Afghanistan: Drastic Changes for the Taliban

Afghanistan’s insurgents are thinking of joining the political process—and seeking common cause against Kabul with their old enemies. Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai report.

12.16.12 3:04 AM ET

The Taliban seem never to tire of talking about not talking. They have vowed over and over that they won’t negotiate peace until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan—and that they’ll never under any circumstances sit down with President Hamid Karzai’s “puppet regime.” But now the group’s leadership appears to be reconsidering.

According to Zabihullah, a senior Taliban leader who is privy to deliberations inside the insurgency’s Quetta Shura, the ruling council’s political committee is rethinking its positions on a whole range of issues. The possibility of peace talks is only one of the items under review by the committee—which, as far as that goes, may have no more than limited control over the Taliban’s battlefield commanders, says Zabihullah, who uses only the single name and has proved in the past to be a reliable informant. The leadership is also debating the insurgents’ longstanding hostilities against the former Northern Alliance; the Taliban’s rejectionist stance toward the Afghan Constitution; and even the idea of participation in Afghanistan’s next presidential and National Assembly elections.

The deliberations are no doubt encouraged by the fact that Karzai will be constitutionally barred from running for a third term in 2014. And even though the discussions so far have been preliminary and internal, the fact that they are taking place at all could signal big changes ahead.

The most startling shift so far has been in the Taliban’s attitude toward the Northern Alliance. The Taliban, almost entirely ethnic Pashtun, spent seven years waging war without mercy against the ethnic militias of the NA—predominantly Sunni Muslim Tajiks and Uzbeks and Shiite Hazaras. Their armed conflict began with the very creation of the Taliban by Mullah Mohammed Omar in 1994 and lasted until heavy U.S. air support enabled the NA to drive Omar’s regime from power after 9/11.

Some former NA members now belong to the Karzai government, but many others sit in opposition to the president. Zabihullah says the Taliban have already held secret meetings with some of the latter group. “We have held and are holding meetings with Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras who are not part of the Karzai regime,” Zabihullah says. “These meetings have generated a good mood for future peace talks. Ninety percent of them want an Islamic regime, just as we do.”

And they share a hatred of Afghanistan’s current president, Zabihullah says: “Karzai does not have a mandate from Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras,” says Zabihullah. (In fact, the former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik, forced Karzai into a runoff in 2009 largely on the strength of minority ballots, before dropping out, accusing the government of massive vote fraud.) “Nor does [Karzai] have the support of Pashtuns,” Zabihullah continues. (Like the Taliban, Karzai also belongs to Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.) “We can deal with these ethnic groups and unite with them against Karzai and whomever he chooses to succeed him.”

The Quetta Shura’s political committee is even thinking about lifting its condemnation of the country’s Constitution and its rejection of democratic elections, says Zabihullah. “We can support 95 percent of the Afghan Constitution,” he says. “We can also go for elections if there are a few changes in electoral laws.”

The insurgents are hoping for progress in that direction next week in Paris at a conference on Afghanistan’s future. The gathering is being organized by a French think tank, the Foundation for Strategic Research, and the Taliban leadership has announced that it will send two delegates. Other participants are to include representatives from the Karzai government; from the government’s High Peace Council (created by Karzai in hope of opening channels to the insurgents, although the insurgents have seemed more interested in declaring open season on the council’s members); from the ethnic militias of the former Northern Alliance; and from the Hezb-i-Islami political party, whose leader, the longtime warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose insurgent militia is loosely affiliated with the Taliban.

Although no one anticipates any major breakthroughs in Paris, the Taliban particularly want to speak with some of the former Northern Alliance personalities who will be there. The Taliban’s delegates are flying in from the Taliban’s foreign-affairs office in Qatar. The staff there has been idle since last March, when the insurgents angrily called off tentative talks with the Americans. One of the Taliban’s representatives, Maulvi Shahuddin Dilawar, is said to be specifically interested in meeting with Hazara leader Muhammad Mohaqeq and Ahmed Zia Massoud, brother of the legendary Tajik warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al Qaeda two days before 9/11. For the Taliban, the hope is that the contacts they make in Paris will pave the way for subsequent meetings back in Afghanistan with other Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara leaders, such as the Shiite chieftain Sheikh Asif Mosini and the Uzbek heavyweight Abdul Satar Sirat.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on December 8, 2012.

Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on Dec. 8, 2012.

According to Zabihullah and other Taliban sources, Pakistan has given its blessing to the outreach. Because the insurgents are utterly dependent on Pakistan for safe haven and support, Islamabad’s approval is vital for any such rapprochement. The thing Pakistan ultimately wants, other sources say, is an Afghan peace deal that would place the country under a loose federal system, with the Taliban in control of the Pashtun-majority areas and the ethnic minorities in charge of theirs. Pakistan has never been keen on having a strong and unified Afghan state on its western border. The two countries’ disputes go back well before the creation of Pakistan.

Beyond pushing the Taliban to talk, Pakistan is taking steps of its own to make peace with the former Northern Alliance, which engaged in a merciless war against the Taliban until the regime collapsed in 2001. “Relations between Pakistan and the Northern Alliance have dramatically improved,” says Zabihullah. Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul, Muhammad Sadiq, is holding frequent, almost weekly meetings with top former NA bosses both in and out of government, including Abdullah, Mohaqeq and Vice President Martial Mohammed Fahim. 

Relations have improved so much that Pakistan is relocating its Embassy back to the building it occupied when the Taliban regime was in power. In the past decade, violent anti-Pakistan protests forced the Embassy staff to abandon the building for several years. These days the neighborhood is home to Fahim himself and other senior NA veterans who have given Islamabad full security guarantees despite their past grudges against Pakistan.

To be sure, many other former Northern Alliance officials—particularly some inside the Karzai regime and its security forces—would rather fight the Taliban than talk to them. Nevertheless, the beginnings of a dialogue seem to be taking shape. War-weary Afghans can only welcome any initiative, no matter how tentative, as long as they see even a faint chance that it might finally bring an end to the carnage.