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Who Are 'The Taliban'?

“They want privileges and we will be giving them privileges,” Qiamuddin Kashaf, spokesman for the 70-member Afghan High Council for Peace, told reporters last week in Kabul.

Ambiguous words from Kashaf, whose primary aim is to encourage Taliban insurgents to quit the fight and return to peaceful life. But who exactly are “they”?

If he is talking about the Taliban, it would be helpful to know precisely what elements he is referring to. Some divide the Taliban into low, medium, and high levels of opposition, while others differentiate them as moderate or extremist. Afghan authorities interchangeably code-name them as “the enemies of Afghanistan” and “the armed opposition.

So, who is the government going to bring to the negotiating table? How is it possible to end a war when the enemy is not specifically defined? And will the council be focusing on reintegration of these mysterious guests or on reconciliation of a larger scale?

Experience shows that reintegration programs that offer money, jobs, and housing have not proven effective. In the past, some local armed fighters took advantage of the program and joined the government, but after a while most rejoined the Taliban ranks.

But if the council is talking about reconciliation, then obviously these efforts must include the Taliban leadership, which reportedly is stationed in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Unfortunately, Taliban demands are far beyond the incentives offered by the peace council's spokesman.

In a recent online statement in Pashto and English, Taliban spokesman Zabihulla Mujahid said that any talks would be “futile in the presence of the foreign troops in Afghanistan.”

The statement also denied the involvement of any representatives of the Taliban in talks with the government, despite Kashaf’s previous acknowledgements that there are contacts between the government and insurgent commanders.

It is too simplistic to think that a council led by Burhanuddin Rabbani -- a former president whose government was toppled by the Taliban back in 1996 -- will be able to influence the Quetta Council to bring high-level Taliban commanders to the negotiating table. The main obstacle is a deficit of confidence between the government and the leadership of the Taliban.

The regional players, especially Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- who previously recognized the Taliban regime as legitimate -- can play a productive role in bridging the gap of trust between the two sides. Meanwhile, Afghan experts believe that the United States and its allies must bring more pressure on Pakistan to convince the Taliban leadership to reconcile with the government.

Assurances should be given not only to the Taliban that they will be safe if returned to a peaceful life, but also to the people of Afghanistan, especially to women, that their new-found freedoms will not be undermined by a possible Taliban comeback. Afghan right groups are rightly concerned about possible talks with the Taliban.

Sima Samar, head of the Afghan human rights commission, said that any peace process that does not represent the people of Afghanistan, especially its women, will not "last long." She added that any talks must be held in a way that does not "undermine human rights and justice" under the "pretext of peace efforts.”

-- Mustafa Sarwar, Radio Azadi