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Participants Say Kabul Meeting Was 'Brainstorming Session,' Not Taliban Talks

Former Taliban envoy Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef attended the session (file photo)
Participants who attended a private conference in Kabul this week have denied media reports that it involved Afghan and Pakistani officials meeting with members of the Taliban.

Former Taliban envoy Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who has a keen understanding of the inner workings of the Taliban movement, told RFE/RL that the two-day event was more akin to an academic session and featured no Taliban emissaries.

"A European research organization put together this seminar to discuss the problems in Afghanistan and how they can be resolved. It had opinion makers, intellectuals, and politicians from both Pakistan and Afghanistan. But nobody spoke for any organization [or government]," Zaeef said.

Zaeef, who was held at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay from 2001 through 2005, is considered an authority on the Taliban.

'Informal Gatherings'

Participants said the meeting was the second of the Abu Dhabi Process, which involves a series of informal gatherings sponsored by the Brussels-based East West Institute and the government of the United Arab Emirates. The private meetings bring together prominent Afghans and Pakistanis to brainstorm about the challenges to peace in their countries.

Saleem Safi, a Pakistani journalist who took part in this week's conference, characterized the event as an "intellectual and academic discussion." He said he and the other journalist who attended would never have been allowed to stay if sensitive negotiations with armed opposition groups were taking place.

What was discussed, he said, didn't involve negotiations over ending the conflict.

"There was no progress in these discussions because the parties to the conflict were not represented. There were no American representatives, no Al-Qaeda representation, and nobody from the Taliban participated. Even if there were Pakistani politicians and government figures, they were there in their personal capacity as analysts or regional specialists," Safi said.

As the meeting took place, several international media organizations reported that the Afghan government was talking to the Quetta Shura and members of the Haqqani network -- two Afghan insurgent groups believed to be based in Pakistan. The stories relied heavily on unnamed sources.

Zaeef said the reports sounded wrong to him because, despite international consensus that only a negotiated solution can end the war in Afghanistan, Washington has not demonstrated the will or ability to orchestrate a deal.

He also cast doubt on the notion that the Taliban is split into different factions and Kabul's plan to absorb a considerable number of moderate Taliban into a Western-supported reintegration program.

"If they really want to reach a conclusion, they should only contact the Taliban leadership and solve that problem thorough them. In the past, the Americans wanted to identify people in the Taliban ranks who would reconcile [with] them through the reintegration program. But I think this bottom-up approach didn't work and they failed to identify anybody as 'moderates,'" Zaeef said.

Failed Negotiations

The Afghan government has had limited success negotiating with the Taliban.

Its attempts to broker talks though the Saudi royal family has not produced measurable results. Afghan President Hamid Karzai tried to negotiate with key Taliban leaders directly earlier this year but the process ended with their arrests.

U.S. General David Petraeus, who leads U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, recently claimed that Taliban commanders were increasingly making peace overtures to Kabul, but that was denied by the Taliban.

Most recently, on the 9th anniversary of the U.S. attacks against the Taliban, Karzai launched an official peace council to guide peace efforts with the insurgents.

Speaking on October 7 in Kabul, Karzai told the council will have his continuing support.

"This peace council is the greatest hope for the people of Afghanistan. The international community is supporting this move with all means and the people of Afghanistan hope to see success from this movement. I wish success for you, members of this high council, my sisters and brothers," Karzai said.

The Afghan leader has repeatedly asked the insurgents to renounce violence, to distance themselves from Al-Qaeda, and to accept the Afghan constitution. Reports of contacts between the Taliban and Kabul are on the rise but there is no sign of a break in the impasse. A negotiated deal is considered key to the U.S. exit strategy of beginning a troop drawdown in the summer of 2011.

But some observers say peace in Afghanistan will require more than just talks with insurgents. They say it will require no less than regional and global consensus on other complex conflicts in South Asia and Central Asia, which are fueling the unrest in Afghanistan.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Hameed Mohmand contributed reporting from Kabul
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. ​