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Taliban Are Talking Peace, Though Not With Afghan Government

Taliban envoys have been busy over the past month, shuttling from conferences in one world capital to the next, in the biggest rush of activity on the Afghan peace front in years.

They have held informal talks with Afghan technocrats and former rival guerrillas, party leaders and lawmakers. And those participants have reported back about how the Taliban delegates have dropped some of the hard-line stances that characterized most of their previous statements about political conciliation.

So why, after years of little progress, are the Taliban suddenly so accessible?

One clue may lie in whom the Taliban are not talking to: Despite an all-out effort by President Ashraf Ghani to open direct talks with the Taliban in recent months, the insurgents have yet to meet formally with anyone representing his government. When government officials have ended up in the same international meetings as the Taliban envoys, the insurgents have been quick to put out statements denying rumors of face-to-face discussions.

At the same time, they have been making their biggest territorial gains on the battlefield in years, pressing the pace of fighting and threatening significant districts in many parts of Afghanistan.

Afghan officials and analysts see it as part of a two-pronged strategy by the Taliban: Continue to grab territory from a politically weak government, while talking peace with everyone else.

In the course of two months, representatives from the Taliban's political office in Qatar have held informal talks with Afghan factional leaders and lawmakers in Qatar, Dubai and Norway. Another such meeting is scheduled for later this month in Qatar.

During the engagements, the Taliban envoys have proved remarkably accessible and seemingly eager to make a good impression. Around the table, they have taken notes and listened politely. After official hours, they have split into smaller groups to knock on the hotel-room doors of their visitors for casual tea and dinner in an atmosphere described as cordial.

But if the Taliban's immediate aim has seemed to be to make gains while the central government is vulnerable, analysts and participants in the talks have also seen the informal diplomacy as a sign that in the longer term, the insurgents may be giving up on trying to achieve a complete return to power militarily.

One factor may be the Taliban's own problem with insurgency. Its senior leadership is facing increasing internal challenges from skeptical commanders, a few of whom have gone so far as to declare that they have broken from the Taliban and declared loyalty to the Islamic State.

"They have intensified talks because they fear other forces might take advantage of the weak government," said Nazr Mohammad Mutmaeen, a former Taliban official who is now an analyst and writer in Kabul.

Others believe it will be the pace of the military offensive that determines how soon the insurgents sit down for direct negotiations with the government.

"The fighting this year is decisive," said Haroun Mir, a political analyst. "Even if we have a cease-fire, say, at the end of the year, what I fear is that we may end up with two parallel administrations by then." Mr. Mir added: "The Taliban have presented themselves as a cohesive voice while managing to fragment the other side. It has created a fundamental problem for the Afghan government."

Not everyone sees completely bad news for Mr. Ghani's government.

The European Union's special representative in Afghanistan, Franz-Michael Mellbin, said that even while the informal talks were unlikely to lead to an immediate reduction in violence, "they do allow the Afghan government to better understand what the Taliban are looking for in potential peace talks."

During his first 10 months in office, Mr. Ghani has banked most of his political capital on trying to reach a settlement with the Taliban -- largely by trying to ease tensions with the Pakistani military, which has long been seen as supporting the Afghan Taliban movement and to some degree can control the movements of the group's Pakistani-based senior leadership.

Though that has cost Mr. Ghani politically at home, where Pakistan is widely viewed with suspicion, officials say the hope is that Pakistan will press the Taliban to talk directly with the Afghan government.

But during meetings in Qatar in May that were attended by Mr. Ghani's uncle, Qayoum Kochai, who was said to be there in an unofficial capacity, Taliban envoys accused Mr. Ghani of breaking promises and said he could no longer be trusted, according to two participants.

The participants said that was in part because of Mr. Ghani's efforts to work through Pakistan -- the insurgent envoys bristled at being considered a Pakistani proxy force. But it was also said to be because Mr. Ghani defied the Taliban's demands that he refuse to sign a long-term security deal with the United States as he came to office.

Some Western and Afghan officials, however, insist that the Taliban would not be talking at all if Mr. Ghani had not signed the security agreement to bolster his military and keep foreign troops in Afghanistan -- a move seen as making any complete insurgent military victory more unlikely.

Further, Mr. Ghani's outreach to Pakistan was grounded in painful lessons from recent history, said Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, who was a minister in President Hamid Karzai's government and met with Taliban representatives in Qatar and Dubai in recent weeks. Every time the Taliban were approached directly in the past, and not through Pakistan, the insurgents ended up dead or behind bars, he said.

But the Taliban were not convinced, and they expressed as much to Mr. Kochai in Qatar.

"They looked into the eyes of the president's uncle and said, 'We don't recognize this government as legitimate,' " said Sayed Ishaq Gailani, another participant in the talks.

Mr. Kochai publicly voiced his disappointment after the Qatar talks. But what happened in Dubai, early in June, was intriguing, suggesting that the Taliban could be using the cover of such events to pass messages to Mr. Ghani. Rather than talking to the entire group together, the Taliban opted for individual meetings and small group discussions in Dubai, raising the chances of private meetings with Mr. Kochai, some participants suggested.

The Taliban's larger demands remain the same: the departure of foreign forces, constitutional changes, the release of prisoners and the removal of the Taliban from the United Nations sanctions list. However, they seem to be shifting on some issues, and beginning to engage in discussions of practical specifics. Unlike in the past, in recent meetings they have said clearly that they don't "seek to monopolize power," which some participants interpret as a big shift.

"That is quite a profound statement if you follow its logical implications -- which means they are willing to consider competitive politics, a republican system of government based on elections, not an emirate," Mr. Ahady said.

They have also seemed more open about basic rights for women, including education and access to work, as long as it happens with what they consider Islamic modesty. This position was furthered in their meeting in Oslo with female activists. One participant, Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan lawmaker and rights activist, called it a breakthrough of sorts.

"It was a historic moment for somebody to be beaten on the streets during the Taliban regime, to be attacked by a suicide bomber, to sit across from them and describe what it means being a victim, what it means to beg for peace door to door, generation to generation," Ms. Barakzai said.

Still, while she said she was impressed by the Taliban delegates' polite manner, she had not given up cautious skepticism.

"Afghan women are not stupid anymore to believe in lip service," she said. "We want everything to be proven in action."

[Source: By Mujib Mashal, The New York Times, Kabul, 21Jun15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 22Jun15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.