October 26th, 2010
01:06 PM ET

Opinion: Talking about talking with the Taliban

Editor’s Note: Abbas Daiyar began his blog, Kabul Perspective, last year to look at issues in Kabul and around the world. He has worked with newspapers in Pakistan and reported for news agencies in the past and is now a member of the editorial board of the independent Daily Outlook Afghanistan newspaper in Kabul. The opinions expressed in this guest blog are solely those of Abbas Daiyar.

Once again the talks about talks with Taliban are gaining momentum. It got hyped when President Hamid Karzai announced a Peace Council to talk with the insurgents. This is apparently the most serious attempt, but the process is a complex one, as shown by the contradicting media reports.

It was a U-turn when the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus said NATO has let at least one Taliban commander come to Kabul. Some reports even suggested Taliban commanders were flown to Kabul in a NATO aircraft. It’s more of a political statement rather than a policy, or a green signal for the insurgents, showing a change in the U.S. reluctance over talks with Taliban. But it’s just propaganda when military commanders in Afghanistan say Taliban are under pressure, therefore more are forced to talks. The fact is that 2010 has been the deadliest year for U.S. forces since the start of war.

Rumors also surround talks with Taliban. For instance, last month there was a private conference in the Serena Hotel of Kabul. Former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Mutawakil, a cousin and some aides of President Karzai, and nationalist and religious Pashtun leaders from Pakistan were participants of this private conference. The media was not informed of the event, thus rumors circulated that ‘secret’ talks were being held with Taliban. Another report about the release of Mullah Baradar by Pakistani intelligence was also rumor, circulating on major media outlets as breaking news.

Since the Peace Council started its work, the Afghan government claimed some senior Taliban commanders have contacted them for peace talks. Then, Taliban spokesmen denied any such contacts. In a recent interview with BBC Urdu, former Gitmo detainee Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef said the news of talks with Taliban is propaganda to divide and create distrust among the ranks of Taliban leadership. He also warned the insurgents to be wise against the rumors.

So, the prospects of talks with Taliban are very much overestimated. Apparently, the best hope for decision makers in Kabul and Washington is the Peace Council. But there is no one prominent on the council. President Karzai has said the council will be independent, but its chairman was appointed by him. The mechanism of this council will not be a serious working body, as already problems have emerged from within the council. Chairman Senator Sibghatullah Mujadadi and some members of the council are not happy with former President Burhanuddin Rabbani as its chairman. And Taliban commander in Kandahar Sayed Rahmani has said Rabbani is a traitor who should face a similar fate of Dr. Najibullah after Taliban took over Kabul in the 1990s (Najibullah was killed). When the militants, whom they are going to talk, do not recognize neutrality of Rabbani and others included, how is it going to work? Two prominent names are not on the list of council members:  Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former rival of President Karzai in last year’s elections and key opposition leader, and Dr. Ramazan Bashardost, another former rival, and the one who talked of the talks with Taliban during his presidential elections campaign.

If there are some former Taliban talking with the Afghan government, it should not mean insurgents are “in contact.” Also, there are many “senior” Taliban leaders and factions.

There are four main factions of insurgent groups.
1) Militants operating in southern parts of the country are mostly affiliated with the Kandahari faction of Taliban led by commanders directly taking orders from Mullah Omar, who is believed to command through the so-called “Quetta Shura” from Quetta city in Pakistan. They operate in southern provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Helmand, Nimruz and central provinces of Ghazni and Maidan Wardak.
2) The other major group fighting in southeastern provinces on the Af-Pak border is the Haqqani Network led by the Haqqani brothers who are operating from the safe havens of North Waziristan in the tribal region of Pakistan. The Haqqani operatives are influential in Kunar, Nooristan, Khost, Paktia and Paktika provinces.
3) Another division of fighters who infiltrate from the tribal areas of Pakistan are affiliated with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by the Mehsoods. This group has conducted many deadly suicide attacks on foreign troops in Afghanistan, including the one on a CIA camp by a double-agent recently. They are also targeting the supply vehicles for NATO.
4) The militant group Hizb-i-Islami of Gulbadin Hekmatyar have supporters in Kabul and operate in Logar, Nangarhar, Laghman, Kapisa and some northern insurgency-hit provinces.

As you can see, the leaders and factions are a complex web.

Last year when the talks about talks with the Taliban started, separation of Taliban from al Qaeda was a pre-condition. But nowadays, in the new prospects of talks, no one discusses the reportedly new arrivals of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Groups like TTP have close operational ties with al Qaeda, such as the recent attack on the CIA camp in Khost illustrates. And there are new militant leaders emerging.

Among the militant groups, Hizb-i-Islami of Gulbadin Hekmatyar had already responded to the previous offers of negotiations. A couple of months ago, Gulbadin came up with a plan of settlement through negotiations with the fundamental demand of foreign troops’ withdrawal. There are no hopes they will change their mind this time.
In such a mess, it’s naïve to expect the current attempts at talks will succeed. It didn’t work after attempts to buy off Taliban mid-level commanders, and now the efforts to contact senior leadership won’t work either. The prospects of talks are much more complicated than that.

Be it the efforts to persuade Mullah Omar or to engage the Haqqani Network or combating the al Qaeda-linked Taliban in tribal regions of Pakistan - the military intelligence of Pakistan has to be a pivotal part of the solution process, which is even more complicated right now with lack of trust between the U.S. and Pakistan, and the doubts toward Islamabad in Kabul.

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