Time to talk: US engages the Taliban

Posted in United States | 21-Nov-05 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

Taliban head Mullah Omar

KARACHI - Despite deposing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in quick time at the end of 2001, the United States has not been able to rid the country of the Islamic hardliners, who four years later lead an Afghan resistance that shows no signs of abating, let alone buckling.

US efforts to combat the Taliban include outright military action (there are 18,000 US troops in the country, in addition to 12,000 members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the International Security Assistance Force), and attempts to embrace "good" Taliban.

And now, most significantly, come efforts to deal directly with the real "problem" - Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the only person with the ability to influence decisions of import related to the Taliban and their future activities in the country.

Reports emerged in the Pakistani media at the weekend that the US had contacted the Taliban leadership with the aim of establishing a truce in Afghanistan. The reported linkman is a Pakistani, Javed Ibrahim Paracha, but he has denied the story, saying he had never met any US officials, only US businessmen.

There is more to this story, though, according to information acquired by Asia Times Online.

In fact, the latest peace initiative was started a few months ago when the US realized, finally, that it simply was not making significant progress in stabilizing Afghanistan, despite the relatively successful conclusion of presidential and parliamentary elections.

To date this year, about 90 US troops have been killed in the country, compared with the 186 who have died since the 2001 campaign began. Resistance attacks have become more frequent as well as more sophisticated.

The momentum for finding a strategy that will allow for an honorable exit is becoming irresistible.

Enter Mansoor Ijaz, a US citizen of Pakistani origin with close ties to the right wing of the Republican Party. In London, with the help of British authorities, he began the peace process.

Mansoor's point man in Pakistan is Khalid Khawaja, a former Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official who was a close friend of Osama bin Laden. Khawaja's associates included Paracha, a former member of the provincial assembly in North West Frontier Province and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz group). His claim to fame is his advocacy for the families of al-Qaeda operators detained by Pakistani authorities.

One of the inducements put on the table for the Taliban leadership was their inclusion in the government of President Hamid Karzai, but Mullah Omar rejected this, saying there could not be any form of a deal until all foreign forces were pulled out of Afghanistan. Thus there was no possibility of the Taliban laying down their weapons.

"Actually, the media have jeopardized the peace initiative when it is still in its initial stages, though part of the news is correct, that yes, there is a discourse between the Taliban and the US, but it is wrong that any US officials met Javed Ibrahim Paracha," Khalid Khawaja told Asia Times Online.

Asia Times Online sources in the Afghan resistance across the border from Pakistan confirm that there has been recent contact between Karzai and the Taliban leadership. This took place through a go-between. Karzai, according to the contacts, sought support for himself and agreed that any cooperation with the Taliban would hinge on one single point - the evacuation of foreign troops.

The contact was confirmed at a time the Afghan parliamentary results confirmed that members of the former Taliban regime and former mujahideen leaders had won seats in parliament with heavy mandates.

The general perception is that these new parliamentarians are split into small political groups, and will therefore not be able to make much of an impression.

However, most of the Taliban warlords who won in the elections are still in contact with the Taliban leadership, and so are the members of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami, whose leadership sits quietly in Peshawar, Pakistan. Veteran warlord Hekmatyar is still active in the Afghan resistance.

Far from being splintered, these new parliamentarians are believed to be in a decisive position, and they are taking guidance from their Taliban or Hizb leaders.

For instance, once Mullah Omar received Karzai's communication agreeing that the withdrawal of foreign troops was the minimum starting point for any negotiations, Mullah Omar called a shora (council) and then sent messages to all former Taliban members in parliament to support Karzai.

Taliban unbowed
As the might of the US military descended on Kabul in late 2001, the Taliban simply retreated, apart from sporadic opposition. In that sense they were never defeated. It took them some time to regroup, but they have done that.

The reasons are rooted in Afghan society. From the very beginning, the Taliban movement was inextricably linked to tribal bonds, especially as the Taliban brand of Islam dovetails with Pakhtoon Wali (Afghan tribal values). Tribes are the ultimate social order in Afghanistan, and nobody will ever wash that away.

Washington never truly came to grips with this. They undertook decisions based on universal wisdom and common sense to isolate the Taliban, but failed to comprehend that this lonely planet called Afghanistan has its own dynamics. As a result, step after step to isolate the Taliban simply complicated the situation.

In mid-2003, the US agreed on a "good Taliban" policy (see Asia Times Online, US turns to the Taliban, Jun 14). Negotiations failed immediately as the Taliban refused to remove Mullah Omar as their head.

The US invested a lot of time and effort in cultivating groups, some of which cooperated, but invariably they drifted back to the Taliban camp.

For example, the Jamiat-i-Khudamul Furqan (or Koran) was a breakaway faction carved out in Peshawar by the ISI and US intelligence. Within a couple of years it secretly joined the Taliban again.

Similarly, the Jaishul Muslim was formed by the US in Peshawar to infiltrate the Taliban and stage a coup against Mullah Omar. Once they were effectively launched in Afghanistan with money and weapons, a segment of the group promptly pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and is now fighting alongside the Taliban resistance.

Tribal bonds and allegiances run too deep. This is the reality, as obvious as the sand in the broad light of day in the desert. Anything hinting at a Taliban demise is a mirage.

The administrations in Washington and Kabul at last appear to have come to terms with this.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at [email protected]