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Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 17:37 UK

Will the Afghan Taleban join peace talks?

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Kabul

Taleban fighter
The Taleban's insurgency is spreading and many say there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict

Newspapers are writing about it and Afghan officials and foreign diplomats are discussing it - talks with the Taleban.

Now President Hamid Karzai's own brother has confirmed a BBC report that he met former members of the Taleban in Saudi Arabia last month as part of a first step towards peace talks.

The conflict in Afghanistan has been running now for seven years and by almost every indicator, the security situation is getting worse.

There has been an unmistakable mood shift in the Afghan capital Kabul and the notion of reconciliation with the fundamentalist Islamic movement appears to be gathering momentum as a way of reining in the violence.

But if there were to be direct talks with the senior leaders of the Taleban, what would this actually mean in practice?

Well, first of all, the term Taleban is often used as a catch-all-phrase for the insurgents - it's far more complex than that.

Military veteran

The anti-government forces are far from being a monolithic bloc - there are competing egos, strategies and aims at work.

The only point that all the groups categorically agree upon is that they oppose the Afghan government.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
There are a number of players who make up the insurgency

Yes, the Taleban is a significant part of the insurgency, but there are a number of other significant players. Best known, of course, is al-Qaeda.

There's also the Hezb Islami network run by the former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as well as a grouping led by another Afghan military veteran, Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose men were linked to a deadly attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul this July.

In order to end the conflict completely you would probably need to try to reach an agreement with all the groups - not just the Taleban.

That is an impossible order, particularly as almost everyone agrees that you cannot negotiate with al-Qaeda.

But let's stick with the Taleban - if you can cut a deal with the movement then you would stand a good chance of substantially reducing the conflict.

As with insurgencies in the past, there's a growing recognition that you need to deal with your enemy - in this case - the Taleban.

Political suicide

The movement commands a lot of support in the south of the country where Pashtun nationalism - which often feeds into the Taleban - is strong.

Afghan Taleban

But any potential talks with the Taleban are not going to be easy.

The spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, has repeatedly demanded that all 70,000 or so foreign troops leave the country.

The Afghan President Hamid Karzai cannot agree to this as it would be an act of political suicide - his government would collapse and it's possible that the Taleban would then overrun large parts of the country.

And there's the question of who you speak to within the movement. Is it possible to speak to the senior leaders? In order to get an agreement that would stick, you would need to have these men on board.

And do the Taleban even want to hold peace talks?

From their point of view, it could be argued that things are going quite well.

The insurgency is spreading and the government is regarded as weak, corrupt and ineffective by many Afghans. Some of these people would prefer a Taleban alternative.

Influential

Some analysts believe, however, that there are a number of senior Taleban leaders who could be won over, having spent the last seven years living in harsh and dangerous conditions.

But there are also Afghans who are suspicious of President Karzai's recent overtures to the movement. They suspect it has more to do with trying to shore up his Pashtun support ahead of the planned presidential elections next year.

Another problem is that by trying to reconcile with the Taleban you could end up alienating other groups in Afghanistan.

President Karzai
Some are suspicious of the president's overtures

There have often been deadly rivalries between Afghanistan's various ethnic groups.

In the north of the country, for example, there are many Tajiks and Uzbeks, who fought against the Taleban during the 1990s and who were backed by Western governments to overthrow the Taleban government in 2001.

The Northern Alliance - as it was then called - is influential in the Afghan government, and it would be doubtful if it would stomach a Taleban return to the fold.

In a worse-case scenario, it could end up fighting against any government that included Taleban members.

The issue of negotiations may be on the table, but, for now, there have been no significant developments. It's not even clear whether the Afghan government has a coherent strategy on the issue.

Most Afghans believe that the insurgency will run for a long time yet - and that any possible deal will not come any time soon.




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