Attempts continue to persuade the Taliban to lay down its arms and join the peace process in Afghanistan. The negotiations, which occur at several levels and at various locations, are aimed at drawing in the so-called “moderate Taliban elements” and to create a rift in the rank-and-file members of the movement.
A former Taliban diplomat based in Saudi Arabia, one of only three countries that recognized the former Taliban regime, says negotiations began as far back as two years ago and that considerable understanding has been reached between the Afghan government and the Islamic movement. Habibullah Fawzi is one of four former high-ranking Taliban leaders that are involved in the negotiations. The other three are Abdul Hakim Mujahid, former envoy to the United States and the United Nations; Arsalah Rahmani, former deputy minister of education; and Rahmatullha Wahidyar, former deputy minister of refugees and returnees (RFE/RL, March 7).
One of the main negotiators — and in fact the highest-ranking former Taliban leader — is Mawlawi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel. He was the regime’s last foreign minister and a close associate of Mulla Omar, who surrendered to U.S. authorities three years ago and was kept at Bagram air base north of Kabul. Since his release two years ago, he has been actively involved as an intermediary between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in a recent interview with a Pakistani newspaper, confirmed his contacts with Mr. Mutawakil and “hoped that he would meet him soon.” He also said that “progress” had been made in talks with the Taliban. He also revealed that Mohammad Zahir, the former king of Afghanistan, would soon invite the Taliban for talks (Daily Times, March 24).
The negotiations not only involve the Afghan government, but also the U.S.-led coalition forces. In press briefings in Kandahar, the second strongest military base in Afghanistan, U.S. General Richard Peterson, commander of the coalition forces in southwestern Afghanistan, confirmed the talks with the Taliban. He expressed optimism that more Taliban would lay down arms and join the peace process. Gol Agha Shairzai, the governor of Kandahar province who was present in the same press conference, confirmed the talks with the Taliban and said some of them showed readiness to join the government (Cherag, March 1).
Later, in a statement with an Afghan news agency, Taliban spokesman Latifullah Hakimi denied the contacts and claimed that the reports were aimed at discrediting the movement. He added that the Taliban would step up their activities and that recent attacks on the provinces of Khost and Helmand were only a beginning (Hindokosh News Agency, March 1).
Although the details of the proposals or issues of the negotiations have not been made public, it is understood that the two sides would settle for peaceful coexistence. The process, if successful, would lead to a symbiotic relationship between the government and the Taliban. The U.S.-led coalition would issue special identity cards for those elements of the movement that are willing to join the government. The cards would have the approval of the Afghan National Army as well the coalition forces and would serve as a guarantee that Afghan and U.S. forces will not harass them. They would also be able to take part in the parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
According to President Karzai, “Everyone is allowed to take part in elections, but those whose hands are steeped in blood will be barred” (Daily Times, Pakistan, March 24). Some may also join the government bureaucracy. In return, the Taliban would lay down their arms, stop their attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces as well as Afghan government forces and would cooperate with these forces to secure large swathes of land in the southern and southwestern parts of the country (Cheragh, March 27).
Already some prominent commanders of the hard-line Islamic movement have surrendered and, according to Afghan officials, “Dozens of former Taliban officials and fighters have approached them about a reconciliation drive” (AP, March 31).
Among the factors that have demoralized the Taliban was the relative success of the presidential election. Contrary to the predicted bloodbath in the countryside, the election went smoothly, and the Afghan people defied threats made by the insurgents. Lieutenant General David Barno, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says he does not expect a “countrywide offensive,” because the Taliban fighters are in disarray (AFP, March 29).
Another factor is the realization both by Pakistan and its former proteges that violence is not a good way to get a foothold in the new Afghan government. Under pressure from the United States, Pakistan cannot actively support the Taliban any longer. Nor are the Taliban getting the support they once did from Arab sources. Faced with some hard choices, they would do well to take part in the new political process. Laying down their weapons is perhaps the only way to do it.