Lessons from my talks with the Taliban

By Anatol Lieven

To judge by discussions I had with figures close to the Afghan Taliban in Dubai last week, on certain key issues the Taliban leadership and the US administration are far closer than most analysts believe. The chief obstacle to a peace settlement is likely to come not from Taliban links to al-Qaeda but rather from the question of how to divide up power within Afghanistan.

My colleagues and I spoke with four people: two former members of the Taliban government (one of them a founder member of the movement), a senior former Mujahedin commander with close ties to the Taliban, and a non-official Afghan mediator with the Taliban. All emphasised the realism of the Taliban leadership, born of their experiences of the past decade, and their willingness to break with al-Qaeda and exclude it and other international terrorist groups from areas under their control.

All said that Taliban commanders and fighters would accept such an order if it came from Mullah Omar. A former Taliban minister said that reports of a continued presence of al-Qaeda elements could be referred to a joint commission of Isaf, the Taliban and the Afghan government, which would verify the reports and decide what action to take.
Such action might even be taken by US troops within Afghanistan. For perhaps the most striking thing to emerge from our discussions was that three of our four interviewees said the Taliban would consider agreeing to US bases and military advisers in Afghanistan after 2014 – something that contradicts every previous Taliban statement.

However, all our interviewees emphasised that the Taliban would only agree to this as part of an overall peace settlement and that they “will never accept anything that looks like surrender”. They also all said the Taliban would be willing to commit to continuing existing health and education programmes, including for women, as long as separation of men and women was guaranteed.

This new pragmatism includes acceptance of the present Afghan constitution. All our interlocutors said the Taliban had no serious problem with the constitution as such – but would never agree to it as a precondition of talks, as hitherto demanded by Washington. They expect the constitution to be debated and approved as part of a national debate including themselves.

All this is very encouraging. However, it reflects something else, which is essential for a settlement, but much more problematic. The Taliban like the present, highly centralised constitution because they want a strong central government in which they will play a leading part. They do not expect this to be an exclusive part. Three interviewees said the Taliban knew they could not govern without other forces’ participation, and that government must include educated technocrats. They want a strong national army – even one trained by the US – to hold Afghanistan together, prevent a return to warlord rule and deter interference by neighbours.

But with whom would the Taliban be willing to share power? Our interviewees said that the Taliban recognised the need to guarantee a share of power to other groups from the existing regime, but were vague on which those groups might be. All said that particular “very corrupt and brutal people” would be utterly unacceptable, but that others, less compromised, could take part.

Above all, they stressed the Taliban will never accept Hamid Karzai as a legitimate interlocutor, or participate in a grand national assembly or national elections while he is president. They fear – with good reason, given his record – that he would rig these processes.

So this apparent new pragmatism leaves two huge questions open. The first is whether the Taliban could possibly agree to the US using bases in Afghanistan to continue drone attacks and raids against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such an agreement would outrage many Pashtuns and give Pakistan a strong motive to wreck any peace settlement through its allies in the Haqqani network; while our interviewees stressed the Taliban’s obedience to Mullah Omar and his comrades, they were studiously evasive about the Haqqanis.

The second question is whether, or how, Washington could agree to force its existing Afghan allies to accept a deal with the Taliban that would exclude many of them from power. Would a promise of luxurious retirement to the US or the Gulf be enough to persuade them?

Above all, any settlement will end the rule of Mr Karzai and his clan. An agreement on this between Washington and the Taliban is not impossible, given the contempt for Mr Karzai felt by many leading US officials and soldiers. Many in Washington oppose the idea of him trying to arrange a succession to the presidency for a family member.

So there seems real room for agreement on a caretaker government of neutral figures to supervise constitutional discussions leading to elections. But with the next elections due in 2014, there is not much time to lose. As soon as the US presidential elections are over, Washington should do its best to open substantial talks with the Taliban and find out whether what we heard in Dubai really does represent their position and can be the basis for peace.

The writer is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London. His latest book is ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’

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