US silent on Taliban's al-Qaeda offer
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The Barack Obama administration is refusing to acknowledge an
offer by the leadership of the Taliban in early December to give "legal
guarantees" that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used for attacks on
The administration's silence on the offer, despite a public statement by
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing skepticism about any Taliban
offer to separate itself from al-Qaeda, effectively leaves the door open to
negotiating a deal with the Taliban based on such a proposal.
The Taliban, however, have chosen to interpret the Obama administration's
position as one of rejection of their offer.
The Taliban offer, included in a statement dated December 4 and
e-mailed to news organizations the following day, said the organization had "no
agenda of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and is ready to
give legal guarantees if foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan".
The statement did not mention al-Qaeda by name or elaborate on what was meant
by "legal guarantees" against such "meddling", but it was an obvious response
to past US insistence that the US war in Afghanistan is necessary to prevent
al-Qaeda from having a safe haven in Afghanistan once again.
It suggested that the Taliban were interested in negotiating an agreement with
the United States involving a public Taliban renunciation of ties with
al-Qaeda, along with some undefined arrangements to enforce a ban on al-Qaeda's
presence in Afghanistan in return for a commitment to a timetable for
withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
Despite repeated queries by Inter Press Service to the State Department
spokesman, P J Crowley, and to the National Security Council's press office
over the past week about whether either Clinton or Obama had been informed
about the Taliban offer, neither office has responded to the question.
Anand Gopal of The Wall Street Journal, whose December 5 story on the Taliban
message was the only one to report that initiative, asked a US official earlier
that day about the offer to provide "legal guarantees".
The official, who had not been aware of the Taliban offer, responded with what
was evidently previously prepared policy guidance casting doubt on the
willingness of the Taliban to give up its ties with al-Qaeda. "This is the same
group that refused to give up bin Laden, even though they could have saved
their country from war," said the official. "They wouldn't break with
terrorists then, so why would we take them seriously now?"
The following day, asked by ABC News This Week host George
Stephanopoulos about possible negotiations with "high level" Taliban leaders,
Clinton said, "We don't know yet."
But then she made the same argument the unnamed US official had made to Gopal
on Saturday. "[W]e asked [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar to give up bin Laden
before he went into Afghanistan after 9/11," Clinton said, "and he wouldn't do
it. I don't know why we think he would have changed by now."
In the same ABC interview, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that the
Taliban would not be willing to negotiate on US terms until after their
"momentum" had been stopped.
"I think that the likelihood of the leadership of the Taliban, or senior
leaders, being willing to accept the conditions Secretary Clinton just talked
about," Gates said, "depends in the first instance on reversing their momentum
right now, and putting them in a position where they suddenly begin to realize
that they're likely to lose."
In a statement issued two days after the Clinton-Gates appearance on ABC, the
Taliban leadership, which now calls itself "Mujahideen", posted another
statement saying that what they called their "proposal" had been rejected by
the United States.
The statement said, in part, "Washington turns down the constructive proposal
of the leadership of Mujahideen," and repeated its pledge to "ensure that the
next government of the Mujahideen will not meddle in the internal affairs of
other countries including the neighbors if the foreign troops pull out of
The fact that both the State Department and the NSC are now maintaining silence
on the offer rather than repeating the Clinton-Gates expression of skepticism
strongly suggests that the White House does not want to close the door publicly
to negotiations with the Taliban linking troop withdrawal to renunciation of
ties with al-Qaeda, among other issues.
Last month, a US diplomat in Kabul made an even more explicit link between US
troop withdrawal and a severing by the Taliban of their ties with al-Qaeda.
In an article published on November 11, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy
Rubin, who was then visiting Kabul, quoted an unnamed US official as saying,
"If the Taliban made clear to us that they have broken with al-Qaeda and that
their own objectives were nonviolent and political - however abhorrent to us -
we wouldn't be keeping 68,000-plus troops here."
That statement reflected an obvious willingness to entertain a negotiated
settlement under which US troops would be withdrawn and the Taliban would break
A significant faction within the Obama administration has sought to portray
those who suggest that the Taliban might part ways with al-Qaeda as
deliberately deceiving the West.
Bruce Riedel, of the Brookings Institution, who headed the administration's
policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan last spring, recently said, "A lot of
smoke is being thrown up to confuse people."
But even the hardliner Riedel concedes that the Pakistani Taliban's attacks on
the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) threaten the close
relationship between the Afghan Taliban and ISI. The Pakistani Taliban
continues to be closely allied with al-Qaeda.
The Taliban began indicating their openness to negotiations with the United
States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in September 2007. But they
began to hint publicly at their willingness to separate itself from al-Qaeda in
return for a troop withdrawal only three months ago.
Mullah Omar's message for Eid al-Fitr in mid-September assured "all countries"
that a Taliban state "will not extend its hand to jeopardize others, as it
itself does not allow others to jeopardize us ... Our goal is to gain
independence of the country and establish a just Islamic system there."
But the insurgent leadership has also emphasized that negotiations will depend
on the US willingness to withdraw troops. In anticipation of Obama's
announcement of a new US troop surge in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar issued a
3,000-word statement on November 25 which said, "The people of Afghanistan will
not agree to negotiations which prolongs and legitimizes the invader's military
presence in our beloved country."
"The invading Americans want Mujahideen to surrender under the pretext of
negotiation," it said.
That implied that the Taliban would negotiate if the US did not insist on the
acceptance of a US military presence in the country.
The day after the Taliban proposal to Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai
made a public plea to the United States to engage in direct negotiations with
the Taliban leadership.
In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Karzai said there is an "urgent
need" for negotiations with the Taliban, and made it clear that the Obama
administration had opposed such talks. Karzai did not say explicitly that he
wanted the United States to be at the table for such talks, but said, "Alone,
we can't do it."
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.