Peace Talks Denied by Taliban Commanders

Peace talks in Kabul have recently made headlines. But senior Taliban commanders in Afghanistan tell The Daily Beast that there are no high-level negotiations. By Mushtaq Yusufzai

Senior Taliban commanders are denying recent reports that the militant group is involved in high-level peace talks with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

One senior commander denied reports that he had crossed into Afghanistan from his supposed hideout in neighboring Pakistan to lead a delegation of militant commanders in negotiations.

"This is another ploy by the enemy to divide the Taliban,” Maulvi Kabir, a member of the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, or leading council, told The Daily Beast when asked, through intermediaries, if he had traveled to Kabul to participate in talks. Kabir, who is close to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, and who himself leads the insurgency in four strategically important provinces—Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan and Laghman - categorically denied that his group was involved in direct talks with Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul.

The Taliban has a clear-cut stance regarding talks with the Afghan government, U.S. forces or NATO, said Kabir, who ruled as governor of Nangarhar province, during the days of Taliban rule before the American invasion. For talks even to be considered, he said, “the foreign occupying forces would have to announce ceasefire, and leave Afghanistan.”

A commander of another Taliban faction, the al Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani network, also denied recent reports that the group’s senior leaders were talking to the Karzai government. However, the Haqqani commander, who wouldn’t speak for attribution, did confirm that the Afghan government had initiated indirect contact to the network this year by dispatching jirgas–councils comprising Afghan notables and noted religious clerics–to help pave way for more direct talks. The jirgas themselves were all-civilian groups with no Afghan government or military officials among them. But the emissaries, however, had conveyed the Karzai government’s demands, which included–as preconditions for talks–a public ceasefire, and for the group to disassociate itself from foreign fighters such as al Qaeda sympathizers.

The latter condition, the militant commander said, made talks a non starter.

“How can we break our long association with these mujahedeen who left their families and came from all over the world to join us in jihad against the U.S. and its allies?” he told The Daily Beast. “If the U.S. can bring together all major world powers to overthrow [the Taliban,] then we, too, have the right to collect our likeminded people for the liberation of our homeland.”

No Taliban faction is likely to sacrifice their allies to sit down and negotiate with the Karzai government, he added.

For several weeks, journalists in Kabul and Washington have reported that talks are underway between the Taliban leadership and the Afghan government, in an effort to end the nine-year-old war. A delegation of Taliban commanders was reportedly flown to Kabul in a NATO plane for face-to-face meeting with members of the Karzai-backed High Council for Peace–a group that consist mostly of former ward lords–and is led by the former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

But the talks have been mired in secrecy and it’s difficult to gauge who can speak on behalf of the Taliban, especially because of the decentralized nature of the insurgency which contains groups and factions at odds with each other over fundamental issues, such as relations with Al Qaeda, Pakistan, and the governments in Washington and Kabul. Furthermore, all groups and governments have conflicting reasons to tout, or discount, the importance–or even existence–of talks.

Mulla Munibullah, a Taliban commander who oversees operations in the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, said any faction or commander negotiating with the Karzai administration, without prior approval of Taliban’s governing Shura, would be classified as an enemy of the Taliban. The militant group, he added, would not stop fighting until every single foreign soldier currently present in Afghanistan is gone. Any effort by the American or Afghan governments to parts of the Taliban without the consent of the supreme leader Mullah Omar would be a futile exercise, he added.

Syed Rahmani, another senior Taliban commander, recently said in a statement that the Taliban wanted to execute the former president Rabbani–not negotiate with him. Rahmani for his part is a commander in Kandahar province.

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Despite these denials from Taliban leaders, some observers still believe that there are efforts underway to build a direct dialogue among the warring factions–and eventually peace. The release by the Pakistani intelligence service of Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had been held by the Pakistanis since last February in Karachi, was widely seen as an olive branch; and there was speculation that Baradar might play a role in backchannel talks.

“If the U.S. can bring together all major world powers to overthrow [the Taliban,] then we, too, have the right to collect our likeminded people for the liberation of our homeland.”

And last week, Gen. David Petraeus said that American and NATO troops are providing safe passage to Taliban fighters and insurgent leaders wanting to attend negotiations.

“We do facilitate that given that, needless to say, it would not be the easiest of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way to Kabul if [Afghan forces] were not willing and aware of it, and therefore allows it to take place,” he told a London audience, according to CNN.

Mushtaq Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based journalist who covers the war on terror for The News International, one of Pakistan's largest newspapers. He has worked for ABC news and NBC. He is the winner of the Kate Webb award and a graduate of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Journalism Fellowship program.