Look who came to dinner ...
KARACHI - Although the Taliban and al-Qaeda have consistently rejected overtures to make peace with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces until they leave Afghanistan, the latest initiative led by Saudi Arabia, and approved by Washington and London, is on track.
Reports emerged this week that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia recently hosted high-level talks in Mecca between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban. If a middle road is found, next year's elections in Afghanistan could be held under the supervision of peacekeeping forces from Islamic countries, rather than those of NATO.
The first move in the peace process was made by Saudi Arabia last year when a Saudi consul based in Islamabad secretly visited the North Waziristan tribal area and met the al-Qaeda leadership. His mission was to convince them of the necessity of a peace process in Afghanistan and provide them with assurances of an amnesty. (See Military brains plot Pakistan's downfall Asia Times Online, September 26, 2007.) Al-Qaeda refused the consul access to its senior leaders, and anyway rejected the initiative.
Undeterred, Riyadh pitched the idea to the Taliban rank and file that if the forces of Islamic countries were involved in peacekeeping operations for the elections, it would create a climate of reconciliation in which both the Taliban and NATO would not lose face. The Taliban also did not accept this idea, but the proposal did generate low-profile debate and in this sense a peace process had begun.
Like the Taliban, the Western coalition was divided over peace formulas but decided to at least initiate a political process to resolve the seven-year conflict in Afghanistan. The British Embassy in Kabul sent some people to Helmand province to initiate talks with the Taliban, but the procedure backfired as the Taliban dismissed their commanders involved in the negotiations. And the Afghan government, under instructions from the US Embassy in Kabul, expelled European Union officials from Afghanistan for their involvement in the dialogue process.
Pakistan, meanwhile, despite American pressure, kept open channels of communication with the Taliban. All the while, the conflict in Afghanistan escalated, reaching new heights this year.
Kabul is virtually under siege and the Taliban have established pockets in Wardak (30 kilometers from Kabul) and Sarobi (50 km from Kabul) as well as in neighboring Kapisa and Parwan provinces. More ominously, the Taliban-led insurgency has spread to Pakistani territory where vast areas have been brought under its control, especially in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan. From a military standpoint, this is particularly worrying for NATO as most of its supplies pass through this area.
Against this backdrop of a seemingly unwinnable war, as Britain's senior commander in Afghanistan has commented, the stalled pace process was revived.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan was used as a cover for revived backchannel diplomacy in the Saudi holy city of Mecca. Afghan officials, former Taliban leaders and leaders of mujid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan shared an Iftar fast-breaking meal with King Abdullah. Separate meetings were held with other top Saudi officials, including Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz.
One person who was present at the king's table was former Taliban foreign minister Wakeel Ahmed Muttawakil. He spoke to Asia Times Online by telephone from Kabul.
Asia Times Online: Did you meet King Abdullah?
Wakeel Ahmed Muttawakil: I traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform umra [pilgrimage] in the holy month of Ramadan ... and it is true [I met King Abdullah]. You know, the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan [as the Taliban's regime was known from 1996 to 2001] had good relations with Saudi Arabia and therefore I know everybody over there.
ATol: Your meeting with Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz is believed to be the real beginning of a dialogue process between the Taliban and Saudi Arabia over a truce between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
WAM: As I said, I met with many people during my stay in Saudi Arabia, but it had nothing to do with politics. Our reason to travel was to perform pilgrimage and prayers in Ramadan. Since I am known to the Saudi government, they invited me for Iftar.
ATol: Then was it a coincidence that immediately after your visit, Afghan President Hamid Karzai stepped up efforts to engage the Taliban and mentioned a Saudi role in that regard?
WAM: I said earlier that Saudi Arabia had very good relations with the Taliban in the past, therefore the Afghan government expects the Saudi government to play a role. Not only with the Taliban, Saudi Arabia had very good relations with Sheikh Osama bin Laden and other jihadi movements. So its role would be very effective.
ATol: Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan has also been approached by the Saudis. Do you have any knowledge in this regard?
WAM: I don't know anything in this regard, but I can guess that since the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami are both part of the present insurgency, but still keep separate commands, Hekmatyar would have been approached separately. Like the Taliban, Hekmatyar also keeps very good relations with Saudi Arabia and with his connections with the Ikwanul Muslemeen [Muslim Brotherhood] he is even closer to the Saudis.
An earlier Taliban statement said:
The mainstream media is reporting about a "peace process" between the Taliban and the Kabul puppet administration which is being sponsored by Saudi Arabia and supported by Britain, and that there are "unprecedented talks" involving a senior ex-Taliban member who is traveling between Kabul and the alleged bases of the Taliban senior leadership in Pakistan. The Afghanistan Islamic Emirate leadership council considers such as baseless rumors and as failed attempts of the enemy to create mistrust and concerns among Afghans and other nations and mujahideen.The Taliban's denial and Muttawakil's reticence apart, it cannot be denied that something is afoot. This is no better illustrated than by Washington-backed Karzai at the weekend asking "terrorist" Mullah Omar to join the political process and saying that he would convince the international community about him.
No official member of the Taliban is currently or has in the past negotiated with the US or the puppet Afghan government. A few former officials of the Taliban who are under house arrest [Mullah Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan] or have surrendered [Wakeel Ahmed Muttawakil] do not represent the Islamic Emirate.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com