KABUL – Secret high-level negotiations between the Afghan Government and the Taleban leadership aimed at ending the war have begun, diplomatic sources have revealed.
Meetings which included delegates of the Quetta Shura, the Taleban’s Pakistan-based governing body which is overseen by Mullah Mohammed Omar, are believed to have taken place in Dubai.
The Taleban high command had previously rejected any political negotiations until Western forces had left Afghanistan.
Talks have also taken place in Kabul with “indirect representatives” of the insurgency. It remains unclear whether this is a parallel process to the one in the United Arab Emirates.
According to reports, Pakistani officials led by former Foreign Minister Aftab Ahmed Shirpao, were present at meetings at the Serena Hotel in the Afghan capital.
The Dubai discussions are said to have centred on the conditions under which the Taleban would agree to call a ceasefire. They have dropped the demand that Western forces withdraw fully from Afghan soil before any peace talks can open but insist on an agreed timetable for the exit of Nato troops.
The extreme Islamist movement ran Afghanistan between 1996 and the United States-led invasion in 2001 and was notorious for its hardline interpretation of Islam, banning such things as music and education for girls. The movement was branded a terrorist organisation by the US after being toppled.
According to diplomats, representatives of the Taleban could initially be brought back into governance at local levels as part of a reconciliation process.
It is also claimed that a deal may involve Mullah Omar, the one-eyed religious leader who fled Afghanistan on a motorbike shortly after the 2001 invasion.
Some of his lieutenants could also be given immunity from future prosecution and go into exile in Saudi Arabia under a deal.
Human rights and women’s groups have long feared a political settlement which would allow the Taleban back into power and potentially water down rights guaranteed under the constitution.
Military setbacks are thought to have influenced renewed US backing for the idea of negotiating an end to the conflict.
The White House yesterday said that President Barack Obama “supports” attempts to negotiate with the Taleban, but stressed its members must pledge to respect Afghan law and lay down their arms.
Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said the US was not directly involved in the talks. However, clandestine meetings are believed to have taken place between senior Taleban members and CIA officials, according to Pakistani officials.
An indication of the determination of the Pakistani authorities to take a central role in talks to ensure a pro-Islamabad government in Afghanistan came this year when Pakistani troops and US agents captured Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taleban’s operational commander.
His capture was reported to have been fortuitous but it has since emerged that the Pakistanis had been monitoring his whereabouts and decided to detain him because he had brokered secret peace talks with the Afghan Government of Hamid Karzai.
The most recent talks do not include the Haqqani network, which operates inside Afghanistan but is based in Pakistan and has strong links to the Pakistani spy agency the ISI. The group has been systematically targeted in US cross-border air attacks recently even though Pakistani officials have been pressing the Karzai Government to open dialogue with the network.
Last week General David Petraeus, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, said senior Taleban leaders had “sought to reach out” to the top level of the Karzai Government. The general, who is due to give an assessment of the conflict to Obama in December, effectively laying out an exit timetable, added: “This is how you end these kinds of insurgencies.”
Steffan de Mistura, the head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, said both sides in the conflict had realised that a negotiated settlement was the only way to end the violence.
“There is no military solution, we all know it. The Taleban know it too. [The only format] is political dialogue, reconciliation, deal.”
PROSPECTS FOR PEACE: CAN A DEAL WITH THE INSURGENTS BE DONE
The Taleban has long insisted that no peace deal is possible until all foreign forces have left Afghan soil, an impossible concession for Nato, which knows full well that President Hamid Karzai’s Government and its fledgling security forces would swiftly fall without its support.
Yet preliminary discussions in Dubai suggest that Taleban leaders may be willing to drop this deal-breaker under certain conditions.
There is speculation a deal may be possible if:
* Western forces agree to leave Afghanistan on an agreed timeline. In return the Taleban would call a ceasefire ahead of their departure.
* Taleban representatives take local government jobs as part of a reconciliation process. To an extent this is already happening, with some MPs and senators sympathising with the militants if not actually backing them.
* Mullah Mohammad Omar and his lieutenants on the Quetta Shura, or Taleban governing council, receive immunity from prosecution and go into exile, probably in Saudi Arabia. Other Taleban prisoners are to be released. The Saudi Government, however, will only allow the exile clause if the movement disavows all links with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, a condition the Americans will also insist on.
But there are a number of sticking points with no obvious resolution. Among them are:
* The insurgents are extremely decentralised and special forces raids, taking place at record intensity, exacerbate this by killing new leaders as they emerge. What one band of insurgents accepts may be intolerable for another.
* There is also the question of large, nominally pro-government constituencies resisting or sabotaging a peace deal. Many Afghans from ethnic groups unaffiliated with the predominantly Pashtun Taleban see overtures to insurgents as a betrayal.