Monday, November 30, 2009

Why did US-Taliban talks fail?

LAHORE: The American initiative to hold talks with the Afghan Taliban through Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies has failed to produce desired results so far primarily due to the trust deficit between the two sides and the obstinacy of the former rulers of Afghanistan who are still determined to fight out along with the US-led allies before re-establishing their erstwhile empire, the Islamic Emirate of Taliban.

Amidst fresh media reports that the US has undertaken a re-think of its Afghan policy, well informed diplomatic circles in Islamabad say Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, pushed by the decision makers in Washington and London, had been brokering talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government for almost two years now but without any results, chiefly because the Taliban representatives have never been easy to talk to.

These circles added that the American Central Investigation Agency (CIA) is busy holding secret talks with the Taliban with the help of the Saudi leadership and the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) of Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani leadership and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

The Pakistani Foreign Office sources in Islamabad say the back-channel talks were motivated by the fact that eight years after the US invasion of Afghanistan, the deteriorating security situation in the country has prompted a review of the US strategists who have failed to deliver victory to the resourceful NATO forces against the ragtag Taliban militia. There is a military standoff despite the fact that the lightly armed Taliban guerrilla fighters in terms of firepower should have been no match for the world’s only superpower and the best western armies. Subsequently, having declared the Afghan war un-winnable, even the NATO military commanders now want to engage the Taliban not in the battlefield but at the negotiating table. Therefore, there is talk of negotiations with the Taliban and even offering them a share in the Afghan administration as part of a political settlement.

Under these circumstances, the head of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus has already stated that the US should be prepared to talk to its enemies, followed by the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke’s November 24 statement that Saudi Arabia has initiated a dialogue with the Taliban and that the United States would support any Saudi initiative.

This is a sea change in the views of the Western nations that followed US to send troops to Afghanistan to fight the supposedly common enemy, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Until now they seemed determined to defeat al-Qaeda and Taliban and extend the writ of President Karzai’s government to all corners of Afghanistan. But lately, it appears that the emphasis is shifting and the game plan is to bring the Taliban on board and wean them away from Al-Qaeda. The outcasts of yesterday, after being demonised, are being lobbied hard and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are being used to rope them in. Therefore, the US has already, for the first time, declared officially that the Afghan problem needs to be resolved politicaally, through reconciliation.

According to the Pakistani establishment circles, the secret talks involve officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, United States and Britain, some key leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the chief of the Islamabad-based Jamiatul Ansar Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil. The sources say the representatives of the Karzai government and the Afghan Taliban had already held secret talks in Makkah from September 24 to 27, 2008. Yet the parleys remained futile even after four-day long marathon session as the Saudis failed to give a timeframe on behalf of the US for the withdrawal of the western forces from Afghanistan.

The Taliban representatives had maintained during the Makkah talks that the exit of the NATO and ISAF forces was a pre-requisite to strike a peace deal with the Karzai regime, in line with Osama’s stance that the US troops should leave Saudi Arabia as well as other Muslim countries. At least 18 Afghans met with Saudi leader King Abdullah and other Saudi officials in September 2008.

The Pakistani establishment sources say it was actually Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head of the Saudi intelligence agency, who had requested Pakistan to use its influence on the Taliban and to make them agree to hold talks at Makkah. A senor Saudi official reportedly travelled to the troubled North Waziristan on the Pak-Afghan border before the Makkah talks to interact with the Taliban top brass. He wanted to see Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri but he was not allowed a meeting and instead was asked to see the third-tier leaders. Taliban eventually agreed to dispatch some of their representatives to Saudia to attend the Makkah talks.

During the talks, the representatives of the US and the Karzai regime had their own preconditions, the most important being that the Taliban militia should accept Afghanistan’s new constitution and join the political mainstream under the existing system of governance.

The Americans also wanted the Ameer of the Afghhan Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar to ditch Al-Qaeda and help arrest Osama bin Laden. The talks eventually failed due to the obstinacy of the Taliban representatives who wanted the withdrawal of the US-led allied forces from Afghanistan before initiating a formal dialogue with the US and the Karzai administration.

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