Why the West thinks it is time to talk to the Taliban
Sunday, September 28 2008
Negotiations have begun in secret with the enemy in
Afghanistan. Jason Burke reveals the back channels of
diplomacy that led to the controversial talks
For the past few months an incongruous figure has passed
through the airports of the Middle East and Europe: a
senior Afghan cleric who defected from the Taliban. Bearded
and in traditional dress, he has unsurprisingly needed the
help of the Saudi Arabian and British intelligence services
- among others - to pass unhindered between capitals.
He has always travelled in great secrecy, his movements
known only to a few individuals at the highest levels of
the Afghan government, in Riyadh and among certain Western
allies. His mission: to talk to the Taliban leadership
about a possible peace deal.
The backing given by the West to these talks is a measure
of how badly things have gone wrong in Afghanistan, and how
far Western governments are prepared to go to stabilise a
deteriorating situation which is costing more in men, money
and political capital than they ever imagined. The equally
worrying situation in Pakistan, where the Taliban are
largely based and where a separate but related insurgency
has broken out, has given the initiative a new urgency.
That the Saudi Arabians accepted the invitation of the
Afghan government to sponsor the initiative this summer is
a measure of how concerned those who govern the
traditionally leading nation of the Sunni Muslim world are
about Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and the consequences they
might have for the rest of the Islamic world and beyond. It
is also a measure of the esteem in which the Saudis are
This is not the first time the Saudi Arabians have brokered
talks with the Taliban, and Western powers have been keen
to get Riyadh more involved in Afghanistan for some time.
The Saudis, along with Pakistan and the United Arab
Emirates, were the only states to recognise the hardline
Islamic militia as rulers of Afghanistan in the Nineties.
In 1998 they also nearly concluded a deal with Mullah
Mohammed Omar, the reclusive leader of the Taliban, to hand
over Osama bin Laden.
For the West, the sponsorship of Riyadh is essential.
Western efforts to negotiate with the Taliban have rarely
brought any durable positive results. The reconciliation
process launched by the Afghan government has brought in
about 5,000 low-level fighters and a handful of mid-level
commanders, but has never had the political backing or
resources that was needed for it to become a genuine means
of sapping the strength of the Taliban.
But these most recent talks also show that, at the very
least, some of the Taliban senior command are getting
tired. 'They've been fighting for nearly seven years,
living undercover, moving regularly, unable to go back to
Afghanistan without risking a violent death. Despite the
bellicose rhetoric and the successes of recent months, they
have lost a lot of people and there is a certain degree of
fatigue,' said one experienced Pakistan-based observer.
The Saudi initiative has resulted in the submission of a
list of demands by the Taliban to Kabul. One problem was
that those demands keep changing, said one Afghan source. A
second is the question of whether any potential agreement
could be made to stick.
'We could agree something with the high command that won't
be put into action at a grass-roots level,' said an adviser
to the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban demands are also unlikely to be acceptable to
the Western powers, especially the US, which have
bankrolled the effort to stabilise and reconstruct
Afghanistan. Hekmat Karzai, director of a think tank in
Kabul, said that although discussions with the Taliban
'might not be too difficult... getting the international
community on board would be extremely hard'.
Another problem would be convincing other ethnic groups in
Afghanistan who suffered heavily under the Taliban regime
to accept any deal.
However, there is increasing acceptance among Western
officials and strategists that some kind of political
accommodation to at least divide the Taliban may be
inevitable. There are also question marks over to what
extent Taliban factions may be manipulated by elements
within the Pakistani security establishment. However,
Islamabad is unlikely to oppose moves to integrate senior
Taliban figures into the political process in Kabul.
Previous attempts to negotiate with the Taliban have been
problematic. A controversial truce in Helmand province,
where British troops are deployed, was widely criticised
for handing the key town of Musa Qala back to the militants
and necessitating a major operation to recapture it.
In May, the former Afghan President Burnahuddin Rabbani
said he had contacted the Taliban and received 'encouraging
responses'. The Taliban published a statement on their
website saying they would 'fight until the withdrawal of
the last crusading invader', but added that 'the door for
talks, understanding and negotiations will always be open'
to 'mujahideen' such as Rabbani, who fought the Russians in
One problem with the Saudi-sponsored talks so far is that
the go-between has been unable to speak directly to Mullah
Omar. However, an Afghan source described the initiative as
'a step in the right direction', whatever the result.
'Anything that might be an ice-breaker and might take us
forward is welcome,' he said.