Taliban take on the US's surge
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - At the major international conference on Afghanistan in London last
Thursday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on the Taliban to take part in a loya
jirga (assembly of elders) - as a start to peace talks.
The Taliban are widely reported as having responded that first they want all of
the more than 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan to leave the country by
Asia Times Online, however, has learned from well-connected sources in
Afghanistan who have been directly involved in backchannel negotiations with
the Taliban that there is an important nuance to the Taliban demand. That is,
States must put an immediate halt to its plans to send a further 30,000 troops
to Afghanistan before withdrawal begins in 2011.
In return, the Taliban would be prepared to open up a channel of dialogue with
the Americans, through Saudi Arabia, while at the same time taking measures to
reduce the level of hostilities in the country.
The key issue boils down to one of trust, that is, whether the US would be
prepared to only send in replacements for previously deployed troops, given
that the surge in forces was meant to be a cornerstone of its
counter-insurgency plan as a means of softening up the Taliban before talks
could begin in earnest.
"Washington has to focus on out-of-box thinking to resolve this conflict in
Afghanistan," a Kabul-based contact told Asia Times Online on the condition of
anonymity. "The Americans desperately want an exit strategy but they cannot
announce it outright because if they did so, the Taliban would overrun any
government they left behind. The Americans aim to invite the Taliban to join
the political process, but the bitter fact is that the Taliban do not believe
in elections at all. They want the reinstatement of their Islamic Emirate that
was dissolved by the Americans in 2001. Despite all the military engagement,
the Taliban's strength is growing and the losses of the Western coalition are
increasing," the contact said.
This view is reflected among the Western coalition dealing with Afghanistan, in
that there is a consensus that the US needs to find an exit strategy that would
not leave the Taliban, with or without al-Qaeda, in too strong a position.
There is a belief that the Taliban could be controlled through a dispensation
operated through Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Pakistan.
"This pattern of thinking actually began in August 2007, when Saudi Arabia
decided to tackle the situation from its roots, and that was al-Qaeda," Jamal
Ismail, a senior Arab journalist, told Asia Times Online. Ismail is one of the
few journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders
on several occasions and he has reported on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the
past 30 years.
"Prince Bandar bin Sultan [a former Saudi ambassador to the US] quietly came to
Pakistan and the then [Pervez] Musharraf administration arranged for him to
travel to Miranshah [the tribal headquarters of North Waziristan in Pakistan]," Ismail said.
Asia Times Online has learned that earlier, a message had been sent that he aimed to see Osama bin Laden or Dr
Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, only Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a middle-ranking
al-Qaeda leader, came to see him.
Nonetheless, although the US and Saudi Arabia projected that they would not
deal with the extremist elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, off-the-screen
negotiations began with the real players - Taliban leader Mullah Omar and
In early 2009, the Americans pushed Saudi Arabia to start negotiations with the
Taliban leadership and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz
al-Saud started speaking to Mullah Omar through the Taliban's supreme
commander, Mullah Bradar.
However, after Barack Obama took over the presidency a year ago, Mullah Omar
took it as an affront that on the one hand Washington aimed to engage the
Taliban through Saudi Arabia for peace, while on the other hand it planned to
continue all efforts to defeat the Taliban.
By mid-2009, Prince Muqrin was told point blank that Mullah Omar had decided to
discontinue all communication and negotiations. That was a major setback for
the Obama administration, which could see the rising tide of the Taliban in
Afghanistan and was aiming for a quick political face-saving exit strategy.
After the aborted second round of the Afghan presidential elections in November
last year that resulted in Karzai being re-elected, the US reopened discussions
with the Taliban to get them to stop attacks on government buildings and
installations in Kabul. The US wanted to present this at home as a major
political victory. The Taliban were discussing the issue when Obama announced
the decision to send a further 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.
The Taliban again halted all negotiations and early this year carried out a
major attack on government buildings in the heart of Kabul, near the
Asia Times Online contacts claim that in an effort to get the dialogue process
back on track, the US is considering the Taliban's demand on stopping the troop
surge in Afghanistan, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan lined up to work
out an arrangement that would keep the Taliban and al-Qaeda under control in
any US exit plan.
Should the US agree to the Taliban demands, there is no guarantee that the
Taliban would stick to their word. This is the US's dilemma.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com