All sides have failed to bridge the political divide,” Smith said by email.

Pakistan, which is seen as key to bringing the Taliban to the table, says the militants are not interested in talking to Karzai’s government.

Sartaj Aziz, the national security adviser, said that prisoner releases have not moved the Taliban, nor has Karzai’s refusal to sign the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement allowing for an outside force to remain in Afghanistan, even though that should please the insurgents who want all foreign troops to leave.

“They (the Taliban) think it is all a drama and he (Karzai) will sign,” Aziz said in an interview.

The most significant release has been that of the Taliban’s former No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. But Taliban officials say he remains under virtual house arrest in Pakistan because he will not open direct talks with Karzai’s government unless authorized by Mullah Omar.

The Taliban official who spoke anonymously has been known to the AP since the Taliban were in power before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. He said both sides in the conflict — the Taliban and rival militias — are gearing up for a fight after international troops leave.

He said that while the Taliban leadership is willing to talk, most of its battlefield commanders are opposed, particularly the new generation, which is confident it can recapture the entire country.

Recently, it has been learned that militias loyal to several senior Afghan government officials are resurrecting weapons caches that were supposed to have been handed over to a United Nations-sponsored disarmament program. Further indications of the trouble have come in the latest U.S. National Intelligence estimate, as reported by the Washington Post, which predicts Afghanistan will sink into chaos.

“The insurgents are watching tens of thousands of foreign troops leave the country and they assume this will shift the military balance in their favor, while the government assumes its forces will hold their ground,” said Smith of the ICG. “This gap in both sides’ understanding of the battlefield will probably fuel conflict in the short term.”