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    South Asia
     Aug 24, 2007
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Talks with the Taliban gain ground
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The process of reconciliation with the Taliban continues on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A Former top Taliban commander and present member of the Afghan Parliament, Mullah Abdus Salam Rocketti, and the former Taliban ambassador in Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, are two key figures who have been holding talks with Taliban elders in southwestern Afghanistan for a political

settlement at the behest of Western coalition forces.

On the Pakistani side, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, recently traveled to Quetta, Balochistan province, to meet with local Taliban commanders under Mullah Mansoor (brother of slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah), and apparently Rahman made a major breakthrough.

Asia Times Online contacts in Quetta confirm that Rahman held talks with representatives of Mullah Mansoor, and they promised to pass on Rahman's message for approval. In essence, this calls for holding small jirgas (councils) with the Taliban and related parties, such as tribal elders, at various sites in Pakistan and Afghanistan at which Rahman would act as mediator. Rahman's role has already been approved by the administration of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, as well as by the Western coalition. All that is needed now is the Taliban's approval.

The significance of the small jirgas is that they will involve the Taliban, unlike the recent peace jirga in Kabul, which the Taliban boycotted.

"If there is a positive response from the Taliban, it could mean a ceasefire in the near future, at least in Kandahar and Helmand [provinces in southeastern Afghanistan]. Once this process goes on smoothly, it would guarantee regional peace," a senior Pakistani official told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.

The main player in the game is Pakistan, which is also seen as a vital corridor for Asian energy supplies once Central Asian oil and gas reserves secure a trouble-free route through Afghanistan.

Pakistan's leadership unanimously agrees that a peace deal with the Taliban is the only solution to the region's unrest. President General Pervez Musharraf stated as much during the peace jirga involving hundreds of representatives from both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It remains for Washington to commit fully to a permanent policy for a political settlement.

An official of a Kabul-based European body that has had a major role in facilitating the talks between the Taliban and coalition forces confirmed to Asia Times Online, on condition of anonymity, that high-level talks between Taliban commanders and coalition forces through Rocketti and Zaeef had taken place in an attempt to find a broader political settlement.

Indeed, it was these talks that paved the way for the dialogue in Quetta as guarantees were given for the safety of the Taliban in Quetta.

Should a ceasefire emerge, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan are expected to meet to sign a security contract with regard to an oil and gas pipeline project worth US$10 billion that will run from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan, the TAP, and possibly on to India. International Oil Co of the US recently won the contract from Pakistan to construct the 2,200-kilometer pipeline over the next three years.

The pipeline will run through Kandahar and on to Pakistan's Gwadar Port. The US-backed project is aimed to outflank Russia and Iran in the regional energy game. Iran, Pakistan and India are trying to get a pipeline project off the ground linking the three countries. Washington opposes this initiative, and once TAP becomes operational it will severely curtail this venture.

This is not the first time the Taliban have entered dialogue with the Western coalition. Asia Times Online reported on June 14, 2003 (US turns to the Taliban), the first direct talks between Pakistani and US intelligence and the Taliban. Recent reports in the German press claim that the Taliban and German intelligence met in 2005 in Germany, while British officials certainly met with the Taliban in Helmand last year.

However, none of these initiatives was able to achieve sustainable results. The main stumbling blocks were Washington's tough line on the Taliban, while that group wanted all or nothing, that is, the complete withdrawal of foreign troops and the handover of power to them - a "complete victory".

In the United States' case, it is obsessed with removing Taliban leader Mullah Omar before the group can be given any political role. The Taliban have always dismissed this out of hand. As a result, Washington has terminated the dialogue and proceeded with the military option.

Retired Lieutenant0General Asad Durrani, former director general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence, told Asia Times Online, "Conventional wisdom suggests a dialogue process, even during a conflict. We have 

Continued 1 2 

Taliban, US in new round of peace talks (Aug 21, '07)

Afghanistan's ball back in Pakistan's court (Aug 18, '07)

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