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Why The Taliban Won't Negotiate

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid
The Taliban have resoundingly rejected reports that they are conducting direct talks with the United States. In a press statement released on May 18, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed recent media reports of possible peace negotiations. "The Washington Post" recently reported that a U.S. representative attended at least three meetings in Qatar and Germany with a Taliban official who is believed to be close to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the group’s leader.

Mujahid described these reports as “mere futile rumors.” He added: “The allegation that the Taliban want to open an office in a certain country is not true. We have not asked for the opening of an office in any country including Qatar…. [Afghanistan] is our permanent address, which is equally well known both to friends and enemies. None can deny our presence there nor are we people who lack an address or country.”

Reports of progress in peace talks with the Taliban almost always meet with denials from the Taliban themselves. There are several reasons for this reluctance. The main one is simple enough: They believe they’re winning.

The Taliban continues to focus on the goal of military victory because they know they have little future in a government where their long-time rivals, the so-called Northern Alliance, hold most of the key posts. War also happens to be a major source of income for Taliban leaders. The endless fighting in Afghanistan gives them cover for the lucrative business of smuggling arms and opium. The same applies to the warlords who oppose them. They, too, have little incentive for peace.

Some Afghan officials are part of the network of drug lords. Some of them have close relations with Iran and Pakistan, both countries that also have little interest in peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s intention to sabotage any discussion of peace is evident from the fate of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Baradar, Mullah Omar’s second-in-command, was arrested by the Pakistanis in February 2010. It is widely rumored that he was targeted for participating in back-channel peace talks with the Afghan government.

The war on terror in general, and the Afghan war in particular, have brought considerable economic benefit to Pakistan. The United States announced billions of dollars for its new ally, Pakistan, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Eager to attack terrorist hideouts in Pakistan, the United States announced millions of dollars in emergency aid to Islamabad to strengthen security on Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan. Pakistan knows the United States needs its help in the war on terror and uses the Afghan war to put diplomatic pressure on India. Pakistan will not want to lose that leverage.

There can be little doubt that some elements within the Taliban are talking with the U.S. or Afghan officials about peace. The Taliban are a heterogeneous group and not all of them want to go on fighting forever. But even the most war-weary among them are under considerable pressure from the Pakistanis to deny any rumors of negotiations. The likely alternative is arrest -- or perhaps even death.

-- Bashir Ahmad Gwakh & Christian Caryl