The Taliban Peacemakers

Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai on the dramatic reversal by the Afghan insurgents.

Hoshang Hoshimi/AP

Nearly one year after announcing it was “suspending all dialogue” with the U.S. over its “ever-changing position,” the Taliban seem keen to enter into preliminary peace talks once again. The Taliban’s sudden desire to reopen talks with the U.S., and perhaps even with the government of President Hamid Karzai, whom the insurgency has consistently denounced as an unrepresentative American puppet, represents a sudden and dramatic U-turn. Over the past month a number of high-ranking Taliban officials have been traveling between their Pakistani safe haven in Quetta and the Gulf state of Qatar, the scene of the previous talks, apparently in an effort to set up shop and to rekindle the dialogue. “Our leaders are now regularly running between Qatar and Quetta,” says Zabihullah, a Taliban political operative whose information has proved reliable in the past.

Amir Khan Motaqi, the important head of the insurgency’s propaganda office recently made the trip, and reported back to Quetta. Abdul Wasi, the former deputy head of the Taliban’s Red Crescent Society, who was released from an Afghan jail one year ago, arrived in Qatar last month in order to set up a permanent office for negotiations. Several Taliban officials who are now in Qatar living in guesthouses are in the process of moving into apartments and houses. Some are bringing their families.

According to two high-ranking Taliban, the family of deceased Defense Minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, who died in Pakistani captivity nearly three years ago, is being moved from Karachi to Qatar, along with the family of former insurgent spokesman Ustad Yasir, who is still imprisoned in Pakistan, in an effort to begin building a small Taliban-friendly community in Qatar and receive released insurgent prisoners.

All this recent traffic between Quetta and Qatar, with Pakistan’s approval and assistance, shows that the growing Taliban delegation is no longer isolated from the leadership council in Quetta as it was in the past. Over the past two years, timely communication between the negotiating team in Qatar and the ruling shura, or council, in Quetta was practically nonexistent.

Not anymore.

“The communication gap between Quetta and Qatar has been removed,” says a former senior Taliban minister. “Now the Taliban can confidently set up an office and keep in touch with and receive instructions from the shura.” Pakistan, which at first was lukewarm about the Taliban’s Qatar office and the peace talks there, is now cautiously supportive and is issuing visas and travel documents to the Taliban officials visiting Qatar. “Pakistan keeps a close watch on the Taliban’s travels between Quetta and Qatar but seems happy with the idea of a Taliban office in Qatar now,” says a high-ranking member of the Taliban’s Quetta shura. “If Pakistan allows the Taliban and other Afghan groups to talk together freely, then peace in Afghanistan is a real possibility,” adds another ranking insurgent official who declines to be quoted by name.

The insurgency’s political leadership is making this political and ideological about-face with some trepidation. It dares not move too quickly on the peace front for fear of alienating more hardline military commanders who are skeptical of any peace talks, especially as long as American and NATO forces remain in Afghanistan. Previously the Taliban had demanded a total foreign-troop withdrawal before any substantive talks could begin. As a result of its changed position, the Taliban has delayed issuing a new statement regarding the establishment of the Qatar office and a resumption of the talks, fearing it could alienate these senior commanders. The senior military leaders appear to be split. One powerful commander, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, according to one ranking Taliban, “has positive thoughts about peace.” But the position of the insurgency’s most powerful, hardline commander, Abdul Qayyum Zakir, is said to be unclear. Worried about a split among the top military commanders, the insurgency’s political leadership simply can’t agree on the wording of a new communiqué. Indeed, a strong backlash by angry commanders could once again jeopardize the establishment of the Qatar office and the talks. “If someone militarily strong suddenly rises up and says no to peace and insists that jihad is the only answer for years to come, then we could have problems,” says Zabihullah.

Not only are some commanders leery of peace, so are many fighters in the field. Although tired of combat, many are still doggedly committed to the fight and would feel that their sacrifices in blood are being betrayed by the Qatar dialogue. “We have to be sensitive and reach out to each Taliban to explain and convince them of the necessity of the talks,” says a former high-ranking Taliban diplomat. “If we don’t, we could suffer a revolt and even some serious defections to the government.”

To get the commanders and fighters in the field on board, several Taliban officials say they will explain in a widespread propaganda effort that the negotiations will not only be between the insurgency and the Americans, and perhaps even the Karzai regime, but among all Afghans, including their former foes in the Northern Alliance militia grouping, the anti-Taliban union that is largely composed of ethnic minorities. These officials say Karzai’s representatives have told them that any talks between Kabul and the insurgency can only include the Taliban and the government’s High Peace Council, the organization Karzai appointed to make contact and negotiate with the rebels, and not other Afghans. That, these insurgent officials say, is unacceptable. “We want to talk to everyone in Afghanistan, including the Northern Alliance and representatives of all ethnic groups,” says the Quetta council member.

Another reason the insurgency is pursuing the talks is that it does not want to remain a pariah, an outcast from the international community as it was when Mullah Mohammed Omar was in power until late 2001. With a Qatar office, the Taliban hope that it will be able to more easily reach out not only to the U.S. and Afghans but to other nations in the Gulf, in Europe, and even to former foes such as Iran and Russia. “The Taliban does not want to lose the opportunity to improve relations with the international community,” says Zabihullah. “We can’t afford to be isolated once again.” “Once we have the Qatar office, it also will be easier for important countries to approach us,” he adds.

Of course, all this apparent new momentum toward renewed talks could once again founder on the same obstacle that broke up the previous preliminary discussions with the U.S.: the issue of prisoner releases. A key Taliban demand was and seems to remain the release from the U.S. lockup in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, of a handful of Mullah Omar’s top commanders, including his former army chief, Mullah Fazl Akhund. Washington failed to deliver on that key demand last year, and even a reelected President Obama may find it no easier to facilitate the release of these commanders who have the blood of innocents on their hands, according to many members of Congress who would have to approve the deal.

But at least the Taliban are setting up an infrastructure in Qatar to receive the prisoners if they are released. If the men are freed, they will live in Qatar under the Qatari government’s guarantee that they not be involved in any military activities and that they will help facilitate the peace process. Those restrictions may not be acceptable to the Taliban, who would prefer to see the prisoners back in the field commanding their fighters once again.

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While this new momentum towards a renewal of negotiations seems positive, the road to any Afghan peace clearly is going to be very long and rocky.