Jason Burke / The Observer – 2008-09-28 22:23:44
KABUL (September 29, 2008) — The Taleban have been engaged in secret talks about ending the conflict in Afghanistan in a wide-ranging ‘peace process’ sponsored by Saudi Arabia and supported by Britain, The Observer can reveal.
The unprecedented negotiations involve a senior former member of the hardline Islamist movement traveling between Kabul, the bases of the Taleban senior leadership in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and European capitals. Britain has provided logistic and diplomatic support for the talks — despite official statements that negotiations can be held only with Taleban who are ready to renounce, or have renounced, violence.
Sources in Afghanistan confirmed the controversial talks, though they said that in recent weeks they had ‘lost momentum’. According to Afghan government officials in Kabul, the intensity of the fighting this summer has been one factor. Another is the inconsistency of the Taleban’s demands.
‘They keep changing what they are asking for. One day it is one thing, the next another,’ one Afghan government adviser with knowledge of the negotiations said. One aim of the initiative is to drive a wedge between Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and the Taleban.
Last week the French Prime Minister, François Fillon, referred indirectly to the talks during a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. ‘We must explore ways of separating the international extremists from those who are acting more for nationalist or tribal motives. Efforts in this direction are being led by countries such as Saudi Arabia,’ he said.
This summer’s fighting season in Afghanistan has been the most violent since the invasion of 2001. The deterioration of the situation has provoked a major review of strategy among the 40-nation international coalition pitted against an increasingly confident and effective insurgency.
Although there have been low-level contacts with individual Taleban commanders at district level before, the Saudi initiative is the first attempt to talk to the Taleban leadership council based in or around the south-west Pakistan city of Quetta, known as the ‘Quetta Shura’.
The talks started in the summer and have been brokered by Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Afghan government. The go-between has spent weeks ferrying lists of demands and counter-demands between the Afghan capital, Riyadh and Quetta. He has also visited London to speak to Foreign Office and MI6 personnel. A delegation from Saudi intelligence has also visited Kabul.
The Taleban are understood to have submitted a list of 11 conditions for ending hostilities, which include demands to be allowed to run key ministries and a programmed withdrawal of western troops.
In Kabul, President Hamid Karzai’s national security adviser, Zalmay Rasul, has been in charge of the negotiations. It is understood that Karzai has yet to make a formal response to the demands, leading to frustration among some western officials.
The Observer has also learnt of a separate exchange of letters in the summer between Karzai and the Taleban ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The dialogue proved fruitless.
Late last year Karzai said he would welcome the chance to speak directly to Hekmatyar and to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taleban’s leader and one of the most wanted men in the world, promising that if the Taleban demanded a ‘department in this or in that ministry or … a position as deputy minister’ in exchange for ending violence, he would give them the posts.
Previously Taleban spokesmen have said that only the departure of foreign troops, the institution of a fiercely rigorous interpretation of sharia law and a share of government would be acceptable to them as the basis for any deal.
A Foreign Office spokesman said Saturday that he had no knowledge of the ‘Saudi initiative’, as it is known in diplomatic circles, but that the British government ‘actively supported the Afghan government’s reconciliation process’, which was ‘part and parcel of the counter-insurgency campaign’.
In another development, The Observer has learnt that the British government is considering increasing the length of tours served by troops in Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defense confirmed last week that tours for senior soldiers in key command positions are set to be extended from six months to a year.
‘We are looking at increasing tour lengths for a small number of headquarters posts … with the aim of creating greater continuity in key positions,’ an MoD spokesman said.
Although the MoD denied any plans to extend other service personnel’s combat tours in Afghanistan, the idea of troops deployed to the area serving nine months was raised recently by the army’s director of infantry, Brigadier Richard Dennis, in a speech to senior commanders.
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