Though Afghanistan-Pakistan talks hold out ray of hope as 2014 guillotine looms, many remain sceptical of peace with Taliban

Last week, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasool and his Pakistani counterpart, Hina Rabbani Khar, shook hands on a deal diplomats across the world are hoping will pave the way for a peace agreement with the Taliban before 2014 — the year tens of thousands of the United States troops will return home, potentially plunging the world’s most war-torn country into chaos.

The Taliban prisoners Pakistan promised to release on Friday are chips in President Hamid Karzai’s high-stakes gamble that he can persuade the released jihadist adversaries to come to the negotiating table — thus dividing the insurgency and forcing its leadership to reconcile.

Less than four months ago, Afghan and Pakistani forces were exchanging artillery fire across their border, sparked by infiltrating Taliban groups. Though some sunshine now appears to have broken through the winter gloom, it remains unclear if the rays of hope will survive the storm clouds that have started gathering.

Promises, not progress

For one, the progress so far hasn’t matched the promises. In November, Salahuddin Rabbani — head of Afghanistan’s Higher Peace Council — first received a commitment to release Taliban prisoners, leading Mr. Karzai’s government to exult.

Kabul, government sources told The Hindu, asked for 31 Taliban commanders living in Pakistan under the protection of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Just nine have so far been released — and none have moved to Afghanistan.

“In essence,” a senior Afghan official told The Hindu, “Islamabad is telling us that its willing to let the peace kite fly — but only if we accept that its hand will hold and guide the string.”

None of the released commanders, moreover, figure on the United Nations list of sanctioned Taliban leaders, suggesting that their organisational influence is minimal. The senior-most, Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahed, son of anti-communist jihadist leader Yunus Khales, belongs to the Hizb-e Islami — not the Taliban itself.

Kabul hopes the Foreign Ministers’ meeting will secure the release of Abdul Ahad Jehangirwal, who served in the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s administrative office, along with its chief negotiator in Doha, Tayyeb Agha. It is also seeking the Islamic Emirate justice minister, Nooruddin Turabi.

There has been no progress, notably, in securing the release of Abdul Gani Baradar — a ranking Taliban commander thought to be close to Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar.

Islamabad, the government sources said, recently arranged a meeting between Afghanistan’s Ambassador, Muhammad Omar Daudzai, and Mr. Baradar — but in the face of strenuous objections from the Taliban leader that it would make him vulnerable to threats from hardliners. Agha Jan Motasim, another senior Taliban commander, only narrowly survived an August 2010 assassination attempt under similar circumstances.

In the event, news of Mr. Baradar’s meeting leaked — leading him to refuse all further face-to-face contact with Afghan negotiators.

Growing resistance

Experts aren’t persuaded that even such meetings with the top Taliban leadership will make a peace deal work.

In one recent case, resistance from field commanders forced Mullah Omar to reduce the authority of Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, his hand-picked choice as commander of Taliban operations inside Afghanistan.

“Frankly,” says Kabul-based analyst Omar Sharifi, “most of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan has long outlived its sell-by date. These are mostly ageing figures, for all practical purposes retired, with little or no influence on the ground.”

Local militias have also been forming in areas under Taliban control — taking arms against the very organisation the government is seeking to make peace with.

In May, after Taliban shut down government-run schools, along with medical facilities and the local bazaar in Andar province, local residents killed dozens of jihadists and retook control of over 50 villages. Similar anti-Taliban uprisings have taken place in Kunar, Logar, Laghman, Paktika and Nangarhar provinces.

Fearing a resurgent Taliban, moreover, Afghanistan’s old warlords seem to be preparing for war. In an extraordinary November 1 speech, Minister for Water Resources and Energy Ismail Khan even issued an extraordinary call for the country’s warlords to rearm in preparation for a renewed Taliban assault.

The West, Mr. Khan said, “collected all our weapons, our artillery and tanks, and put them on the rubbish heap.” “Instead,” he said, mocking the western soldiers who arrived after 9/11, “they brought Dutch girls, French girls, girls from Holland, they armed American girls.” “They thought that by doing all this they would bring security here but they failed.”

Last month, Mr. Karzai asked Opposition leaders how they would react to a pre-election deal. “We replied,” says the leading Opposition politician and former Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, “that this would mean the Taliban disarming, starting a political party and accepting that the Constitution could only be changed to accommodate their demands if they won an election. That would be a political earthquake — and well, if earthquakes strike, you deal with them.”

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