Thursday, 17 December 2009


US silent on Taliban's al-Qaeda offer

By Gareth Porter
Asia Times Online

WASHINGTON - The Barack Obama administration is refusing to
acknowledge an offer by the leadership of the Taliban in
early December to give "legal guarantees" that they will
not allow Afghanistan to be used for attacks on other

The administration's silence on the offer, despite a public
statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing
skepticism about any Taliban offer to separate itself from
al-Qaeda, effectively leaves the door open to negotiating a
deal with the Taliban based on such a proposal.

The Taliban, however, have chosen to interpret the Obama
administration's position as one of rejection of their

The Taliban offer, included in a statement dated December 4
and e-mailed to news organizations the following day, said the
organization had "no agenda of meddling in the internal
affairs of other countries and is ready to give legal
guarantees if foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan".

The statement did not mention al-Qaeda by name or elaborate
on what was meant by "legal guarantees" against such
"meddling", but it was an obvious response to past US
insistence that the US war in Afghanistan is necessary to
prevent al-Qaeda from having a safe haven in Afghanistan
once again.

It suggested that the Taliban were interested in
negotiating an agreement with the United States involving a
public Taliban renunciation of ties with al-Qaeda, along
with some undefined arrangements to enforce a ban on
al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan in return for a
commitment to a timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops
from the country.

Despite repeated queries by Inter Press Service to the
State Department spokesman, P J Crowley, and to the
National Security Council's press office over the past week
about whether either Clinton or Obama had been informed
about the Taliban offer, neither office has responded to
the question.

Anand Gopal of The Wall Street Journal, whose December 5
story on the Taliban message was the only one to report
that initiative, asked a US official earlier that day about
the offer to provide "legal guarantees".

The official, who had not been aware of the Taliban offer,
responded with what was evidently previously prepared
policy guidance casting doubt on the willingness of the
Taliban to give up its ties with al-Qaeda. "This is the
same group that refused to give up bin Laden, even though
they could have saved their country from war," said the
official. "They wouldn't break with terrorists then, so why
would we take them seriously now?"

The following day, asked by ABC News This Week host George
Stephanopoulos about possible negotiations with "high
level" Taliban leaders, Clinton said, "We don't know yet."

But then she made the same argument the unnamed US official
had made to Gopal on Saturday. "[W]e asked [Taliban leader]
Mullah Omar to give up bin Laden before he went into
Afghanistan after 9/11," Clinton said, "and he wouldn't do
it. I don't know why we think he would have changed by

In the same ABC interview, Defense Secretary Robert Gates
suggested that the Taliban would not be willing to
negotiate on US terms until after their "momentum" had been

"I think that the likelihood of the leadership of the
Taliban, or senior leaders, being willing to accept the
conditions Secretary Clinton just talked about," Gates
said, "depends in the first instance on reversing their
momentum right now, and putting them in a position where
they suddenly begin to realize that they're likely to

In a statement issued two days after the Clinton-Gates
appearance on ABC, the Taliban leadership, which now calls
itself "Mujahideen", posted another statement saying that
what they called their "proposal" had been rejected by the
United States.

The statement said, in part, "Washington turns down the
constructive proposal of the leadership of Mujahideen," and
repeated its pledge to "ensure that the next government of
the Mujahideen will not meddle in the internal affairs of
other countries including the neighbors if the foreign
troops pull out of Afghanistan."

The fact that both the State Department and the NSC are now
maintaining silence on the offer rather than repeating the
Clinton-Gates expression of skepticism strongly suggests
that the White House does not want to close the door
publicly to negotiations with the Taliban linking troop
withdrawal to renunciation of ties with al-Qaeda, among
other issues.

Last month, a US diplomat in Kabul made an even more
explicit link between US troop withdrawal and a severing by
the Taliban of their ties with al-Qaeda.

In an article published on November 11, Philadelphia
Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin, who was then visiting
Kabul, quoted an unnamed US official as saying, "If the
Taliban made clear to us that they have broken with
al-Qaeda and that their own objectives were nonviolent and
political - however abhorrent to us - we wouldn't be
keeping 68,000-plus troops here."

That statement reflected an obvious willingness to
entertain a negotiated settlement under which US troops
would be withdrawn and the Taliban would break with

A significant faction within the Obama administration has
sought to portray those who suggest that the Taliban might
part ways with al-Qaeda as deliberately deceiving the West.

Bruce Riedel, of the Brookings Institution, who headed the
administration's policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan
last spring, recently said, "A lot of smoke is being thrown
up to confuse people."

But even the hardliner Riedel concedes that the Pakistani
Taliban's attacks on the Pakistani military and
Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) threaten the close
relationship between the Afghan Taliban and ISI. The
Pakistani Taliban continues to be closely allied with

The Taliban began indicating their openness to negotiations
with the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization in September 2007. But they began to hint
publicly at their willingness to separate itself from
al-Qaeda in return for a troop withdrawal only three months

Mullah Omar's message for Eid al-Fitr in mid-September
assured "all countries" that a Taliban state "will not
extend its hand to jeopardize others, as it itself does not
allow others to jeopardize us ... Our goal is to gain
independence of the country and establish a just Islamic
system there."

But the insurgent leadership has also emphasized that
negotiations will depend on the US willingness to withdraw
troops. In anticipation of Obama's announcement of a new US
troop surge in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar issued a 3,000-word
statement on November 25 which said, "The people of
Afghanistan will not agree to negotiations which prolongs
and legitimizes the invader's military presence in our
beloved country."

"The invading Americans want Mujahideen to surrender under
the pretext of negotiation," it said.

That implied that the Taliban would negotiate if the US did
not insist on the acceptance of a US military presence in
the country. The day after the Taliban proposal to
Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a public
plea to the United States to engage in direct negotiations
with the Taliban leadership.

In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Karzai said
there is an "urgent need" for negotiations with the
Taliban, and made it clear that the Obama administration
had opposed such talks. Karzai did not say explicitly that
he wanted the United States to be at the table for such
talks, but said, "Alone, we can't do it."

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. The paperback
edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance
of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in

(Inter Press Service)