The Taliban spokesman’s announcement that the Taliban are prepared to open an office in Doha Qatar and to hold talks with the Americans at that site has been the headline story in the international media for the last few days. The fact that this very spokesman, commenting on the disgusting video of American marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban and making offensive remarks, stressed that this incident would not be allowed to disturb the plans for talks in Doha underlined the importance the Taliban seemed to attach to these talks.
The question is what do the Taliban wish to achieve in these talks particularly when they say that they will talk only to the Americans and not to President Karzai who, they say is an American stooge and therefore presumably not worth talking to. One objective is known. They want the release of some 5 Taliban leaders who are currently held in Guantanamo. Whether this demand is made as evidence of American sincerity or because some or all of them will be part of the Taliban negotiating team is not clear. What is known is that the preliminary negotiations that the Americans have held with Mr. Tayyab Agha, first located by German intelligence-and now regarded as a credible interlocutor after he passed the various tests the Americans designed to establish his credentials-this question has been raised and the Americans have tried to provide positive responses despite the difficulties that arise from the various restrictions that Congress has placed on the administration’s discretionary powers regarding the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo. For the moment it appears that the administration will try and win congressional approval for the transfer of these Taliban prisoners to Qatari custody presumably with the proviso that they will be returned to American custody if the talks fail or even if in the talks no satisfactory way is found for their permanent release. It is likely that the Taliban will accept this condition but will insist that no publicity be given to the temporary nature of the release from American custody since freeing these people from American custody would be one way the Taliban leadership can sell the “deal” to the fighters in the field who have in the past been told that negotiations would not be held until there has been a complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Some reports indicate that the Taliban are suggesting a prisoner exchange with the release of the five Taliban being balanced by the release of an American soldier that the Taliban have been holding.
It is perhaps understandable that the Taliban want to negotiate this release without the presence of the Karzai representatives. After all on this question the Americans alone have the decision making power. One would have thought however that the Taliban would have found the Karzai presence helpful since it is his people who have been working in the UN to have the Taliban separated from the Al-Qaeda in the list of sanctioned terrorists and to have some of the Taliban names taken off the list altogether. Some of the Taliban for whose removal from the list the Karzai administration has been campaigning are those that the Taliban now demand should be released from Guantanamo.
President Karzai’s reluctant acquiescence to the setting up of the Taliban office in Qatar- which he believes gives the Americans more leverage than would an office in Saudi Arabia or Turkey-was won, I believe on the assurance that these were only preliminary talks and that the substantive negotiations would be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. In my view he continues to be wary of the American suspecting that the Americans would want to cut a deal that would enable them to withdraw relatively gracefully from Afghanistan even if this left the Karzai administration and its allies at a disadvantage. During his recent visit to Kabul the American representative Mr. Grossman spent a great deal of his time explaining that the Americans were fully supportive of an Afghan owned and Afghan led process and would not be conducting any negotiations with the Taliban without them. It was also made clear however that the Americans wanted before any such effort was made that the Taliban should renounce the Al-Qaeda before any negotiations could get underway.
A National Intelligence Estimate prepared by America’s 16 intelligence agencies for President Obama reportedly states that the Taliban have not given up on their ambition to rule all of Afghanistan and suggesting thereby that talks with them will not yield the power sharing arrangements of which Mullah Omar had spoken in his Eid message. While this sentiment is shared by a number of analysts in the United States, particularly those who have been opposing Obama’s plan to withdraw all international troops by 2014 the fact of the matter is that the US intelligence agencies are not very well informed about the Taliban leadership’s composition and therefore about their intentions. Only last year the American, a shopkeeper took British and possibly Afghan intelligence agents in the region for a ride from Quetta posing as a representative of the Taliban. Having wasted thousands of dollars on this fraud the Americans last year spent many months checking out the credentials of a Mr. Tayyab Agha identified initially by German intelligence as a trusted aide of Mullah Omar before they started serious talks with him. If the Americans do not know the personae it is certain that they know little about the views they hold or the degree to which the lat thirty years of strife has affected their dogmatic beliefs.
While there is a great deal of skepticism about Taliban statements it would be worthwhile at this juncture to take seriously the message that Mullah Omar conveyed in his Eid-ul-Fitr message of 28th August. He had said at that time, “Our manifesto is that Afghanistan should have a real Islamic regime which is acceptable to all people of the country. All ethnicities will have participation in the regime and portfolios will be dispensed on the basis of merits;”….. “Contrary to the propaganda launched by the enemies, the policy of the Islamic Emirate is not aimed at monopolizing power.”….. “The Afghans have a splendid tradition for the solution of problems and understanding among themselves. But it is in a condition when foreign intervention does not exist…. If the global invading coalition ends [the] occupation of our land, the Islamic Emirate, as a peace-loving and responsible regime, will maintain positive relations with countries of the region and the world.”
There has also been much made of the fact that the Taliban are not a monolithic organization and that Mullah Omar’s team may not be able to speak on behalf of the new commanders that have emerged in the field as the Special Operation forces have taken their toll of the older commanders. My own view is that this is a mistaken assumption. The local commanders have limited ability to raise finances locally or to secure the weapons they need. There have been reports of Taliban commanders being removed when they have sought to keep to themselves funds raised from the imposition of taxes on local farmers or local transporters. It has also been apparent that Mullah Omar alone seems to have the authority to appoint the shadow governors and other shadow officials. I agree therefore with the recently expressed view of Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban minister and now a prominent member of the Afghan High Peace Council, that, "Those who fight on the field take their instruction from the leaders. The soldiers will not fight, or have someone else organize them and supply them. To say otherwise just looks like propaganda to me."
On the other hand, I am not certain that Mullah Omar can command, in the same way, the loyalty of what is known as the Haqqani network in Eastern Afghanistan even though Jalaluddin Haqqani did serve as a minister in the Taliban cabinet and is said to have a representative serving on the Taliban Shura. Jalaluddin Haqqani and now his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani, have had a power base in Paktia, Paktika and Khost that was largely independent of the Taliban. Jalaluddin’s prowess as a military commander in the 1979-89 Jihad had won him the admiration and financial support of many supporters in the Middle East and this funding has continued to date, independent of the Taliban, perhaps helped by the connections that he has maintained with the Al-Qaeda. In my view, however, it is possible that so long as the Haqqanis can maintain their power base in the eastern provinces they would not object to a reconciliation being worked out between Mullah Omar and the Karzai administration.
Is there a good prospect for success? I think that that the Taliban may be willing to publicly renounce their ties with the Al-Qaeda and with any international Global Jihad. But will they be prepared to accept, as Karzai will probably want, an American presence after the withdrawal of foreign combat troops? Will they instead suggest a largely Islamic peacekeeping force under UN auspices? Already the so-called Northern Alliance members and their supporters in the American Congress have made known their apprehensions-in a statement issued after a meeting in Berlin-and have insisted that they should be part of the negotiating process from the start. There is no doubt that they will have to be part of the negotiating process. There is every possibility that in the course of the negotiations they will be able to demand and get devolution of power to the regions changing the current constitution but can they be persuaded to agree that in the initial phase that only Karzai as the legitimate elected leader would have to conduct the negotiations. There should be no doubt that the negotiating process will be long and tortuous.