Taliban: friend to foe to friend again?

Developing Just Leadership

Zia Sarhadi

Safar 19, 1434 2013-01-01

News & Analysis

by Zia Sarhadi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 11, Safar, 1434)

The December 20 and 21 meeting in a hotel outside Paris between representatives of the Taliban, the Karzai government and members of the Northern Alliance as well as Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami shows that the Taliban are now firmly in control of the future agenda in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have suddenly become everyone’s favorite group. The Americans, French, Saudis, Qataris, Turks, Hamid Karzai and a host of others are lining up to talk to them. What accounts for this sudden popularity of the Taliban driven from power by the Americans and their allies in November 2001? Of course, the Pakistanis, or more precisely their intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have the closest links with them but that is to be expected. The agency’s principal function is to protect Pakistan’s interests and it makes little sense to antagonize an important player on its borders, especially when other players in Afghanistan — Karzai, the Northern Alliance and the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) — are deeply influenced by Pakistan’s arch-rival India.

The Americans have been trying to talk to the Taliban for years. They have used such ploys as getting the Saudis to convince them to talk; they have used the Turks and in more recent times, the Qataris. There was even a news story floated last March (2012) that the Taliban were going to open an office in Doha, Qatar. This was seen as a prelude to US-Taliban talks. Taliban spokesmen did not deny plans to open an office in Doha but then dropped the idea in the wake of the massacre perpetrated by sergeant Robert Bales on March 11 when he and a group of other American soldiers went on a rampage killing 17 Afghan women and children in the Panjwii district of Qandahar. Bales is currently on trial for the murder of innocent Afghans but few expect him to receive punishment commensurate with his crime. The Taliban also said at the time that the Americans were not sincere in their dealings and were acting duplicitously. At least the Taliban discovered American duplicity fairly quickly and cut off their dealings with them.

The Washington cowboys, however, do not give up easily. Aware that they are losing the war and as the deadline for their announced withdrawal date — end of 2014 — from Afghanistan draws near, they have to strike a deal with the Taliban. What shape that deal might take is a different question. The Americans want to secure an agreement to station troops in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline. They would not be involved in direct military combat; instead they will be stationed at secure military bases but the reason for their presence is to undermine the influence of Russia and China as well as act as a destabilizing force against Iran. The Americans have already signed an agreement with Karzai but they know he cannot guarantee the troops’ safety, hence the scramble to find and talk to the Taliban.

Enter the French who have withdrawn all troops from Afghanistan ahead of schedule. This fulfills one of the Taliban conditions for talks. Using the cover of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think tank, a conference was organized at Hotel Chateau de la Tour in Gouvieux Chantilly, 50 km north of Paris on December 20 and 21 at which some Taliban representatives met Afghan government officials as well as members of the Northern Alliance, the Tajik minority group whose members control many important posts in Afghanistan. Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s group, Hizb-e Islami also sent representatives. The Taliban were represented by senior figures Shahabuddin Dilawar and Naeem Wardak indicating that they sense the time is right to position themselves for post-US occupation scenario in Afghanistan.

The French intelligence agency, Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure (DGSE or General Directorate for External Security, the military external intelligence agency) has had links with the Northern Alliance that go back decades. Even during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, frequently met French intelligence officers (the French intelligence agency was then called the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage — SDECE). Massoud also struck a deal with the Russians: in return for being left alone in his Pajshir Valley stronghold, he would not attack the Russians. This suited the Russians well because it allowed them to fight the other groups that were based in the east and south of the country.

During the Paris talks, the Taliban called for a new constitution as a pre-condition for their joining the country’s fledgling peace process. This was announced in a declaration issued by their representatives at the Paris meeting. “Afghanistan’s present constitution has no value for us because it was made under the shadows of B-52 bombers of the invaders,” said the declaration, which was handed to participants during the meeting and later released to the media. “Islamic Emirate, for the welfare of their courageous nation, need a constitution that is based on the principles of the holy religion of Islam, national interest, historical achievements, and social justice,” it read.

Prior to the Paris meeting when it was announced that Afghan government officials would be meeting Taliban representatives, a spokesman for the latter confirmed their members would be in Paris but put a different spin on it describing it as a “conference.” He insisted there would be only speeches at the conference and the Taliban attending it would not make any political commitments or participate in negotiations. Interestingly, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius also confirmed ahead of the “meeting/conference” saying “Discreet talks have been taking place between different factions for three years.” He went on, “If you want peace, it’s usually between people who don’t agree, and over there [in Afghanistan] they don’t talk to each other.” Fabius then confirmed, “So there will be discussions, but it won’t be negotiations.” The Taliban had made this a condition for their participation in the “conference.”

Choosing his words very carefully in order not to antagonize the Taliban lest they pull out before the meeting is convened, Fabius said: “They [the Taliban] have been invited on an individual basis.” This again underscored the point that the Taliban had placed certain conditions for attending. “The idea is to get them to talk freely and behind closed doors,” he told Reuters, adding there would be 20 participants. Fabius said France had “no direct involvement” in the process other than hosting it. Sources said French officials would be present. Fabius’ statements clearly indicated the meeting was arranged at the behest of the Americans but wanted to keep this low-key in order not to upset the Taliban who have said they do not trust the Americans, calling them duplicitous.

They have been chasing the Taliban for more than a decade. First, it was to capture and kill them. From 2006 to 2009, the Taliban were being chased to drive them out of certain parts of Afghanistan so that the Americans and their allies could control them. When that also failed, the Americans started chasing them to talk to them but the Taliban have proved elusive. They have stuck to their demand that there can be no talks until all foreign troops are out of Afghanistan.

Karzai has tried but failed to draw the Taliban into face-to-face-talks. In the past, the Taliban sent suicide bombers disguised as negotiators. Last year (September 2011), Ustad Burha-nuddin Rabbani was assassinated as he “welcomed” what he thought was a Taliban emissary sent for peace talks. Rabbani was head of the Afghan High Peace Council. On December 6, another Taliban “peace envoy” nearly killed the Afghan intelligence chief, Assadullah Khalid in Kabul’s upscale Taimani district. At the Paris talks, Karzai and his allies were confident the Taliban would not be able to smuggle bombs even if wrapped in their turbans, to kill their opponents.

The Paris talks also highlight another dilemma Karzai faces. He knows that once foreign troops pull out, his position would become extremely precarious. Karzai has drawn up a roadmap that he hopes would draw the Taliban into talks persuading them and other insurgent groups to agree to a ceasefire and join a power sharing arrangement. One proposal privately floated is that the Taliban would be given control of the south and southeast of the country while Karzai and his Northern Alliance allies will share control of the other areas.

The million-dollar question is whether the Taliban would agree to such an arrangement. If they can have the whole loaf why would they settle for a quarter or even half a loaf? They feel the momentum is with them and foreign troops are heading for the exit door. As the Taliban have repeatedly said, “the Americans may have the watches but we have all the time.”

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