Taliban soften as talks gain speed
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD – The process of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table is gaining momentum, with the United States and its allies escalating their efforts to get America out of the Afghan quagmire.
In principle, the Taliban have agreed to clearly state their position on several issues so that formal talks with Washington will be internationally acceptable. In particular, the Taliban will explain their stance on al-Qaeda.
This has emerged following traditional Iftar (breaking of the fast) dinners held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan for Taliban representatives.
In previous years, these dinners have been purely ceremonial, but this month they have resulted in a positive exchange of ideas in which the Taliban have put forward their views and the Americans’ theirs, with the Saudis and the Pakistani army relaying the messages.
The turning point that led to these exchanges came early this year.
First, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s supreme commander in Afghanistan, was arrested in the Pakistani port city of Karachi in a raid by Pakistani and US intelligence officials. Pakistan refused to hand him over for interrogation.
The Pakistan army then dragged its feet over launching an offensive in the North Waziristan tribal area to crack down on militants, notably the powerful Haqqani network.
However, the army said it would step up efforts for the US to engage the Taliban in peace talks. The first results began to emerge this Ramadan. (See Taliban and US get down to talks Asia Times Online, September 11, 2010.)
Asia Times Online has learned that the backchannel talks have to date resulted in the Taliban agreeing to issue a policy statement on their relationship with al-Qaeda. They will clarify that they provided protection to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in line with Afghan traditions of being hospitable.
It was the presence of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan that led the US to invade the country in late 2001 in retaliation for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
The Taliban will spell out their position of decrying international terrorism and of not supporting violence in Muslim countries. Above all, they will clearly state that the Taliban are an indigenous movement struggling against foreign occupation forces with no agenda outside Afghan boundaries.
“This is the first time the situation has reached this level and this is the result of several months of unannounced but untiring efforts by the Pakistan army, with the consent of US military leaders who have very patiently and diligently allowed the Pakistan army to create this environment in which the Taliban feel comfortable, and they are now showing flexibility in their attitude,” a senior Pakistani security official familiar with the talks told Asia Times Online.
Last year, Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s highest-level emissary, Syed Tayyab Agha, was invited to Riyadh, but when he learned that Saudi Arabia aimed to talk to the Taliban at the behest of Washington he immediately discontinued the dialogue, on Mullah Omar’s instructions, and returned to Pakistan. (See War and peace: A Taliban view Asia Times Online, March 26, 2010.)
In the past, the Taliban’s uncompromising attitude was based on two basic issues. They wanted a revival of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan – as it existed prior to the US invasion – and they were not prepared to take a clear position on international terrorism. The Taliban have also previously insisted that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan before any talks could begin.
During this Ramadan’s talks in the UAE, Taliban representatives indicated a willingness to accept a more broad-based political setup in Afghanistan.
The Taliban are still hostile towards former mujahideen leaders such as Professor Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf, present leader of the opposition in parliament; Yunus Qanooni, speaker of the National Assembly; Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president who has organized some of President Hamid Karzai’s peace meetings jirgas; Uzbek strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and all others who fought against the Taliban.
However, the Taliban have agreed to discuss people within groups associated with these men provided they have “a clean reputation and have never been involved in bloodshed”.
Since 9/11, the Taliban have hesitated to take a clear position towards al-Qaeda. Initially, Taliban leaders denied any involvement on the part of Bin Laden in the attacks on the US and urged Washington to produce evidence for a trial. Even after al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for 9/11, the Taliban avoided discussing the issue.
Now, for the first time, the Taliban have agreed to issue a policy statement describing where they stand as far as al-Qaeda’s international strategy is concerned. During the talks in the UAE, it was clarified that the Taliban would not allow any training camps for international terrorism on their territory.
However, the Taliban pointed out that if a person crossed the Kandahar border (Afghanistan) and entered into Chaman (a Pakistani area) and carried out an act of sabotage, it would not be the responsibility of the Afghan government, which would only be accountable within its borders.
Neither the Afghan government nor the Pakistani government is officially aware of the backchannel initiative with the Taliban.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, however, has created a special desk to deal directly with Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, which in turn will liaise with the army, through which all aspects of the dialogue will flow.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com