Push to negotiate with the Taliban will begin Monday

Reply Mon 27 Oct, 2008 10:23 am
Posted on Sunday, October 26, 2008
Push to negotiate with the Taliban will begin Monday
By Saeed Shah | McClatchy Newspapers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan " A major push to open negotiations with the Taliban on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border will begin Monday at a summit of leading political figures from the two countries, as the U.S.-backed governments in Kabul and Islamabad face a mounting threat from Islamic extremists.

Pakistani Taliban, based in the country's tribal border area with Afghanistan, have joined the battle in Afghanistan and also taken on Islamabad. Nevertheless, the assembly of 50 people, called a jirga, which will meet for two days in Islamabad with the backing of both governments, is likely to question the continued presence of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, a participant and a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, said it's impossible to deal with the Taliban while Western forces remain in Afghanistan. He also said that the Kabul and Islamabad governments must drop their insistence that they'll negotiate only with Taliban who've disarmed.

"You talk to people who have taken up arms and are battling you; you just can't be an escapist and say only those willing to lay down their arms," said Mohmand. "In the Afghanistan and tribal areas context, it is ridiculous. People don't lay down their arms in this culture."

The Bush administration is divided about the wisdom of trying to negotiate with the Taliban and also about the idea that more moderate Taliban can be drawn away from their extremist colleagues.

While some officials, particularly in the White House, think negotiations are a trap, Defense Secretary Bob Gates and some military officers have encouraged talks, and some military commanders in Afghanistan, led by the British, have said that they cannot defeat the Taliban on the battlefield.

"These problems are, in the ultimate analysis political problems," said Afrasiab Khattak, a delegate and the "peace envoy" of the administration in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan. "Political problems do not have military solutions."

Khattak, however, warned against a hasty retreat from Afghanistan.

"The Western countries cannot afford to withdraw just like that, because the war will go to them," he said. "The choice is either fight in Helmand or Paris, fight in Kandahar or New York."

This year has been the most violent in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban regime. Signs that Western will may be collapsing have panicked many Afghans, who fear that the international community is about to abandon them once again, as it did after the Soviets withdrew from the country in 1989.

"It looks like NATO just wants to find a quick solution, so they can declare victory and leave Afghanistan," Haroun Mir, the deputy director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul.

Mir said that the Taliban have been transformed from the nationalist zealots who seized power in Afghanistan in the mid-90s into global jihadists under the influence of al Qaida, and would use negotiations to buy time to re-group.

"They (Pakistani and Afghan governments) think that if they engage with the Taliban, they can isolate al Qaida. This is a big mistake," Mir said. "The new generation of Taliban makes no distinction between themselves and al Qaida."
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Reply Mon 27 Oct, 2008 10:51 am
Tea With the Taliban?
By David Ignatius
Washington Post
Sunday, October 26, 2008; B07

As U.S. and European officials ponder what to do about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, they are coming to a perhaps surprising conclusion: The simplest way to stabilize the country may be to negotiate a truce with the Taliban fundamentalists who were driven from power by the United States in 2001.

The question policymakers are pondering, in fact, isn't whether to negotiate with the Taliban but when. There's a widespread view among Bush administration officials and U.S. military commanders that it's too soon for serious talks, because any negotiation now would be from a position of weakness. Some argue for a U.S. troop buildup and an aggressive military campaign next year to secure Afghan population centers, followed by negotiations.

How the worm turns: A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States would consider any rapprochement with the Taliban militants who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden as he planned the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the painful experience of Iraq and Afghanistan has convinced many U.S. commanders that if you can take an enemy off the battlefield through negotiations, that's better than getting pinned down in protracted combat.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the argument for negotiations with the Taliban bluntly on Oct. 9, during a meeting in Budapest with NATO allies who are wearying of the conflict. "There has to be ultimately -- and I'll underscore ultimately -- reconciliation as part of a political outcome to this," Gates told reporters. "That's ultimately the exit strategy for all of us."

Gen. David Petraeus, the new Centcom commander who has overall responsibility for the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has made similar arguments. He believes that the United States must work to separate the "reconcilables" among the Taliban from those who are allied with al-Qaeda, and draw the moderates into the government. Petraeus successfully pursued that strategy with Sunni Muslim insurgents in Iraq -- encouraging them to break with al-Qaeda and then forming alliances with them.

Petraeus believes that an effort to co-opt the Afghan insurgency should probably be accompanied by a stronger U.S. troop presence, just as it was in Iraq. But he argues that it's a mistake to think that there's a purely military solution in either country. "You can't kill or capture your way out of this," he explains.

A move to negotiate with the Taliban is already underway, perhaps prematurely, thanks to a quiet diplomatic push by Saudi Arabia. Late last month, at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Saudi King Abdullah met in Mecca with representatives of the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, who was represented in Mecca by his brother Qayoum Karzai, supported the Saudi mediation. "We're at the very early stages now, but we do have hope for the future," Qayoum Karzai told Agence France-Presse after the talks ended.

President Karzai is said to have demanded that the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, publicly renounce bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a condition for further talks. A Taliban representative took this demand to Mullah Omar in his hideout in Afghanistan and returned to Mecca with a positive answer, according to a source familiar with the talks.

Mullah Omar has sent the Saudis a list of seven demands of his own, according to this source. Among the items on the Taliban agenda are a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan; a role for Taliban representatives in provincial and national government; assimilation of Taliban fighters into the Afghan army; and amnesty for guerrillas who fought against the United States.

The Saudis have proposed a second round of discussions in Mecca in early December, when the hajj pilgrimage season begins. U.S. officials are said to be skeptical that anything useful will come from the exercise, but France and Britain -- increasingly worried about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan -- appear to be encouraging the Saudi effort. Some Pakistani government and army leaders are also supportive.

It would be political suicide for Barack Obama or John McCain to suggest that America reach an accommodation with Taliban fighters who once aided al-Qaeda. But Gates notes that we reached just such an accord in Iraq with Sunni insurgents who had the blood of Americans on their hands. "At the end of the day, that's how most wars end," he said.
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