Deadlock in dialogue could impact planned drawdown of foreign troops

Little progress has been made in negotiations with the Taliban despite several months of contact between western governments and interlocutors for the Islamist group, diplomatic sources have told The Hindu.

The apparent deadlock could impact the scale of the first phase of western troop cuts, which are scheduled to coincide with the handover of several less-troubled provinces to Afghan forces next month. General David Petraeus, who commands the 1,32,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is expected to soon present a detailed plan for the drawdown.

Negotiators, the sources said, had deadlocked on several issues — among them, the setting up of a Taliban office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Taliban interlocutors insisted the office has the status of a diplomatic mission of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban calls itself. The United States, however, was unwilling to concede any form of diplomatic recognition for an organisation whose forces remain locked in combat with its troops.

So far, Taliban interlocutors have also proved unwilling to discuss concrete confidence building measures between the two sides — for example, agreement on ending attacks on civilian infrastructure in southern Afghanistan or area-specific ceasefires.

“These started off as talks about talks,” a senior U.S. diplomat said, “and we're still talking about talks. That has led to at least some suspicion that the Taliban simply sees this dialogue as a means to ease military pressure on its leadership, hoping that the ISAF will pull out completely by 2014.”

Indirect negotiations

Part of the problem is that the dialogue has been conducted through Kabul-based functionaries of the Taliban regime, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001— not insurgent commanders.

The key figures include Mullah Muhammad Zaeef, Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, its foreign minister, and Abdul Hakim Mujahid, its representative to the U.S. until 9/11.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence has also facilitated contacts with a second layer of interlocutors claiming links to Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and its top decision-making body, the Quetta Shura.

Key among them is Abdul Gani Baradar, Mullah Omar's deputy, who was captured by Pakistani forces in February, 2010, after he opened direct negotiations with the Afghan authorities. Baradar was subsequently released, and has since travelled to Afghanistan for meetings.

Mullah Omar's spokesperson Tayyib Agha, who was also reported to have been in arrested in Karachi in March last, is again said to have met with the Afghan authorities on behalf of Mullah Omar.

The former head of the Taliban government, Mullah Abdul Kabir, is reportedly involved in the dialogue. Kabir, German journalist Willi Gerund revealed last year, was living in “a beautiful house close to the Pakistani town of Nowshera in the North West Frontier Province and placidly driving around in a posh SUV with a diplomatic number plate.”

Publicly, the Taliban has denied it is seeking negotiations, saying in the February issue of its house magazine that no negotiations could be “conducted with the lackey government and the fifth column so long as it is embraced in the lap of wicked America and while American flags are flapping above the peaks of this Muslim land.”

“Frankly,” said a senior British official connected with the dialogue process, “none of us have any idea of what the Quetta Shura's decision-making calculus in fact is.”

Early western enthusiasm for the dialogue process was tempered by the discovery that an interlocutor it believed to be Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, a key member of the Quetta Shura, was in fact an entrepreneurial shopkeeper unconnected to the insurgency.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has, however, been pushing for the lifting of the United Nations sanctions, imposed after 9/11, on Taliban-linked figures in a bid to kick-start the dialogue process. They include Mullah Qalamuddin — chief of the notorious Department of Prevention of Vices and Promotion of Virtue, which brutally enforced Taliban edicts.

Fierce resistance to these concessions is being spearheaded by leaders from northern Afghanistan, notably Abdullah Abdullah, who stood against Mr. Karzai in the recent presidential elections, and Amarullah Saleh, former intelligence chief. Last month's assassination of General Daud Daud, a key leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, fuelled fears that a resurgent Taliban would seek to take over the country.

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