Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Taleban Offer Peace, on Their Terms

Although the insurgents’ demands look impossible, some analysts say there might be scope for beginning a dialogue.
By Aziz Ahmad
For days it was all over the news - the Taleban, flush with the successful conclusion of the Korean hostage crisis, were finally willing to negotiate with the Afghan government.



The Taleban’s September 10 announcement raised hopes of an end to conflict in a nation weary of fighting, although some expressed dismay that the government might sit down and talk to a group deemed outlaws and terrorists.



One week later, the illusion of peace talks burst like a soap bubble.



The Taleban are indeed willing to talk, said spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, but only when they have got everything they have been fighting for - the withdrawal of foreign forces, the establishment of strict Sharia law, and an end to Afghanistan’s brief fling with democracy.



“We do not want democracy and freedom the way it is now,” Qari Yusuf told IWPR. “We will fight against it. Our major conditions are Islamic law and the withdrawal of foreign troops.



“Once all our conditions are accepted, we will go to Kabul and talk to the Afghan government. If they aren’t accepted, then we will continue our fight.”’



Presidential spokesperson Humayun Hamidzade made it clear that the administration had no intention of bowing to the Taleban’s demands.



“The government of Afghanistan welcomes negotiations, but it will not accept any kind of conditions,” Hamidzade told IWPR.



If the Taleban’s demands were met and international forces withdrew from Afghanistan, there might well be no government left to do the negotiating. In the minds of many observers, the 50,000 troops under the command of the International Security and Assistance Force, ISAF, and the United States-led Coalition, are all that is keeping President Hamed Karzai and his administration in place.



As pitched battles continue in the south of Afghanistan, the international forces have had some important tactical successes but they have not been able to drive the Taleban out. Among ordinary Afghans, the standing of the foreign forces has been damaged by the fighting, especially when there are civilian casualties.



Meanwhile, the Taleban’s image in the popular mind was improved by the conclusion of last month’s hostage situation, in which 23 members of a South Korean church were kidnapped by the Taleban.



The standoff ended after six weeks with the 21 surviving hostages released in return for a promise that South Korea’s 200-strong troop contingent would be withdrawn by the end of the year, and that all Korean missionary activity would cease. Two of the hostages had been killed beforehand.



The willingness of the South Korean government to negotiate directly with the insurgents created the impression that the Taleban are a coherent political organisation rather than a ragtag group of rebels.



The concessions were small enough – South Korea had already announced plans to take its troops out of Afghanistan – but to many Afghans the Taleban won prestige by bringing a foreign government to the table.



The Taleban’s peace overture, clouded as it was by intransigence on both sides, provoked fierce debate among politicians and analysts.



Parliamentarian Sardar Mohammad Rahman Oghli sees the “initiative” as a sign that the Taleban is losing ground.



“The Taleban can no longer fight NATO, the Afghan army and the police,” he said. “Recently, they have switched their focus to kidnapping and assassination, which indicates their weakness. And with every passing day, the Taleban are losing support among the people.”



While Rahman Oghli said the Taleban would be accepted back into society if they laid down their arms and accepted the constitution, he was adamant that they could not dictate terms.



“If the Taleban want to be shareholders in the government, they should come in through the election process. But if they want to take power directly, this is against the law, and parliament will never accept it. And if the government does agree to negotiate, it will face many internal problems.”



Political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria takes the opposite view, arguing that the offer to negotiate indicated the strength of the Taleban.



“In comparison with previous years, the Taleban have become stronger,” he said. “They have arrived at the doors of Kabul. The Taleban are now negotiating from a position of strength; they know that the government and the foreign forces fully understand that war is not the solution. The only way is to talk to the Taleban.”



The prospect of Taleban figures in government does not dismay Oria.



“The Taleban are sons of the soil, and they have the right to have a part in the political, economic and military structure of the country,” he said. “Karzai and the international community have to accord that right to the Taleban. But the Taleban have a responsibility to accept the constitution, to say goodbye to al-Qaeda, and to commit themselves to national sovereignty and peace.”



Arriving at such a settlement will not be easy, Oria cautioned. “These negotiations are complicated. They will have ups and downs, there will be periods of fighting and periods of truce. The results will not come soon,” he said.



Oria noted that there are also divisions within the government over the desirability of talks with the Taleban.



“While some people inside the government and the parliament support negotiations, there are others who are opposed to it. A third group pays lip-service to the idea, but is trying to sabotage the process behind the scenes,” he said.



Political analyst Daad Noorani believes the offer of negotiations points to an internal split among the Taleban.



“The ‘Afghan Taleban’ never have supported al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” he said. “And while they oppose the foreign presence, they do not support the destruction and killing. It is possible that this group is ready to talk.



“But the other part of the Taleban, which is under al-Qaeda and which Mullah Omar is part of, will never negotiate with the government.”



Even if the Taleban do agree to talks, Noorani does not believe this it will end the conflict. “Neither the United States nor the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] wants to put an end to this [war] scenario in Afghanistan,” he said.



Noorani echoed the popular view that Pakistan’s vital interests were served by continued instability in Afghanistan, while many Afghans believe the US is using the conflict as an excuse to extend its military presence in the region.



But Noorani maintains that the Taleban would be a welcome addition to the Karzai government, providing a valuable counterweight to the growing influence of the Northern Alliance, the remnants of the military factions that fought first the Soviets, then the Taleban, and are now regrouping to try to regain their former authority.



“There have been rumours of changes in Karzai’s government for a long time,” said Noorani. “I think that many are just waiting for the Taleban to join the government. America and Karzai have a lot of experience of this kind of politics. They will give equal shares of power to the mujahedin and the Taleban, so that there won’t be any internal challenge to the government of Afghanistan.”



While the pundits debate, the Taleban in the trenches have their own ideas about whether talking to the government is feasible. Judging by the reaction among Taleban commanders in the insurgents’ stronghold in Helmand, talks may be a long way off.



“Once the foreign troops leave Afghanistan, we will talk to the Afghan government,” said one commander in Kajaki, a northern Helmand district surrounding a strategic hydroelectric power station. “These foreigners want Afghans to be their slaves, and they want to promote anti-Islamic law in Afghanistan, as they do in their own countries. Our jihad will continue until we kick the foreigners out.”



A commander in Musa Qala, a Helmand district that has been under Taleban control for the past six months, had a comprehensive list of demands. In his opinion, negotiations will be impossible as long as the current regime does not follow the Taleban’s interpretation of Islamic law.



“There must be strict Sharia law,” he insisted. “Women should not go out to the bazaar without a mahram [male escort]. There should be no schools for girls, and there should be madrassahs for boys. The white flag of the Taleban should fly all over the land.



“As long as these [un-Islamic] things are going on, we won’t talk to the government - even if the foreigners leave.”



Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s Afghan editor. Wahidullah Amani is a trainer and editor for IWPR’s Helmand project. Aziz Ahmad Shafe is a freelance reporter in Helmand.