KABUL -- The three hail from different backgrounds, but each served the Taliban government until its demise in late 2001.
Two, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil and Abdul Salam Zaif, were imprisoned for their roles as Taliban officials, and could be found with Abdul Hakim Mujahid on the United Nation's blacklist of individuals and entities associated with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda until this year.
The lives of the three men have changed dramatically, but they all agree on one thing -- Kabul and NATO are on the road to a settlement that will end their nine-year war in Afghanistan, but peace is a long way off in the eyes of the Taliban.
Muttawakil, a former foreign minister in the Taliban regime, once negotiated pipeline deals with global energy giants and even participated in talks about the fate of fugitive Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden. After the fall of the Taliban government, he found himself incarcerated in his native Kandahar for four years.
A recent visit to his modest home in western Kabul revealed a man who dedicates much of his time to studying Islamic literature, occasionally receiving visitors keen on meeting one of the Taliban regime's former leaders.Step By Step
The 40-year-old cleric is not part of the current Taliban military machine, and takes pains to stress to those who call that he does not represent the Taliban viewpoint. But his experiences as a onetime Taliban insider provide him with keen insight into their thinking, and with Kabul and its international backers increasingly indicating their willingness to negotiate an end to their nine-year war with the hard-line movement, Muttawakil's opinion carries significant weight.
Muttawakil says that achieving peace is possible in Afghanistan, but warns that it will be a tedious and intricate process. He describes the government's recent formation of a High Peace Council to oversee negotiations toward permanent peace as a first step.
"In reality, a permanent peace settlement consists of three steps," Muttawakil says. "Firstly, there has to be reconciliation among Afghans. [Secondly,] peace between the Afghans and the Americans or NATO at large. And [lastly] a regional settlement among regional states. All this depends on what kind of strategy is formed to achieve peace, what steps are taken to build trust [among the warring sides] and how much the foreigners [international community] back such steps."
He suggests that, similar to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas's political office in Syria, the Taliban should be encouraged to establish contact offices in a neutral Islamic country. Once the Taliban can be publically reached, neutral mediators can begin negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Muttawakil also wants Hizb-e Islami, a smaller but older hard-line Afghan pan-Islamist group active in eastern Afghanistan, to be part of the final settlement among Afghans.
Don't Discount Taliban Unity
Zaif is a former Taliban minister and diplomat who spent nearly four years at the United States' Guantanamo detention facility after the regime fell in 2001.
Like Muttawakil, Zaif paints a picture of the Taliban movement that is vastly different from that portrayed in Western news bulletins and newspapers that describe the Afghan insurgency as loose-knit structure of often-competing networks with no central leadership.
Both men say that reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, whose importance to negotiations has been discounted by some observers, remains in charge. They say that even the powerful Haqqani network -- accused by NATO and Kabul of being close to the Pakistani security services and blamed for deadly attacks in the Afghan capital and much of the volatile southeastern provinces -- follows the directions outlined by Mullah Omar and the council of his trusted lieutenants.
Muttawakil and Zaif reject the notion that peace with the Taliban can be made piecemeal by focusing on reintegrating foot soldiers by offering jobs and monetary incentives. They say that there can be no negotiations without the voice of key insurgent leaders, most of whom still figure on UN blacklists or have outstanding bounties for their death or capture.
Zaif sees an opportunity for the United Nations to play a robust role -- not in imposing sanctions, but in ending the "foreign occupation" of Afghanistan. The presence of foreign military forces, he says, is the principal problem for the Taliban, and the resolution of that issue could pave the way for an internal Afghan settlement.
"The most important problem is the occupation of the country and only foreigners can solve that. The problems among Afghans can be resolved after that and that's not the complicated part," Zaif says. "Without resolving the fundamental problem of occupation, I don't think we can resolve the lesser problems. I am, however, optimistic that the first steps toward peace are a good omen and they should continue."
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban envoy to the United Nations, agrees. He says that it's almost miraculous that the Taliban has, for the most part, remained united, unlike other Afghan factions that morphed into splinter groups upon being subjected to military pressure.
Mujahid, now a member of the newly formed High Peace Council, says that the Taliban is being run by a central "shura," or leadership council, under the guidance of Mullah Omar. This body, he says, controls shadow governors and military commanders for provinces and districts across Afghanistan. These figures are periodically shuffled to assert central control.
That's why, Mujahid says, the Peace Council would first listen to all sides of conflict before embarking on solving the complicated issues. He counts NATO, the Afghan government, the Taliban, and neighboring countries among the key parties to the conflict.
"We can't have peace in Afghanistan as long as we don't gain the trust of all sides to the conflict. We won't put forward concrete proposals to them but instead will delve into their perspectives," Mujahid says. "Together with viewpoints of the regional players and international community we would analyze their stance within the framework of Afghanistan's national interest to carve out a permanent solution to Afghanistan's problem."
Mujahid views the process as long and complicated, but he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. What gives him hope are a few lines from President Barak Obama's Cairo address to the Muslim world in June 2009.
"Make no mistake: We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women," Obama said. Mujahid believes that this shows that Washington really is interested in exploring ways to end the Afghan conflict.
Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, says that the Taliban and the Afghan government and the international community have to build trust by trying to understand each other. He says that while Kabul still thinks of the Taliban as an extension of the Pakistani intelligence services, the Taliban views the Karzai's administration as powerless, with its foreign backers holding all the cards.
The "road map" to peace he outlines includes trust building between the Taliban and the international community. He says that while the international community worries about a future Taliban government giving Al-Qaeda a sanctuary, the Taliban views the international military presence as a foreign occupation and insists on ending it as a precondition for talks.
To begin the long journey to peace, Muttawakil suggests that Kabul and the international community should allow the Taliban to have visible political representation. To build trust, he suggests, Taliban prisoners should be freed and leaders removed from UN sanctions lists.
"If there is trust we can have peace between the Afghans and between the Afghans and the foreigners. There should be no preconditions for talks from both sides. The Taliban should not insist on a departure schedule for foreigners while the Afghan government should not push the Taliban to accept its constitution," Muttawakil says.
"If the Taliban had accepted the constitution, there would have been no war. And if the foreigners were prepared to leave Afghanistan [without guarantees], then there would be no need for negotiations."