Page last updated at 07:46 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Talking to the Afghan Taleban

An American soldier near Bagram in Afghanistan
Will the Taleban leaders negotiate before all Western troops go?

US President Barack Obama has been devising a new strategy to tackle the Taleban threat in Afghanistan and has not ruled out some "tactical" negotiations to undermine the insurgency. Here BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera, in Kabul, discusses how engaging the militants might work.

On a desk in his study sits a book by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef - a memoir in French of his time as a detainee in Guantanamo.

Before the fall of the Taleban government in 2001, Mullah Zaeef was its ambassador to Pakistan.

After being picked up, he spent three years in US detention. He now lives on the outskirts of Kabul in a building with armed guards, no doubt partly to protect him and partly to keep an eye on him.

The mullah is an advocate of negotiations between the Taleban and the Afghan government and even with the US but only under the right conditions.

There is suspicion, he tells me, on the Taleban side that the purpose of talks is simply to weaken and divide the movement.

Among the conditions the Taleban want are the lifting of UN sanctions against Taleban leaders and a guarantee of their security.

Negotiations clearly require a partner and Mullah Zaeef, perhaps unsurprisingly, argues that the Taleban are a strong and coherent movement, one that has set up what he calls a "shadow government" providing justice in large parts of the country.

There have been internal reports over whether to negotiate and what position to take, particularly whether all foreign troops would have to leave before they stopped fighting, or whether some kind of commitment or timetable would be enough.

'Real leader'

The Taleban movement is still controlled by Mullah Omar, Mullah Zaeef argues.

"He is the real leader and still has control of the Taleban. There is no other leader to compare or be instead of him," he tells me, explaining that Mullah Omar recently ordered a new commander into Kandahar, moving the Kandahar commander to Jalalabad, communicating through spoken messages relayed through the country and occasionally letters.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef (file photo)
Mullah Zaeef favours talks - in the right conditions

In theory there may be only one leader for the Taleban but most analysts accept that the insurgency is composed of a kaleidoscope of moving pieces.

Some who fight are opportunistic, doing it for the money, others are more ideological.

In the south, the Quetta Shura and Mullah Omar predominate and they are said to be focused on the traditional aim of getting rid of foreign troops and imposing Islamic Sharia law.

But in the east, those fighting have closer links to Waziristan in Pakistan and also the foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda.

There are other groups, like that of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is currently fighting the US but who some believe might be amenable to a deal.

Some talks between figures close to the Afghan government and close to the Taleban have taken place under the guidance of Saudi Arabia, a country with the status and influence to bring different parties together.

In what is seen as a significant move, the Saudi intelligence chief also came to Kabul and visited other capitals as part of the initiative.

Obama comparisons

One of the key movers in those talks is Abdullah Anas, a well-connected former mujahideen who fought the Soviets in the 1980s.

He argues that in the past 30 years, Afghanistan's neighbours as well as other countries have sought to pursue their own agendas by using different factions and groups within the country to dominate at the exclusion of others.

"Everyone is trying to make it their own. After 30 years none of them won Afghanistan. They destroyed Afghanistan," he tells me, arguing that only a political process that accepts a role for all Afghan groups will provide any stability.

An anti-US demonstration in Khost, Afghanistan
Militant groups in Afghanistan are very fractured

Western governments have been involved in their own "reconciliation" programmes trying to peel off local Taleban commanders and officials.

But after two foreign diplomats were accused of unauthorised attempts to negotiate in late 2007 (contacts which the diplomats maintain were with the agreement of the government), there has been a recognition that the Afghan government has to take the lead in this process.

President Hamid Karzai has openly talked of negotiation but critics are unsure how far this is about shoring up support in the south of the country ahead of this year's presidential election.

There is also a fundamental difference between a wider strategic dialogue and using negotiation as a local tactic to try to divide and undermine the insurgency by buying off more malleable local commanders.

In his comments over the weekend with comparisons to Iraq, US President Barack Obama seemed to suggest that it was the latter that was more likely to form part of the new strategy.

"There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region," he said but acknowledged that while this worked in Iraq, the dynamics in Afghanistan were different.

In the short term though, it is local level reconciliation or negotiation that is most likely to meet with success, although the focus on dividing the Taleban may also increase distrust among Taleban leaders about US intentions, reducing their willingness to engage in broader talks.

'Wrong country'

The US is clearly now willing to talk about talks, though, and is publicly supportive of Afghan attempts at reconciliation.

"We encourage it," explained Chris Dell, number two at the US Embassy in Kabul. "But we recognise it has to be led by the Afghans themselves, because the issues are Afghan. They are issues among brothers."

Hamid Karzai
President Karzai has openly talked of negotiations

In the early days, the US military talked of "AQT" - referring to al-Qaeda and the Taleban as a single entity.

But they were not a single entity before 9/11 and have not been so afterwards despite undoubted alliances at different times and in different places.

And so now, talks with the Taleban do look more of a possibility, although it will require a careful recalibration of the public justification of engagement in Afghanistan. It has been based around removing the Taleban to deny a sanctuary for al-Qaeda.

The upcoming US strategic review is also certain to focus on a broader regional strategy and the central importance of Pakistan.

Western diplomats make clear that the single change that would put most pressure on the Taleban would be the denial of their sanctuaries and safe havens over the border in Pakistan.

A few voices in Washington even say the fight against the Taleban in Afghanistan is a case of "wrong enemy, wrong country".

In other words, the US should really be fighting al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

Cutting deals with the Taleban in Afghanistan may also look slightly awkward when the US has been critical of the deals that Pakistan has struck with the Taleban in its own territory.

The US strategy and troops reinforcements may in part be designed to change the dynamics and place the US in a stronger position to negotiate.

Going to the table now may look like a sign of weakness and reinforce the Taleban's belief that the US and allies lack the will to stay and fight.

There may also be challenges for Western governments in selling the idea of talks to their population, especially as soldiers continue to die in the conflict.

The Taleban, too, have to worry about their support and any perception of weakness.

So while there is much talk about negotiations, there is little sign they will make substantive progress for some time.

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