News – Afghan talks aim to court insurgents

AFGHAN officials, retired Pakistani security chiefs and former Taliban leaders are meeting in Kabul, trying to find ways to open peace talks with the insurgents—possibly by dropping key Western-backed conditions to such a reconciliation.

The meetings, sponsored by the United Arab Emirates and held on Tuesday and Wednesday in Kabul’s luxurious Serena Hotel, do not involve insurgents. The Taliban’s position is to refuse all peace contacts as long as US-led international forces remain in the country.

President Hamid Karzai’s aides and other officials said, however, that the Afghan government would be ready to abandon some previously announced “red lines,” such as a demand that the Taliban recognise the Afghan constitution and lay down arms, in an attempt to kick-start substantive negotiations.

“Peace means that all the conditions of one side cannot be accepted, and both sides must compromise,” explained Mr Karzai’s Islamic affairs adviser, Nematullah Shahrani. In return for such government concessions, he said, the Taliban would be expected to abandon their demand for the immediate departure of all foreign forces as a precondition for talks.

The US government has long insisted that insurgent acceptance of the Afghan constitution, which enshrines democratic freedoms and women’s rights, is indispensable for any reconciliation. Some other international officials and Afghan policymakers say, however, that democratic mechanisms already exist for rewriting the constitution if necessary. “The constitution is not a word of God—it can be changed,” one Afghan official said.

This week’s meetings in the Serena Hotel—a follow-up to a session held in Abu Dhabi in June—don’t formally involve the 68-member peace council that Mr Karzai appointed last month to try to open official talks with the Taliban leadership headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar. The Taliban have already rejected that council, describing Mr Karzai as an American stooge and proclaiming that the insurgency’s military triumph over US-led troops is within sight.

The coalition’s commander, US General David Petraeus, recently spoke of promising peace contacts initiated by “very high-level” Taliban members, and some military officials in Washington said they believe a reconciliation outreach to the insurgents might be helpful even absent a dramatic shift of momentum in the battlefield.

“You need all of the lines of operations running simultaneously. We like to think in phases but [military operations and peace talks] have to work in tandem,” said a military official.

Administration officials, however, caution that any peace contacts are unlikely to produce results in the near future.

“We need to take the fight more aggressively and for a greater duration to the Taliban and other extremists in Afghanistan for them to feel the kind of pressure necessary to spark a movement of reintegration and reconciliation,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Some members of the newly appointed Afghan peace council hold similar views, saying the only thing the Taliban may be willing to discuss in the current security environment is a capitulation by Mr Karzai’s government.

“How can you have peace negotiations with people who believe neither in peace nor in negotiations?” said Mohammed Mohaqeq, a peace-council member and a strongman of the ethnic Hazara community.

Some of the people familiar with Mr Karzai’s thinking countered that view. “There’s some realisation on the Taliban’s side as well that without a proper timetable and without proper security, it won’t be possible to demand that international troops leave the country before negotiations can take place,” one such person said.

Among the participants in this week’s discussions are Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who served as the Taliban regime’s ambassador to Pakistan in 2001 and was later incarcerated in the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as the former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate spy agency, General Assad Durrani.

They also include prominent Pakistani politicians from the Pashtun nationalist ANP and PMAP parties in regions bordering Afghanistan, a former Pakistani interior minister, the United Nations envoy to Kabul, and Mr Karzai’s senior adviser on peace and reconciliation, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai.

“We’re talking about Pakistan’s involvement in Afghan affairs, Afghanistan being used against Pakistan by India, and where the Taliban is getting its arms from,” one of the Afghan participants said.

Coalition and Afghan officials have frequently accused elements of the ISI and Pakistani security establishment of funnelling money and weapons to the Taliban and the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. Pakistan is concerned by the prominent role arch rival India is playing here, alleging that New Delhi is fomenting the Baluch nationalist insurgency within Pakistan. India has denied conducting such activities.

“It’s a trust-building meeting between the Pakistanis and Afghans,” said one of the participants, Mirwais Yasini, the deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament.

Mullah Zaeef described the meetings as “not a negotiation, but a seminar of individuals, not officials” that “may give ideas” to policy makers.

Mr Karzai earlier this year attempted contacts with the Taliban’s second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who belongs to the same Pashtun clan as the Afghan president. These efforts ended after Pakistan’s ISI arrested Mr Baradar in February—according to Western officials, to ensure that any future talks are channeled through the ISI and benefit Pakistani interests.

The participants in this week’s Kabul discussions are working “to create a mechanism for peace talks with the Taliban,” said Mukhtar Ahmad Khan Yousufzai, the Peshawar-based provincial chief of the PMAP Pakistani Pashtun political party.

“The Taliban are not directly involved in the peace talks, but the ISI is representing them,” said Mr Yousufzai. “The ISI has huge influence among Taliban leaders.”

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