Posted on 01 November 2010.
Taliban in Herat. Wikipedia
While the US steps up military pressure over the Taliban in Kandahar and in Pakistan, the informal, occasional talks with the group have been taken a step further. Journalist Iason Athanasiadis was in Afghanistan trying to make sense of these negotiations, which are the crucial element of the US-led reconciliation strategy. Several obstacles remain to the success of this process, including the indecipherability of the Taliban puzzle.
HERAT: Mullah Kareem is an unlikely member of the Taliban. Stridently un-ideological, he shrugged off his Kalashnikov and abandoned jihad against the infidels as soon as he heard that an American budget for reconciliation was in play. His weapons surrendered and an amnesty received, he became one of approximately 2,000 Taliban to head back to the tree-lined boulevards of Afghanistan’s least-shattered city since the reconciliation project began in 2005. In Zirkuh, the mountainous region that his band of 30 men had made a no-go zone for several years, he left behind him his first wife in order to take a more sophisticated second one in Herat. A new life beckoned.
Well, not quite. After six months back in civilian life, Mullah Kareem has seen little of the promised aid materialize. He was not given a house in central Herat, the only location he felt was safe enough to escape the wrath of former comrades outraged by his betrayal. A high-paying civil service job he claims was pledged to him similarly didn’t come about; and nor did a monthly pension. All he got was a one-off $2,000 payment for severing ties with the Taliban. Without his weapons and now hated by his former colleagues, Mullah Kareem was left high and dry, left to wonder through central Herat by day with former colleagues and ruminate on his few options. “We can’t do anything now,” he complained. “They put their hand on the Qur’an and lied to us.”
The reconciliation strategy
So what happened to the American funds? Back in January 2010, the Obama administration unveiled part of its reconciliation strategy, which involved separating hardcore ideological fighters from what Defense Secretary Robert Gates referred to at the time as “foot soldiers [who] fight for the Taliban for money or because their families have been intimidated.” The Pentagon strategy envisioned a reintegration stage where fighters would be disarmed and returned to society, and reconciliation where Taliban and Afghan government leaders would mend their differences and find a way of coexisting.
The pace of reconciliation has increased recently. President Hamid Karzai admitted last month on CNN that he had been talking “for quite some time” with Taliban leaders. He had already formed a 60-member official peace council comprised of former power brokers that was instantly denounced by the rebels. In October, a series of exploratory talks were held in downtown Kabul’s top-security Serena Hotel that the East-West Institute, a Brussels-based think-tank, and the government of Abu Dhabi organized. Similar talks were held in 2009 when Saudi Arabia hosted Ramadan fast-breaking meals with Taliban representatives.
Insiders in the talks spoke to The Majalla about their intense frustration with Pakistan’s role and revealed that the current formula for negotiations has been dubbed “push and pull” as a method of defusing Islamabad’s influence. The Taliban are offered a mix of incentives and penalties intended to convince them to shrug off Pakistani backing and come off the battlefields. According to the game plan, bad cop NATO will inflict military defeats on the Taliban, pushing them in the direction of the government’s good cop incentives to join the political process. More Special Ops missions inside Pakistani territory in recent months have aimed at forcing Pakistan’s hand and convince it to deny sanctuary to Taliban fighters.
Top US commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, stated in October that safe passage had been granted to senior Taliban to head to Kabul for talks, something confirmed by Afghan government officials who facilitated the movements of Taliban from war-wracked Helmand Province to Kabul.
But the Taliban have repeatedly refused to negotiate with anyone other than the Americans, who, despite blessing these talks, are not participating. Taliban leaders take a dim view of the Karzai government, which they consider illegitimate. But they will also not speak to the Americans unless a clear timetable for withdrawal is announced. The Karzai government, for its part, demands that the Taliban surrender their weapons and accept the constitution as a precondition for talks, something that it is unlikely to do as news spreads of the post-surrender experience of commanders such as Mullah Kareem.
Looking for answers to how the government could have been so negligent in setting a good example for future Taliban looking to return to the fold, I headed to Herat’s Reconciliation Commission, a standalone white villa wrapped by high walls and metal bars and surrounded by armed guards. Inside it sat Mohammad Sharif Mojadidi, the commission’s director and a relative of Afghanistan’s first post-Soviet president.
“We support negotiations with the Taliban so we can have peace,” Mojadidi said. “And if this means giving them some ministries or posts in the government, then so be it.” Mojadidi occasionally comes across as more sympathetic towards the Taliban than the government he represents. But he has received numerous threats against his life and has been told to step down from his post. Often, his frustration with the Karzai government and his meager 50,000 Afghani monthly budget (about $1,000) spills over.
“We have nothing to offer them (Taliban), and very weak resources,” he said, explaining why he is incapable of making promises to people such as Mullah Kareem. “Aside from food, clothes, transportation to Kabul and covering their stay in our office there, we can’t offer anything else such as land or salaries.”
Part of the reintegration involves NGOs schooling former Taliban fighters in a trade. But there is little sign of interest on the part of high-ranking Taliban to give up their challenge to the status quo. “The Taliban are obsessed with the revival of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan,” said Syed Saleem Shahzad, author of Al-Qaeda: Ideology, Strategy and Tactics. “Accepting its revival negates the UN sanctions in the late 90s and the dislodging of the Taliban in 2001, amounting to a complete Western defeat in Afghanistan.”
The Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network are two of the most rejectionist Pakistan-based insurgent groups, but there is little sign they are involved in current talks. One of the only Taliban interlocutors whose identity was made public is Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban envoy who was incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay for four years after the fall of the Taliban and became the only one of the movement’s officials to write a memoir.
“They’re not the real thing, but they have the ability to convey the message,” Davood Moradian, chief of strategic studies at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said of the Taliban representatives. “The Taliban need to be convinced that they will not prevail and they will not win.”
The Taliban puzzle
Under virtual house arrest and heavily monitored by Afghan state security, it is unlikely that Zaeef can still communicate with top Taliban leaders. A further question is whether central leadership even exists for such a fragmented and regional movement.
“The Taliban is a very frustrating entity to speak with because they have no structure,” said a NATO official speaking on the condition of anonymity. “To compound this, many Talibs are afraid of breaking cover because they might end up on a targeting list.”
“There is a division between the new generation of the Taliban and the previous generation,” said Soheil Sanjar, the publisher of the Kabul-based Hasht-e Sobh daily newspaper. “Some of the previous leaders, like Zaeef and Motavakel are willing to make peace but the new generation is more rejectionist.” “The problem is that nobody knows exactly who these people are,” he added.
The new generation of Taliban is well connected to the Haqqani network and has direct contact with Al-Qaeda foot soldiers in Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal belt. They often act independently of the Quetta Shura. As new leadership layers have accrued, Mullah Omar’s role has receded into that of a respected traditional leader who carries no clout on daily operational matters. Although he still has some influence over the previous leadership and commanders in Kandahar and Helmand, his authority in the East has waned.
“The Taliban will be more powerful after 10 years of political exile but military success has left them with an army of neo-Taliban in the Pakistani tribal areas, which will help them suppress any armed opposition in Afghanistan,” said Shahzad, the Pakistani analyst.
Failure to come to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban could open the door for a partitioning of Afghanistan as proposed by former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill. According to the plan, NATO would accept that defeating the insurgency was a lost cause and retreat behind a steel wall in a Tajik-majority remainder state. South of the new border, a new “Pashtunistan” centered around Kandahar would emerge.
“If you have the partition of Afghanistan, then you open the door to partitioning Iran, Pakistan, some Central Asian countries and perhaps even China, as the Baloch, Uzbeks, Tajiks and ethnic Turks demand independence,” said Sanjar, the publisher. “It would conjure up the very potent specter of Islamic terrorism mixed with nationalism, and threaten the very weak post-Soviet countries of Central Asia with collapse.”
Back in the long weeds and tall pine trees of Herat’s central park, Mullah Kareem stands up to bid me goodbye. His future is uncertain he says, and he feels trapped: monitored by government spies and hated by his former comrades, he is both unable to return to the Taliban fold and lacks the credibility or connections to land a government job in his only specialization, security. He has also realized to what extent American money permeates his country.
“This war is built around foreign money,” he said. “I gave up because I heard there was an American budget. And I was a Talib because I received money from local commanders who got it from Pakistani intelligence, so they too could receive money from the Americans to continue fighting the threat.”
Afghan officials hope that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban can be achieved soon after the Persian New Year on 21 March. “If the Pakistani establishment makes a concerted and sincere effort to complete the talks, this process could be completed in three to six months’ time,” said Moradian, the Afghan foreign ministry official. “The Afghan conflict won’t be over, but we’ll see huge breakthroughs in integrating the Taliban into the government by accepting the Afghan constitution and severing ties to international terrorism.”
For Mullah Kareem, the local picture is that he was the victim of his ethnicity. Buoyed up to power under the Taliban because of his Pashtun heritage, he was punished by the new Tajik conquerors once the Taliban were overthrown.
“These people are not animals,” said Mojadidi, the director of Herat’s Reconciliation Commission about the Taliban. “If you give them the capacity to live their lives and make a living, then they’ll come back into the city and into the fold.”
Iason Athanasiadis – Journalist based in Istanbul. He covers Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia. Since 1999, he has lived in Cairo, Damascus, Doha, Sana’a and Tehran. Mr. Athanasiadis worked as an electoral observer during September’s Afghan parliamentary elections. By Iason Athanasiadis Published: Friday 29 October 2010 Updated: Friday 29 October 2010