Afghanistan: Karzai and the Taliban in a Tizzy Over News of Secret Peace Talks

News of secret peace talks prompts an ultimatum from the Afghan president to the U.S.—and sows dissension in the Taliban’s ranks. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on the upheaval on all sides.

01.10.12 9:45 AM ET

Nothing stirs up a conflict more effectively than the first feeble glimmers of peace. Anyone who doubts it can just look at Afghanistan, where news of preliminary peace talks has provoked President Hamid Karzai to issue yet another ultimatum to his U.S. partners—and where Taliban fighters are feeling betrayed by their leaders’ sudden willingness to negotiate. 

Late last week, Karzai blindsided the Americans by demanding that they hand over all Afghan prisoners to his government within 30 days, together with the entire U.S.-run detention facility at Parwan, just north of Kabul. Washington has been trying to work out a security plan to keep a small but significant U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal deadline for American forces. But for that to happen, as Karzai explained in an exclusive interview last week with Newsweek and The Daily Beast, the Afghan president wants two things: an immediate end to U.S. forces’ night raids on Afghan homes suspected of harboring insurgents, and a speedy handover of the Americans’ Afghan prisoners and the Parwan Detention Center. “These we consider to be a violation of our sovereignty,” he said, “and we want them to end all that before we sign the partnership deal.” U.S. officials knew he wanted control of the detainees, but they had no idea he would demand it so soon.

Why the sudden impatience? The presidential palace is keeping mum, but a former senior Taliban official now living in Kabul tells The Daily Beast there’s a logical explanation. “If you have control of Taliban prisoners, then you have a very good bargaining chip with the Taliban,” says the former Taliban diplomat, who maintains impeccable contacts with both the Afghan government and the Taliban. At this preliminary stage, senior Afghan officials tell The Daily Beast, the Taliban’s negotiators care about only one issue: winning the release of some or most of their detained comrades, many of whom are top-ranking military commanders. And Karzai wants to be the one who makes that deal.

The Afghan president was clearly miffed to learn that the Americans, the Europeans, and the Taliban had been talking behind his back for months about opening a Taliban representative office in the Gulf state of Qatar. He did his best to sound statesmanlike as he accepted the fait accompli. “We will go along with it for the return of peace to Afghanistan as soon as possible,” he told Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Still, he clearly dislikes being treated as an afterthought—and if he can quickly get control of the hundreds of Taliban prisoners (many of them high-value detainees) currently held by the Americans, that will put him in the driver’s seat for any future talks with the insurgents.

At the top of the Taliban’s wish list are the former senior commanders currently held at Guantánamo Bay. They include Mullah Fazil Akhund, the brutal former chief of army staff who surrendered in northern Afghanistan in late 2001; Mullah Nurullah Nuri, a former senior governor in the north, and Mullah Khairullah Khairkhawah, a former interior minister. To get any of them sprung may be out of the question at present. But the Americans are also holding plenty of important Taliban commanders in Afghanistan. Right now the Taliban’s best hope is that Karzai will get control of those prisoners, and that he can then be persuaded to let them go in defiance of U.S. objections.

Taliban leaders know that as long as so many senior commanders remain in custody, the insurgency will be relatively weak on the battlefield. More than that, however, the release would be a sorely needed boost for Taliban morale, which was hit hard when the Qatar talks were revealed. “If negotiations can bring back some prisoners to the Taliban side, that would show skeptical commanders and rank-and-file fighters that the leadership is accomplishing something in the talks and not just selling out the jihad,” says the former Taliban diplomat.

At present, however, word of the Qatar talks has left many insurgents “incredulous and confused,” says a senior Taliban commander from eastern Afghanistan. The group has always demanded a total withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan as a precondition for any discussion of peace—and now, without notice, the leadership seems to have abandoned that position. “Many Taliban were stunned,” says the commander, declining to be named for security reasons. “No one understands what’s happening. It’s unbelievable.” To many fighters, it’s been as if their leadership “was committing religious suicide,” the former Taliban diplomat says.

“Mentally the Taliban in the field aren’t ready for the talks,” the commander says. “They can’t imagine sitting down to talk with the Americans who are still here and still killing us.” What really hurts is the uncertainty about what’s really happening, he says. “If you put a small doubt in the mind of our fighters, that this is not a struggle for our ideology and Islam but rather for power-sharing, some Taliban may not fight,” he warns. The former Taliban diplomat confirms that the possibility worries some Taliban leaders: “There’s a fear out there that 50 percent of the fighters may not return to the battlefield next spring after hearing the news of the talks.”

That worry may be why senior Taliban officials still have not publicly confirmed the meetings in Qatar—even though their silence only worsens the disquiet in the ranks. “Ending the war is good,” the commander says. “But after all our sacrifices, we should know what compromises and conditions we have to make for peace.” For that matter, he wonders, how does anyone even know that the Qatar negotiations have been approved by the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar? “I won’t believe anything said or written about the talks until we hear directly from Mullah Omar himself in his own voice,” the commander says.

There’s something else that bothers some Afghan insurgents. The man who seems to be the Taliban’s No. 2 negotiator in Qatar is actually a citizen of Pakistan, a fact that’s been confirmed to The Daily Beast by an intelligence officer for the Afghan government. Although Afghanistan’s insurgents have always relied heavily on Pakistan’s covert support, experience has taught them not to trust the neighboring country’s motives. The Pakistani national, Mullah Abdul Aziz-ur-Rahman Ahmadi, currently lives in Qatar’s capital, Doha, as a businessman, while his brother, Hafiz Rashid Ahmed, runs a madrassa in the Pakistani border town of Quetta. Their father, a wealthy Afghan, moved the family from Afghanistan to Quetta even before the 1979 Russian invasion.

And yet the family’s Taliban credentials could hardly be better. What’s more, Ahmadi’s Pakistani citizenship may be the most hopeful sign to date that the talks could bring real results. Under Mullah Omar’s regime, Ahmadi was the first secretary of the Taliban’s Embassy in Abu Dhabi, and his brother worked in the Taliban’s consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Their father was a key financier of Mullah Omar’s movement from its very start, in 1984. Ahmadi is said to have been instrumental in the negotiations with the Americans and Qataris for the establishment of the Taliban office in Doha. Until now, however, there’s been one vital player missing from the talks: Pakistan. Without Islamabad’s cooperation, peace is a vanishingly unlikely prospect. Ahmadi’s participation in the talks might—just might—be a first hint of Pakistan’s acceptance of the Qatar negotiations.