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Peace With Taliban Remains Elusive

  • Abubakar Siddique

An Afghan army commander addresses tribal chiefs in Helmand Province on February 26.

An Afghan army commander addresses tribal chiefs in Helmand Province on February 26.

"If there's an atmosphere of trust, I'd like to meet the Afghan president and brief him," a ranking Taliban commander recently told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on condition of anonymity.

The leader of a band of about 40 fighters in Afghanistan's most violent province, Helmand, indicated that, given the chance, he would tell Hamid Karzai what the thinking is within the insurgent ranks. He says Taliban minds are changing after having fought Afghan and international forces for seven years.

"There are a lot of people like me," he says. "We have decided to cooperate with the government, but the government has to trust and cooperate with us."

Despite troubling signs in the form of fresh and well-coordinated attacks, the Afghan government has already extended the olive branch that Taliban fighters like this Helmand commander are seeking. During a major policy speech in parliament on February 20, President Karzai repeated his administration's message. "I once again call on the Taliban and other opponents who are fighting against their homeland to stop fighting and stop the destruction, and return to their homeland," he told lawmakers.

"They should participate in the development and reconstruction of their country along with their brothers and sisters."

In the course of his speech, Karzai announced the establishment of a high-level Peace and Reconciliation Shura that would hold a consultative peace jirga this spring to "establish permanent peace."

The council and its upcoming grand assembly are signs that Kabul is moving ahead with its effort to reconcile with the Taliban. But the goal that Western countries involved in Afghanistan want to see pursued -- the reintegration of moderate Taliban into society -- appears to have hit a wall.

The joint initiative attracted substantial backing from the international community, which pledged $140 million for its implementation at a London conference in January. But the Afghan administration has been slow to produce and implement a comprehensive reintegration program, even after promising immunity, jobs, and peaceful civilian lives to insurgents who lay down their arms.

Just Getting Started

The Helmand Taliban commander who spoke to RFE/RL says that promises of security for insurgents and their families would be of primary importance to any insurgent thinking of switching sides. He explains that Al-Qaeda and hard-line Taliban "spotters" within insurgent ranks quickly eliminate individuals who even attempt to contact Afghan authorities.

The insurgent spy network also keeps a close watch on Afghan government offices in battleground provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan, he says, adding that any Taliban associates spotted there are eliminated. "Even if you praise an Afghan government leader in private, your standing will be undermined permanently," he says.

Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal juggles the complexities of overseeing a province that is currently hosting NATO's biggest anti-Taliban operation to date with the task of bringing insurgents back into the fold.

Mangal says Kabul has empowered him to grant Taliban members security and cash once they stop fighting. But he says an overarching national strategy that would provide guidelines on how to deal with former rebels is not yet ready. "The Afghan government is keen on dealing with groups and individuals who want to join the national reconciliation program following the London conference," he says of the January forum.

"President Karzai is also keen on strengthening this program. In the coming month or two we will have guidelines and specific strategy for doing that, but we don't have it yet."

Karzai adviser Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, who is in charge of the effort to put together a reintegration plan, tells RFE/RL that the reintegration program "will take some more time" to start bearing fruit.

Stanekzai's challenge is to do something that has eluded Afghans in recent history: successfully reach out to insurgent networks that enjoy sanctuary in neighboring countries and entice fighters in the Afghan countryside to live peacefully by offering them security and livelihoods.

Persistent Concerns

Alexander Thier, who oversees Afghanistan and Pakistan at Washington's U.S. Institute of Peace, says for the first time since the U.S. invasion in 2001, the idea of talking to the Taliban is being taken seriously in Washington. "Clearly they have managed to disrupt the peace in Afghanistan enough that the idea of negotiation with the Taliban is appealing to the Afghan government and the international community," Thier says.

But just because the idea is being taken seriously does not mean concerns have evaporated.

Looking to possible obstacles to Kabul's reconciliation efforts, Thier says the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and Karzai's "loyal" opposition -- Afghan leaders who are not part of the insurgency -- are "more concerned about the approach that would essentially share power with the Taliban."

Elements within Karzai's government and some opposition figures who fought against the Taliban for years have expressed more immediate concerns. On February 20, Afghanistan's main opposition leader, Abdullah Abdullah, told Reuters: "The Taliban are not ready to enter talks. They think that they have the upper hand militarily."

Exasperation over Karzai's reconciliation/reintegration efforts could be having ripple effects as well.

Sibghatullah Mojaddedi the head of Afghan Senate and a key Karzai ally, resigned from his post on February 20, claiming his "advice" was not being taken. But Kabul insiders have told RFE/RL that the octogenarian cleric and former president had sought to head the foreign-backed reintegration effort. The Karzai administration, the sources say, was reluctant to give him the sensitive post because of his failures in delivering tangible results while overseeing a government reconciliation body since 2005.

Seeking 'Genuine Cooperation'

Presidential adviser Stanekzai maintains that Kabul is making broad progress addressing the complex peace issues that it faces.

Regarding the reintegration issue, he says the Afghan government is on track to present a detailed program to a major conference in Kabul this spring that will follow up on the agreements reached in London.

Reconciliation, Stanekzai says, will be impossible without the genuine cooperation of neighboring countries, especially Pakistan.

The level of cooperation with Islamabad has been seriously questioned in Kabul since Pakistan's recent arrest of Taliban commanders on its soil. While Pakistan has held the arrests up as evidence of its willingness to crack down on insurgents, sources within the Afghan presidential administration tell RFE/RL that those rounded up were all Taliban commanders who had indicated a willingness to negotiate an end to the Taliban insurgency.

That has fueled speculation in some political circles in Kabul that Pakistan could be seeking to undermine Afghanistan's reintegration and reconciliation plans.

Others suggest Pakistan's recent actions are part of a script intended to pave the way for key Taliban leaders to enter Kabul, where they might be used to help bring other fighters on board for negotiations that could aid the reconciliation and reintegration efforts.

The speculation grew with media reports this week suggesting that Islamabad had agreed to hand over Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to Kabul very soon, after Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar flew to Islamabad and formally demanded his transfer during a visit on February 24.

A Pakistani court has barred such an extradition, however.

Like most Afghan officials, Stanekzai finds it difficult to decipher the Pakistani crackdown on the Quetta Shura -- or Taliban leadership council -- that includes the remnants of the Taliban regime whose presence Islamabad consistently denied for the past eight years. "Unless those people who are arrested are handed over to the Afghan government, it will be extremely difficult to find out the clear motivation behind these arrests," he says.

"Whether those arrests were taking place in a genuine cooperation determined to crack down on the leadership of those who are linked with Al-Qaeda, or this is something else," Stanekzai says. "I cannot say anything definite at this stage."

Stanekzai adds that the future of peace efforts in Afghanistan is closely tied to the fluid situation inside the country and in the region. He remains optimistic that the reintegration program will be well established within six months with visible momentum and an organization to lead the effort.

Afghan affairs expert Thier suggests that the ultimate success of plans to reconcile with and reintegrate Taliban centers on three key questions. The first, he says, is whether everybody wants peace. He lists the Afghan government, the Taliban, Afghan opposition, the Americans and their Western partners, and Afghanistan's neighbors, particularly Pakistan, as the key actors involved in the three decade-old conflict.

The second big question is what that peace might look like.

And finally, Thier asks whether the sides can produce any agreement even if they all want peace and share a common vision.

Those questions and more are sure to be on Karzai's mind as he prepares to hold a peace jirga this spring.

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