Taliban Talks: Like a Dinner without Food
by Ramtanu Maitra on 18 Feb 2012 11 Comments

Talk about talks on Afghanistan has taken over the print pages of mainstream media, but very little news is trickling out of what is actually happening on the ground there. From the talk, it would seem that talks are about to sprout like wild cacti in the Arab desert. But it is not at all clear at this point in time that any talks are actually taking place, or have even begun, much less what the subjects of discussion are. 

What is evident is that an intense level of jockeying among various interested parties has begun. The buzz is emanating from Qatar where the Americans are in talks with the Taliban. Other talks are getting planned to be held in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That would involve Kabul and Islamabad. What is not clear, however, is how many jockeys are in fact competing to ride the horse — the horse that will lead them to the resolution of the decade-long Afghan war.

The latest jockey to show up in Qatar was Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. According to the greatest source of misinformation about the Middle East, the BBC, Gilani discussed peace efforts in Afghanistan there. It is not clear with whom he discussed this important issue.

The BBC report indicates that Gilani was looking for an Afghan horse. But that may not be the case at all. He is now slipping off his own Pakistani horse, the one he has been riding unsteadily for years. Now that Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikar Muhammad Chaudhry has held him for contempt of court, Gilani could not only lose his job but may even end up in jail. It is, therefore, not altogether unlikely that Gilani was in Qatar to seek support from the Gulf sheikhs, who, with firm support from both London and Washington, have influenced situations in Islamabad for years. Many exiled Pakistani heads of state would testify to that— privately, of course.

This jockeying operation could be very prolonged and tiring. That is because the Gulf sheikhs, inspired by their success in unseating and killing Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, are busy playing for high stakes in both Syria and Iran. Changing the regime in Syria and putting their variety of Sunni Islamic follower in power there is now their top priority. In the case of Iran, the Gulf sheikhs have no compunction in even seeking the help of Israel to get rid of the Shi’a clerical control over Tehran. Needless to point out, both London and Washington have their legs up in this venture. With the Arab world in turmoil, the Gulf sheikhs are trying to make hay while the fire burns at a distance. To them, the Afghanistan crisis is nothing more than a sideshow.

Washington’s Unilateral Move

The gullible media tell us that Washington has begun to talk to “the Taliban” in Qatar. It is not clear who these “Taliban” are. In 2001, the United States landed Special Forces and troops to eradicate the ruling Taliban regime. For 10 years the American public was told that Washington, with its money and military power, was inflicting one defeat after another on these rag-tag Afghan Islamic zealots. But all that has changed.

After proving its invincibility through pronouncements and statements, the Obama administration is now ready to talk to the moderate Taliban. Are these moderate Taliban Taliban at all or some Afghan militants who just want the foreign devils off their soil? We do not know. But what we know for a fact is that the Taliban are no longer America’s adversaries. One fine morning, US Vice President Joe Biden told the media that the Taliban is not the enemy. He did not go to the extent of embracing them as friends, but his statement surely legitimized the Taliban as a power-sharer in Kabul after, and when, Washington decides to hand over control to the locals.

It’s not that the American people are particularly concerned about who takes over control in Kabul. Nonetheless, the Obama administration is planning to convey to the Americans that it is not negotiating with the old big bad Taliban that shared a bed with Osama bin Laden. In fact, the buzz is that Washington — whose motto is not to support the Islamic extremists (on this, however, one has to exclude Libya, Bahrain and even Syria from the list, and keep Qatar and Saudi Arabia out of any discussion, too!) — is dealing with a moderate version of the Taliban.

What has, however, been made clear so far is that Washington’s Af-Pak envoy Marc Grossman, who was denied entry into Pakistan recently, was in Qatar. The Afghan news agency, TOLO, cited a senior Afghan official to state that Grossman met Taliban leaders in Qatar as part of US efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan.

The Voice of America (VOA) informed us on Jan. 30 that Maulavi Qalamuddin, who once led the Taliban’s religious police, said the delegation includes several former officials, as well as a former secretary to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar. Qalamuddin said the talks include the possible release of Taliban prisoners from the US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He said the delegation traveled to Qatar from Pakistan, indicating that Islamabad might support the peace process.

Despite what VOA reported, it is not clear which faction these Taliban leaders belong to, or whether the named Taliban leader, Qalamuddin, has the blessings of the Taliban’s ostensible numero uno, Mullah Muhammad Omar, or any of the field commanders battling US and NATO troops. If not, one may ask, what good can come of his talks with Grossman?

“I can confirm that Mr. Grossman met with the Taliban representatives in Qatar. When President Karzai was in Rome, Grossman came over to his residence and briefed him about his meeting with the Taliban,” the Afghan official told TOLO. Subsequently, Grossman went to Kabul, met with President Karzai and made a number of agreements with him in sequence with the talks with the Taliban, news reports said.

To Ride a Cock Horse

Meanwhile, President Karzai, who is a Pushtun himself and has a bunch of Afghan Pushtuns on his side, is also planning to become a rider— of the missing horse. Karzai resented the Americans holding such talks in Qatar. His initial reaction was to criticize the US-Taliban talks and demand that they be held in Afghanistan. Later on, Karzai grudgingly agreed to US-Taliban talks to be held in Saudi Arabia.

It is not clear why he wanted the talks in Riyadh, and not in Doha. It could be that he has sources inside Saudi Arabia who would keep him abreast of developments. According to at least one news report, one Afghan diplomat said Kabul feels slighted by Qatar’s lack of consultation on the plan and, in any case, Kabul is reluctant to be drawn into Gulf rivalry between Doha and its long-standing allies in Riyadh.

Anyway, Karzai had to yield to the Americans, as he always has. It is no surprise that he accepted such overruling. It is good to remember that Washington and Brussels hold the purse strings and Karzai’s day-to-day survival depends on those who call the shots from those two distant cities.

Another interested party in these talks is Pakistan. It is widely known that Pakistan is in close contact with a faction of the Taliban since many of them have been living inside Pakistan for at least a decade. It is also important to realize that, contrary to the general perception, as far as Pakistan is concerned, the Taliban are not the only players putting up resistance against occupation. There are at least two other very important groups, Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani network, along with many smaller groups that have their own areas of influence and function from within Pakistan. 

Like Karzai, Pakistan does not want the Americans to work out a deal with Washington’s own brand of Taliban. And for this reason, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar made a one-day trip to Kabul in early February. There she discussed with Karzai how to bring about a solution that would not hurt either Kabul or Islamabad and, at the same time, not give the Americans the whole nine yards. Kabul and Islamabad’s relations had gone into a deep freeze after Kabul blamed the Pakistani ISI for the September murder of its peace envoy, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

The Pakistan Initiative

The Pakistan Foreign Minister’s visit was built up as a major event in Kabul. “This visit will mark a new cooperation phase between the two countries,” Afghan Foreign Ministry Spokesman Janan Mosazai told reporters ahead of Khar’s first visit to Afghanistan since taking office in July. “After the death of Rabbani, we boycotted some of the bilateral and trilateral meetings (including the US) with Pakistan,” a senior official in Karzai’s office told AFP. “This visit is aimed at improving our relations, as well as at resuming those meetings.”

Pakistani analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai said Khar’s trip was important because both governments “feel a bit left out” of the Qatar negotiations and “would be trying at least to find out what is happening, and maybe try to coordinate their own policies accordingly.”

Just about the time Khar landed in Kabul, BBC and the London Times did what they do best. They “leaked” a NATO report that said Pakistan is actively supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. The BBC report said: “The BBC’s Quentin Sommerville in Kabul says the report — on the state of the Taliban - fully exposes for the first time the relationship between the ISI and the Taliban. The report is based on material from 27,000 interrogations with more than 4,000 captured Taliban, al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters and civilians.”

According to the BBC, the report noted: “Pakistan’s manipulation of the Taliban senior leadership continues unabatedly. It says that Pakistan is aware of the locations of senior Taliban leaders. Senior Taliban representatives, such as Nasiruddin Haqqani, maintain residences in the immediate vicinity of ISI headquarters in Islamabad. The report quoted a senior al-Qaeda detainee as saying: ‘Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. I can’t [expletive] on a tree in Kunar without them watching. The Taliban are not Islam. The Taliban are Islamabad.’”

Although Khar dismissed the “leak” as the same “old wine in a new bottle,” some damage was done.

The Talk about Talks

From various media reports and intel reports from India and Pakistan, it seems that three sets of dialogues are in progress with the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban as participants. These are all parallel dialogues, and there is no indication that they are directly related.

According to a senior Indian analyst, the first of these dialogues is that between the Taliban and the US. It is no longer a secret that the US administration has been engaged in a negotiation with the Taliban— moderate or otherwise. While Washington may claim to be engaging a “moderate” Taliban, that formulation could be for domestic consumption rather than a reflection of reality. Nonetheless, a section within the Taliban is engaged in a dialogue with Washington. It is not clear what this set of talks will try to accomplish.

On Feb. 11, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama Administration, pursuing these shrouded-in-haze peace talks with the Taliban, had “leaked” the news that it may arrange a pre-emptive release of five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo. These five are:

Mohammad Fazl, the senior-most Taliban commander in northern Afghanistan and their deputy defense minister when captured in November 2001. Fazl was at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress outside the city of Mazar-i-Sharif when hundreds of Taliban prisoners revolted against their captors in the Northern Alliance. CIA operative Johnny Michael Spann died in the melee, becoming the first American casualty of the Afghan war.

Mullah Norullah Nori, who served with Fazl in northern Afghanistan and was with him at Qala-i-Jangi fortress. The US suspects him of involvement in Spann's murder.

Mohammed Nabi, a senior Taliban official who allegedly helped smuggle weapons to attack US  troops and finance the Taliban.

KhairullahKhairkhwa, former Taliban governor of Herat province in western Afghanistan, who was “directly associated” with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, his interrogators say.

Abdul Haq Wasiq, who was the deputy head of Taliban intelligence, which tortured and murdered civilians.

The Obama administration’s plan seems to be to turn these five over to the custody of the Qatar government, the Wall Street Journal said. But why would Washington be doing that? Is it to entice the Taliban to the discussion table?

The second dialogue, according to the same Indian analyst, consists of various Taliban factions of both Afghan and Pakistani origin. In early January they formed a five-member council — Shura-e-Murakbah —representing Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis, Hakimullah Mehsud, Waliur Rehman and Mulla Nazir. The primary objectives of this Shura are threefold: first, to unite all the Taliban factions — Afghan and Pakistan; second, to stop fighting the Pakistani security forces; and, third, to combine their strength and fight the NATO-led international troops in Afghanistan.

The third set of talks involves the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pakistani Security forces. Pakistani media report that such a dialogue has been going on since November 2011. Most likely this dialogue is between the Pakistan ISI and the TTP. One analyst claims that one of the objectives of the American attack on the Pakistani posts at the end of November (that killed at least 24 Pakistani soldiers) was to scuttle these talks.

Guests have arrived, but no Dinner

In a paper presented at the UNRCCA International Seminar, “Security and Stability in Central Asia: Interaction with International and Regional Organizations,” April 21-22, 2010, in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Khalid Rahman of the Islamabad-based Institute for Policy Research, said: “The strategic significance of Afghanistan can hardly be overemphasized. The emerging power, China, and reemerging power, Russia, energy and resource rich Central Asia and Middle East, and strategically located Pakistan surround Afghanistan. In real-politick terms, stability in Afghanistan and regional harmony among all the countries surrounding it would contribute in the fast-paced development of the region, implying that continuing instability in Afghanistan could easily damage these potentials. Many observers, in fact, believe that instability in the region is an essential outcome of this geopolitical significance. Consequently it is argued that the challenges, which the region and the Central Asian Republics are facing, have a direct relation with the situation in Afghanistan. It is important to keep this dimension in view while analyzing the conceptual aspect of the issue.”

Rahman is on the mark. The continuing war in Afghanistan is having negative effects on the entire region. Yet there is no indication that any of the participants in these talks about talks are interested in looking beyond their own narrow interest. At the same time, it must be noted that each participant’s self-interest is counter to that of the others.

For instance, writing in The New York Review of Books (Feb.9), Anatol Lieven stated: “Since the ISI has been working with militant groups for more than four decades, some of its cadres have developed strong personal and ideological affinities with them. They may still dream of a victorious jihad in Afghanistan sweeping the Taliban to rule over the whole country. Indeed, so close is the identification of some ISI officers with the Taliban that there is some doubt whether the Taliban is acting as Pakistan’s proxy or the ISI is acting as the Taliban’s proxy.”

If Lieven is correct, a section of the Taliban is so close to the Pakistan ISI that it would be unwise to believe that they would forego the ISI interest to carry out orders from Mullah Omar. That brings up the next problem. The Taliban have not entered into any of these talks because they were forced. Then why did they come, if indeed they did?

That is a difficult question to answer, and it also raises the possibility that the Taliban commanders who are fighting in the field have little to do with these talks. Then, following that logic, even if the talks lead to any sort of agreement, would these commanders comply with it? It is likely that they will not. The point is, even if the “Taliban” has not split as of now, it could if these talks begin to show any result.

In addition, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is playing his own cards with the departure of the American and NATO troops in mind. His latest move was to talk to Pakistan’s old mujahideen group, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, before he met Grossman. In Qatar, talks with the Taliban are supposed to be with Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban, but Karzai’s talk to Hekmatyar seems to be the Afghan president’s effort to recognize a powerful faction outside of the Taliban, and Mullah Omar’s ambit, as a legitimate power sharer.

There is nothing to suggest that a breakthrough at any of the talks could take place in the foreseeable future. Talk of releases and ceasefires are premature, at best. “It has taken us months to decide to open an office in Qatar,” said a former Taliban cabinet minister, who is reportedly still close to the insurgency. “It’s just the beginning, and we have a very long and difficult way ahead.”

For now then, the guests have arrived all dressed up. But for them to expect dinner is really asking too much.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review

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