Late last month, top Afghan peace negotiator Salahuddin Rabbani arrived in Islamabad to meet a man he hoped would change the course of history.
Access Following years of pushing, Pakistan’s new government had agreed to arrange access to Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar, long-incarcerated Taliban second-in-command.
Mr. Rabbani, sources close to him say, was flown to Karachi in a military helicopter, and driven to a safe house on the fringes of the city.
Mr. Rabbani, sources close to him say, found the man he’d hoped held the keys to peace laid out near-comatose on a bed, unable to put together a coherent sentence.
Now, the bedridden Taliban Number Two has emerged as the prize at the centre of a high-stakes diplomatic poker game involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States.
The deal, three highly placed Afghan government sources told The Hindu , involved Mr. Baradar being freed to open a political dialogue with Kabul.
In return, a high-ranking Minister would sign the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the U.S., allowing Western troops to stay on after 2014, and ensuring aid flow.
Afghanistan Interior Minister Umar Daudzai, earlier Ambassador to Pakistan and one of Mr. Karzai’s most trusted aides, has been charged with back-channel negotiations to ensure the BSA is signed before late-February — the deadline laid down by the U.S.
Mr. Daudzai, a source familiar with the negotiations said, in the meantime wants Mr. Baradar freed, leading to a meeting in mid-January with Afghanistan’s Higher Peace Council, led by Mr. Rabbani.
Then, Mr. Baradar be allowed to travel to relocate overseas, signing on to negotiations with the Kabul government.
Security pact deadlock Mr. Karzai has refused to sign the BSA, defying the wishes of a Loya Jirga, or tribal assembly, as well as both political allies and opponents. In a recent interview to Le Monde diplomatique , he complained of a “lack of visible and genuine effort on behalf of the U.S. to help us with the peace process.”
The President added that he wanted the war against the Taliban “taken to terrorist sanctuaries, where they are trained and nurtured.”
In September, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had promised to free Mr. Baradar. In a later visit to Kabul, though, Mr. Sharif reportedly told Afghan interlocutors that he could only do so with the consent of the U.S.
The change in position, a member of Mr. Karzai’s staff said, fuelled the President’s suspicions that the U.S. might be seeking to hand power to Pakistan-backed Taliban hardliners, who want Afghanistan’s Constitution scrapped.
Both Pakistan and the U.S. have backed a separate group of the Taliban led by Tayyeb Agha, who is believed to have close links with the ISI. Though a Taliban office in the Qatari city of Doha was shut down after angry Afghan protests in the summer, the group continues to operate out of the city’s Four Seasons Hotel.
Uncertain prospects It is unclear, though, Mr. Daudzai’s plan will eventually bear fruit.
Efforts to engage Mr. Baradar in dialogue are not new. The Afghan President and Mr. Baradar, both Popalzai Pashtuns, share clan ties. Mr. Baradar is reputed to have helped arrange the burial of Mr. Karzai’s father in Kandahar, then under the Taliban rule. Mr. Karzai’s extended family is also thought to have met Mr. Baradar in 2006-2007.
Mr. Daudzai met Mr. Baradar in 2012, in a brief Inter-Services Intelligence-brokered meeting, where the Taliban chief is believed to have said there was no point in two slaves talking — referring to his relationship with Pakistan, and the Afghan government’s relationship with the U.S.There is no consensus, though, on whether Mr. Baradar has enough heft with the current Taliban leadership to push through a deal.
Aga Jan Motasim, a top Taliban commander, who is also Mullah Omar’s son-in-law, survived a near-successful assassination attempt after criticising the organisation’s anti-talks position.
Dialogue process Moreover, the Taliban’s top command — including the organisation’s chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar, as well as Akhtar Mansour, Zakir Qayyum,Hafiz Abdul Majeed and Sirajuddin Haqqani — is from clans that have historically competed for power with Mr. Baradar and Mr. Karzai’s Popalzai.
“The President is willing to take the chance,” a Minister close to him said.
“He wants a dialogue process with the Taliban to be his legacy when he retires in April.”