U.S. Officials meet with The Taliban
KARACHI - Such is the deteriorating
security situation in Afghanistan, compounded by the return to the country
of a large number of former Afghan communist refugees, that United States
and Pakistani intelligence officials have met with Taliban leaders in an
effort to devise a political solution to prevent the country from being
further ripped apart.
According to a Pakistani jihadi leader who played a role in setting up the
communication, the meeting took place recently between representatives of
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the US Federal Bureau of
Investigation and Taliban leaders at the Pakistan Air Force base of
Samungli, near Quetta.
The source told Asia Times Online that four conditions were put to the
Taliban before any form of reconciliation can take place that could
potentially lead to them having a role in the Kabul government, whose
present authority is in essence limited to the capital:
- Mullah Omar must be removed as supreme leader of the Taliban.
- All Pakistani, Arab and other foreign fighters currently engaged in
operations against international troops in Afghanistan must be thrown out
of the country.
- Any US or allied soldiers held captive must be released.
- Afghans currently living abroad, notably in the United States and
England, must be given a part in the government - through being allowed to
contest elections - even though many do not even speak their mother
tongue, such as Dari or Pashtu.
Apparently, the Taliban refused the first condition point blank, but
allegedly showed some flexibility on
the other terms. As such, this first preliminary contact made little
headway. It is not known whether there will be further meetings, but given
the fact that the reason for staging the talks in the first place remains
unchanged, more contact can be expected.
The channels for the contact have been set up by Taliban who fled to
Pakistan defected when the government collapsed in Kabul, and fled to
Pakistan, where they were sheltered in ISI safe houses. Now these
defectors, working with Pakistani jihadis who know how to approach the
Taliban leadership, are acting as go-betweens.
The backdrop to the first meeting is an ever-increasing escalation in the
guerrilla war being waged against foreign troops in Afghanistan. Small
hit-and-run attacks are a daily feature in most parts of the country,
while face-to-face skirmishes are common in the former Taliban stronghold
around Kandahar in the south.
According to people familiar with Afghan resistance movements, the one
that has emerged over the past year and a half since the fall of the
Taliban is about four times as strong as the movement that opposed Soviet
invaders for nearly a decade starting in 1979.
The key reason for this is that the previous Taliban government - which is
dispersed almost intact in the country after capitulating to advancing
Northern Alliance forces without a fight - is backed by the most powerful
force in Afghanistan: clerics and religious students.
For centuries, these people were the most respected segment of Afghan
society, and before 1979 they never participated in politics. On the
contrary, their role was one of reconciliation in conflicts. During the
Afghan resistance movement against the USSR, things changed, and clerics
threw their weight behind the mujahideen struggle, but, with a few
exceptions, such as Maulana Yunus Khalis, they were not in command.
With the withdrawal of the Soviets and the emergence of the Taliban in the
early 1990s, though, the situation once again changed. The Taliban, taking
advantage of the power struggles among bitterly divided militias in Kabul,
consolidated themselves into an effective political movement led by
clerics and in 1996 seized power in Kabul. A part of their success also
lay in the fact that initially Afghans, especially Pashtuns who make up
the majority of the country, were reluctant to take up the gun against
Now, in the renewed guerrilla war against foreign troops, it is the
clerics who are calling the shots. For instance, Hafiz Rahim is the most
respected cleric in the Kandahar region, and he commands all military
operations from the sanctuary of the mountainous terrain.
The US forces have employed maximum air support and advanced technology in
an attempt to curtail attacks, but without the help of local Afghan forces
they are unable to track down Hafiz Rahim, who to date has targeted US
convoys scores of times. The United States has admitted a few deaths,
while the Taliban claim they have killed many more than the official
numbers state. For funds, the Taliban use money looted from the central
bank before they abandoned Kabul, estimated in excess of US$110 million,
in addition to money received from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.
At the same time, famed warlord Gulbbudin Hekmatyar has joined the
resistance after returning from exile in Iran. His Hezb-i-Islami
Afghanistan (HIA) is the most organized force in Afghanistan, and its
participation has added real muscle to the resistance. Many top slots in
the Kabul administration are occupied by former HIA members who, although
they were once anti-Taliban, are loyal to the Islamic cause and anti-US.
Also, several provincial governors and top officials are former HIA
commanders. They are suspect in the eyes of the Americans, but because of
their huge political clout it is impossible to remove them.
With this groundswell of support - even if in places it is only passive -
and with Kabul's influence restricted to the capital, the Americans and
their allies will remain vulnerable targets, let alone be in a position to
restore any form of law and order. It is in situations like this, argue
most experts on Afghanistan, that traditionally insurrections begin in the
Afghan army against foreign administrators.
This is not the end of the problems. More than 2 million Afghan refugees,
according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, have
returned to Afghanistan from countries all over the world, including
India, Russia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Zimbabwe and Central Asian countries.
Many of them belonged to communist factions during and after the Soviet
invasion, while a number of their counterparts remained and now hold
positions in Kabul.
At present, Kabul is divided into two main factions. The first is pro-US,
which is represented by the US and allied troops and those loyal to
President Hamid Karzai. The second is pro-Russian and pro-Iranian,
represented by Defense Minister General Qasim Fahim and his Northern
Alliance forces. Although the camps are cooperating at present, they are
silently building their support bases to make a grab for full power once
the present interim administration runs its course, a process that is due
to begin in October with a loya jirga (grand council).
In this respect, every returned or returning former "communist comrade" is
important, for should the Northern Alliance faction develop sufficient
critical mass, it would come as no surprise if its leaders openly forged
an alliance with the resistance movement.