Afghanistan’s former Islamist regime formally nominates envoys for international dialogue for first time since 9/11

Leaders representing Afghanistan’s government and opposition will meet with representatives of the Taliban at a French country home outside Paris on Friday — a first of its kind meeting that both the Kabul regime and western governments hope will pave the way for a historic peace deal ahead of elections scheduled for 2014.

Financed by the French foreign ministry, and hosted by Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique, a prominent Paris-based think tank, the conference marks the first time the Taliban’s Pakistan-based leadership has formally nominated representatives to speak on its behalf since 9/11. Though representatives of the Taliban are known to have held secret talks with Afghan, German and United States envoys, the organisation has so far denied participating in any such dialogue.

“We want the world community to listen to our goals,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement, “but we must clarify that no negotiations with anyone are involved.”

FRS director Camille Grand told the television station al-Arabiyya that all participants would be speaking “in a personal capacity”. “The goal is to get them around a table and get them talking.”

Taliban team

The Taliban will be represented in Paris by Shahabuddin Delawar, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Mr Delawar has been based in Doha since 2011, when he helped set up a political office for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—as the Taliban calls itself. He is being accompanied by an individual identified in media reports as Naeem Wardak.

No Taliban leader by that name figures in Afghan or United Nations records. However, one diplomatic source identified him as Naeem Barich, former deputy minister of civil aviation and a member of the Taliban military commission until 2010.

Led by Mullah Tayyab Agha, long-standing secretary to Pakistan-based Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s Doha office is run by several middle-level functionaries of the pre-9/11 Islamist regime in Afghanistan. Key among them are Shir Muhammad Stanikzai, its deputy foreign minister; Hafiz Abdul Rahman, its one-time representative in New York; Maulvi Abdul Rehman, its ambassador to the United Arab Emirates; and Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, a former ambassador to Pakistan.

Kabul will be represented by the Higher Peace Council — a body charged by President Hamid Karzai to engage in negotiations with the Taliban. The body is led by Salahuddin Rabbani, who succeeded his father Salahuddin Rabbani in the position after the latter’s assassination by the Taliban.

Din Mohammad, a senior Higher Peace Council member, told media he hopes to hold direct dialogue with the Taliban on the sidelines of the conference. The Taliban has until now rejected such dialogue, describing President Karzai’s government as a “puppet regime.”

Opposition cautious

Leaders of Afghanistan’s major opposition forces, however, were cautious in their response to the peace talks. “Let’s put it this way”, foreign Afghan presidential candidate and foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah told The Hindu, “we welcome the opportunity to learn directly from the Taliban what their views and objectives are. However, I think to imagine that some grand peace deal is around the corner is pure fantasy.”

“Earlier this week,” Dr. Abdullah continued, “a group of us sat down to discuss what our red lines for any process are. There is one key one: we cannot abandon the constitution, or compromise on democratic values”.

Mr. Abdullah’s bloc, the National Coalition of Afghanistan, is represented at the conference by key ideologue Yunus Qanuni. Ahmad Zia Masood, another important northern leader, is also present.

Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief and a key northern leader, offered a less guarded appraisal. “The one real achievement of the international community and Afghans in the years after 9/11,” he told The Hindu, “is the creation of a legitimate political system. Talks like these undermine the legitimacy of that system, and create fissures within it. I think that there is desperation in certain influential capitals for something resembling a resolution to the conflict, which will have negative long-term repercussions in Afghanistan.”

In a recent report, the London-based Royal United Services Institute had said what it described as a “pragmatic” section of the Taliban were ready to engage in a ceasefire in return for a share of power after the scheduled withdrawal of the bulk of western troops in 2014.

Pessimists on the peace process, though, have long argued that these pragmatist elements Pakistan-based leadership of the Taliban lacks the on-ground influence to make a peace process workable. In 2010, Taliban hardliners staged a near successful assassination of Agha Jan Motassim — Mullah Omar’s son-in-law — who had held secret talks with the United States in Bonn and Doha. Later, murderous feuds broke out between local field operatives in Afghanistan, and the Pakistan-based leadership’s chosen top commander, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir.

The pessimism was shared by one former Afghan intelligence official who spoke to The Hindu. “Frankly,” he said, “everyone wants something that looks like a good meal on the table before the 2014 elections. It’s worth remembering, though, that the meals used by advertising companies for their photographic shoots are made out of plastic. They’re not actually meant to be eaten.”

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