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Old Tuesday, January 17, 2012
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Default The Qatar breakthrough on Afghanistan

Rahimullah Yusufzai
Tuesday, January 17, 2012


The ground realities and pragmatism seem to have persuaded the two major parties to the Afghan conflict to talk to each other. The Taliban and the United States may agree to disagree and keep fighting while talking, but the fact that they are finally negotiating is a breakthrough that was unimaginable sometime ago.

The Taliban used to insist they would not talk to anyone until the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan, but now they are involved in secret peace talks with the US. On the other hand, Washington had demonised the Taliban to the extent that many believed the Americans would never talk to Mulla Mohammad Omar and his men. Talking to them would have meant going back on an oft-repeated US policy that required the Taliban to meet certain conditions before becoming eligible to being a credible negotiating partner. That is now a thing of the past, with American officials led by Marc Grossman, the special envoy of President Barack Obama for Afghanistan and Pakistan, are meeting and talking with the Taliban face to face in Qatar and Germany.

In fact, the two sides have been holding secret talks for several months and at the same time denying that they were talking. This isnít something new, even if it is unprincipled, because that is how most conflicts have been resolved.

To give peace a chance, combatants often set aside their past policies, donít allow ego to come in the way of adopting realistic positions and agree to talk to adversaries. This is pragmatism, and as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked, you donít hold peace talks with friends; you need to talk to enemies, directly or through intermediaries.

It is true the Taliban and the Americans have fought and killed each other and still hate one another. The Americans refer to the Taliban as terrorists and the Taliban consider the US as the biggest terrorist state in the world. Still they have found a match in each other for the purposes of both talking and fighting.

An evidence of the intense hatred the two parties have for each other emerged recently when a video in which four US soldiers were urinating on the corpses of three Taliban fighters was circulated on the internet. It caused an outrage and exposed US claims that its military was disciplined and followed certain principles and values. Even those Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai, whose fate is tied to the US because they side with it in the war against the Taliban, felt outraged by the sight of the urinating American soldiers and strongly condemned the act. The Taliban, on the basis of their newfound pragmatism, came up with a reassuring statement that the incident wonít prompt them to stop talking to the US.

The Taliban know it wasnít the first time the US and Nato soldiers had done something inhuman and abominable, and it wonít be the last. They too on occasions have committed human rights violations and could do so again, because the Afghan conflict has become increasingly brutal and no side could be held accountable.

If it were within their power, the Americans would have killed every Taliban fighter in sight. Or they would have bought those willing to lay down arms. They couldnít despite all their power and that of their resourceful allies and are therefore willing to talk to the enemy. The Taliban too have suffered enormous casualties and it cannot be easy recruiting new fighters and replacing fallen commanders. They have thus decided to try and achieve some of their objectives through peaceful means. They havenít given up the option of fighting as that is what they do best, and they could stop talking if there is no major breakthrough or it damages their cause.

It was on Jan 4 that the Taliban finally conceded that they had held talks with the government of Qatar and ďother concerned partiesĒ and announced their willingness to open a political office in Doha to facilitate contacts with the international community. The ďother concerned partiesĒ werenít identified but these were obviously the US and Germany. In fact, it was the underrated German intelligence which managed to make the first contact with the Taliban and facilitated the subsequent talks. The Germans are, therefore, now part of the talks.

The Talibanís immediate interest in talking to the US is to secure the release of their men through a prisonersí swap. It is the main topic of their discussion and the peace process wonít move forward unless the Taliban secure the release of their prisoners, particularly five of their commanders held at the infamous detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, and the US manages to win freedom for its soldier Bowe Bergadahl, who was captured by the Taliban fighters two-and-a-half years ago. The five men the Taliban want freed are their former army chief Mulla Fazil Akhund, their interior minister Khairullah Khairkhwa, deputy intelligence chief Abdul Haq Waseeq, ex-governor of Balkh province Noorullah Noori and military commander Mohammad Nabi.

Both sides have attached top priority to securing the release of their prisoners. The Taliban leaders appear to be under pressure from the families and friends of Taliban prisoners to try and secure their release. In July 2011 the Nato military authorities in Afghanistan too had declared that winning freedom for Bowe Bergdahl was their top priority.

The Taliban were insisting not long ago that they donít need an office in a third country and would prefer operating from Afghanistan. They had declined an offer by Turkey, backed by Afghanistan and Pakistan, to host a Taliban office on its soil. Suggestions of a Taliban office in Dubai, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both being the preferred choice of President Hamid Karzaiís beleaguered government, and Turkmenistan were also rejected. The tiny Gulf state of Qatar was chosen as both the Taliban and the US trusted its government.

The Taliban had their way when they prevailed upon the US to have bilateral, without involving the Afghan government. They made it clear that the two basic parties to the 10-year old Afghan conflict were the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the US and its Western allies. The Afghan government wasnít even mentioned, in line with the Taliban argument that it was powerless and illegitimate.

No wonder, then, that President Karzai was furious. He complained that his government wasnít consulted by the US while holding talks with Taliban and allowing them to open an office in Qatar. His foreign minister, Zalmay Rasul, argued that the Taliban office didnít mean they were being given political representation. Eventually, the Karzai government had no option but to back the Qatar initiative. Karzai knew his limitation and had to go along with the decisions made by the US. It is one thing arguing that the peace process must be Afghan-led, preferably by the Karzai government, but quite another that Kabul cannot do much on its own in the context of waging war and achieving peace without help from the US and its Nato allies. Besides, it was Karzaiís demand that the Taliban need to have an address so that their true representatives could be approached for talks. He cannot oppose the move now for the Taliban to have an address, their own office in Qatar.

The Taliban office in Qatar hasnít opened yet, but that would be a formality because their chief negotiator, Tayyab Agha, who is Mulla Omarís brother-in-law and was for a while his spokesman, and some other Taliban officials have been informally operating out of the Qatari capital for some months now.

Pakistan has been somewhat sidelined in the process, but it is not out of the game. The ISI chief, Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha, was recently in Qatar to meet US officials and the issue of the proposed Taliban office there must have come up in the talks. The Taliban realise that they cannot ignore Pakistan and would not like to annoy it, even if they seek more independence, and less interference by Islamabad in their decision-making. More importantly, the talks have just started and hurdles will come up at every stage and Pakistanís help in such situations would be critical.
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