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Can Talking To The Taliban Help?

  • Abubakar Siddique

Surrendering Taliban militants hand over their weapons in Herat.

Surrendering Taliban militants hand over their weapons in Herat.

U.S. President Barack Obama's suggestions that the United States might reach out to "moderate" Taliban as part of the effort to end the Afghan insurgency has been greeted warmly by many, including the Afghan president.

In an interview published in the "The New York Times," Obama said flatly that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan, and was ready to adapt tactics it had learned in Iraq to the Afghan war effort.

Obama explained that if one were to speak with the U.S. military general responsible for the strategy in Iraq, "I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of Al-Qaeda in Iraq."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been urging talks with the Taliban for some time, welcomed the comments in Kabul on March 8.

"Yesterday, the American President Obama accepted and approved the path of peace and talks with those Afghan Taliban who he called 'moderates,'" Karzai said. "This is good news. This is an approval of our previous stance and we accept and praise it."

However, while Karzai is not alone in his support for such negotiations, there is much debate as to whether the strategy can be successfully exported to Afghanistan.

Some Afghanistan observers, for example, note that Karzai may have been quick to laud the proposal to counter the criticism with which his previous calls for negotiations were met.

Others, such as Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban cabinet member and diplomat who last year participated in an informal Saudi-sponsored effort to initiate dialogue with the Taliban, say the United States had no choice but to adopt this strategy.

"First Obama has admitted that the Americans cannot win in Afghanistan and that war is not the solution," Zaeef said. "So if they cannot win, what should they do? Automatically they have to look for an alternative, which is that they have to resolve this conflict though negotiations based on mutual respect."

While he says the initiative is a good omen for peace in Afghanistan, Zaeef added in an interview with RFE/RL that it is up to the United States to create an atmosphere of trust.

Choosing The Right Partners

Still others foresee additional roadblocks in the way of successful negotiations.

While in Washington, the idea of "talking to the Taliban" rests on the premise that negotiations can peel away some moderate Taliban from their extremist comrades, there is skepticism as to whether such moderates could actually influence hard-line Taliban leaders.

And Afghan commentator Waheed Muzda, for example, warns even against making such distinctions, saying the Taliban in Afghanistan are dangerous whatever label is bestowed upon them.

Though an Afghan government-sponsored program has "reconciled" thousands of Taliban fighters with the government, Muzda suggests that the move has not dented the group's capacity to launch attacks. In fact, the number and sophistication of Taliban attacks have only increased in recent years, he says.

"Moderate Taliban is an undefined term, but it is being used a lot," he said. "If there are moderate Taliban, they are people who are not involved in fighting and might be hiding somewhere inside Afghanistan or outside in [neighboring] Pakistan."

Kabul-based analyst Nasrullah Stanekzai noted that in Afghanistan itself, there are many elements opposed to such negotiations -- both within the government and the Taliban.

Still, he tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, while some Taliban leaders outside the country are compromised because of their close links with global extremist networks, any effort that brings Afghans themselves to the negotiating table could bear fruit.

"Afghans have this capacity to talk to each other. But there are elements within the Afghan government who do not want to see the Taliban being included into the political process because they think it might threaten their power," Stanekzai said.

He continued: "Anyway, the only option we have [to resolve the conflict in our country] is to bring together all Afghans, on the basis of Afghanistan's national interests, to bring peace to our country."

Other Steps Toward Peace

After spending years in detention at the U.S. facility in Guantanamo, Cuba, former Taliban cabinet member Zaeef now stands among those who have left the ranks of the Taliban and reconciled with the Afghan government.

Today a commentator on Taliban issues, Zaeef explains what steps he believes the United States should take to help ensure that negotiations with the Taliban end in success.

First, he says, the United States must close prisons that Taliban members associate with abuse, in particular the facilities at Guantanamo and at the Bagram air base north of Kabul. He also says the names of Mullah Muhammad Omar and other Taliban leaders must be removed from UN and U.S. "black lists," and reward offers dropped.

Zaeef also believes that distinguishing between "moderate" and "extremist" Taliban is not practical -- but not because different types don't exist.

"If the Americans are thinking, and as Obama has also said, that they want to distinguish between the hardline and moderate Taliban, it will not be acceptable to anybody, because it is like telling two brothers that you love one and want to play with him while you want to kill the other one," Zaeef said.

Nader Khan Katawazi, a parliamentarian representing Afghanistan's eastern Paktika Province, believes moderate Taliban will be able to influence their hard-line brethren, as long as the talks are conducted in a spirit of openness.

"It is natural that there are elements within the Taliban who want to resolve this issue through negotiations," he said. "If both sides agree to hold open-hearted constructive talks, I think, it will even force what you and I would call the extremist Taliban to accept that process."

Hard-line Taliban are already taking steps to counter another new U.S. strategy -- the "surge" of 17,000 fresh troops into the theater.

Pakistani and international media reports indicate that, in an apparent attempt to answer Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar's call for unity, the three main Taliban factions in Pakistan's restive Waziristan tribal region formed a "Council of United Holy Warriors" late last month.

Meanwhile, analysts suggest that the recent cease-fire agreements in the Pakistani regions of Swat and Bajaur could free up fighters to battle U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Zaeef, noting the possibility that increased numbers on both sides could lead to intensified fighting, says the United States is sending mixed messages.

"Sending more troops to Afghanistan is a difficult proposition to agree to," Zaeef said. "This only creates concerns among people here and in the region that on the one hand, Americans are talking peace, while on the other, they are doubling and even tripling their troop numbers. And this is contrary to the talk of peace."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.
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