Efforts to bring Taliban fighters to the negotiating table are shifting to a new front: Turkey.
Within the past few weeks, both Afghan and Turkish officials have expressed support for the idea of setting up a Taliban representative office in Turkey.
“When you want to hold talks with a military or political group, it’s much better that they have an address through which you can reach out to them," Afghan National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta told RFE/RL. "The issue [of the Taliban office] was brought up previously during the [Economic Cooperation Organization] conference in Istanbul. We welcome any assistance provided by Turkey in this regard, especially because Turkey is one of the most trusted countries for the people and government of Afghanistan.”
Spanta was referring to a recent meeting between the leaders of Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The talks produced a statement in which the Turkish government pledged its support for the Karzai government’s push for reconciliation with the Taliban.
If the initiative to open a Taliban office in Turkey comes to fruition, it would, for the first time, provide the governments in Kabul and Washington with a clear diplomatic interlocutor for talks aimed at ending the war.
It would also result in a boost for the political status of the Taliban. The Islamic insurgent movement effectively ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 but was relegated to pariah status after the 9/11 attacks and the NATO intervention that followed.
The idea of Turkey playing the role of a diplomatic mediator for groups like the Taliban is not surprising, says Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, a professor of international relations at Ghazi University in Ankara.
"For a long time, especially since the beginning of the millennium, Turkey has not only been in contact and holding meetings with the states in the region, but also with a variety of nonstate groups, and it shapes its politics accordingly," Erol says. "We have examples in the cases of Hamas and Hizballah. There is active cooperation with Hamas. When necessary, Turkey meets with Iraqi groups, including Muqtada al-Sadr, with the goal of contributing to regional peace and stability.”
A U.S. State Department spokesman, asked about the possibility that the Taliban might establish diplomatic representation in Turkey, referred RFE/RL to the Turkish government.
Any effort to negotiate with the Taliban must overcome significant hurdles. Foremost among them is the Taliban’s continued involvement in suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism in Afghanistan.
Another is the fragmented nature of the group, which consists of several distinct factions without a single unified leadership. This has complicated efforts by the Afghan government in Kabul and other diplomatic players to identify a clear negotiating partner. A previous effort to initiate peace talks with the Taliban ended in farce last year when it turned out that a presumed Taliban mediator brought to Kabul for negotiations actually had no connection with the group.
Must Be On The Same Page
Mustafa Turgut Demirtepe of the International Strategies Research Organization, an Ankara-based think tank, says Ankara will want to make sure that this mistake is not repeated if the Taliban is allowed to open an office in Turkey and invited for dialogue.
“One of Turkey’s main conditions is that there has to be unity between the Taliban members. It’s important that they are on the same page," Demirtepe says. "You may meet with someone from the Taliban, but if he doesn’t represent the opinion of the group, it would have no meaning.”
The logic behind such a move is clear. The Taliban remains embroiled in a bitter guerrilla war with the Afghan government and the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force. At the same time, the United States frequently targets Taliban leaders in Pakistan with drone strikes.
Taliban leaders wishing to conduct talks with the Karzai government would undoubtedly insist on guarantees of their safety – something which Turkey, as a Muslim-majority country now governed by an Islamist party, would be in a credible position to provide.
In a recent interview with a British newspaper, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, named Turkey as a possible venue for talks.
Situating the talks in Turkey could also potentially reduce interference by Pakistan. Many experts believe that at least one earlier attempt to put out peace feelers to the Taliban was scotched by the Pakistanis when they arrested a leading Taliban member on their territory who was said to be exploring room for negotiations.
At the same time, Turkey also enjoys considerable credibility in the West. As a member of NATO, it enjoys good relations with the United States and has also contributed noncombatant forces to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Washington’s new special emissary on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, is a former ambassador to Turkey.
New Course Of Engagement
When it comes to specifics, though, Turkey has so far remained noncommittal about the prospect.
“As Turkey has always stated, if there is anything it can do to help different ethnic groups in Afghanistan to join the process of dialogue, it will be happy to play a constructive role,” Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Selcuk Unal told RFE/RL.
Asked whether talks with the Taliban are taking place, he responded, “We have not had any such request.”
Still, Ghazi University’s Erol says that, despite such disavowals, he sees evidence that Turkey is already embarking on a new course of engagement with the Taliban.
“At this stage, [this idea of talks with the Taliban] is only being published in the press," he says, "but I think in days to come it may assume a permanent place in the agenda.”