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US, Taliban Talks A Strategy U-Turn – OpEd

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By Yusuf Fernandez

US and Afghan sources have confirmed an agreement to open a representative office of the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, as part of a Washington attempt to negotiate a settlement that will put an end to its 10-year war in Afghanistan.

US Vice President Joe Biden told Newsweek magazine that the Taliban “per se is not our enemy” and supported negotiations with the movement in order to create some kind of “unity” government.

On 27 October, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a congressional committee on foreign affairs that any peace process in Afghanistan would have to include the Taliban.

Actually, the negotiations are the result of the US resounding military failure in Afghanistan. They also reflect a major change in the American approach towards seeking a peaceful end to the Afghan conflict.

Shortly before the US invasion of Afghanistan, Washington tried to sell the war as a crusade for democratic and women´s rights and demonized the Taliban. Former US President George W. Bush said that “no nation can negotiate with terrorists.” However, Washington is now clearly prepared to forget all those justifications in its bid to look for a viable exit and secure some of its strategic interests in the region.

The creation of the Doha office was a US choice and is part of an American strategy to move the Taliban away from their backers within the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment and to negotiate a settlement independently of either the Pakistani or the Afghan governments.

The US decision to negotiate with the Taliban is linked to the troop withdrawal timetable. Recently, 10,000 US soldiers abandoned Afghanistan, leaving 91,000 still in the country. Another 23,000 are expected to withdraw by the summer 2012, completing the number of 33,000 troops that Obama sent to the country in December 2009 as a part of a failed “surge” to weaken the Taliban militarily. Although the remaining 65,000 soldiers are supposed to be pulled out by the end of 2014, there are contradictory statements about those plans.

The withdrawal of US troops is taking place amid a continuing increase of resistance to the foreign occupation and growing levels of political violence in the country. Obama is, however, under pressure to present some progress towards a political settlement before a NATO summit that will be held in Chicago in May, less than 6 months before the US presidential election.
For their part, the Taliban have accepted the negotiations. “We are now ready…to have a political office overseas, in order to have an understanding with the international community, and in this regard we have reached an initial understanding with Qatar and relevant sides,” Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement.

The Taliban has consistently maintained that the withdrawal of foreign occupation troops from Afghanistan represents a condition for reaching any political settlement. “The occupation of the country must be ended and Afghans must be allowed to create an Islamic government of their choice,” said Mujahid´s statement. It added that the Taliban has “also asked for the release of the Guantanamo prisoners.” At least five members of the Afghan movement are currently detained in the US military-run camp in Cuba. They include Mullah Fazil Akhund, former chief of army staff; Mullah Nurullah Nuri, a former senior governor in the north, and Mullah Khairullah Khairkhawah, a former interior minister.

The Taliban government ruled Afghanistan until it was toppled by the US invasion of the country in October-November 2001. The movement´s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has been in hiding since then, reportedly in Pakistan. Washington placed a 10 million dollar bounty for any information leading to his capture “dead or alive.”

In the last two years, the Taliban have become an increasingly assertive force. “The Taliban are now dictating terms in Afghanistan, both politically and militarily,” said Paul Burton, Director of Policy of the International Council on Security and Development, a Paris-based research group. They are in control of the vast majority of the country´s provinces (according to Al Jazeera, October 7). The movement controls the east and south and has expanded its activities to other parts of the country.
In 2010, they attacked multiple targets in the heart of Kabul, including the US Embassy and NATO headquarters, the Hotel Intercontinental and the building of the British Council. These attacks were the most spectacular of a long series of operations that generated headlines in the whole world.

Those operations in downtown Kabul persuaded Afghans and foreigners that the Taliban can strike any target in the country, because they have their own agents within the Afghan administration, the army and the police. Attacks on the capital were supposed to have been made impossible by a “ring of stability”, which includes 25 checkpoints around the city that are guarded by 800 officers of a special unit of the Afghan police.

Obama’s decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan to intensify war was erroneous. The Taliban adjusted their strategy on how to fight. They used more mines and IEDs to kill US and NATO troops instead of fighting body to body. But, more importantly, they have begun shooting down officials and skilled professionals that are vital to both the Afghan and the US governments in terms of controlling the country and attracting popular support.

For his part, Karzai, who has been increasingly excluded from the whole process by the Americans, could become the big loser with the negotiations. The Afghan president was clearly outraged when he learned that the Americans and the Taliban had been talking behind his back for months about opening a Taliban office in Qatar. But he had no choice other than accepting the fait accompli. Speaking in Kabul on December 31, he hailed Biden´s statement. “We are happy that the US has announced that the Taliban are not the enemy,” he said. “This will bring peace and stability to the people of Afghanistan.”
Nevertheless, Karzai later said that the Taliban had to agree to a ceasefire before formal peace negotiations could start. His spokesman, Emal Faizi, claimed, “When the talks start, there should be a ceasefire and the violence against the Afghan people should stop.”

However, the Taliban do not respect Karzai’s government and his initiatives. They think that Karzai is an extremely weak leader whose survival solely depends on the presence of foreign troops.

Afghan minorities, which currently hold a large part of the power in the country -especially Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks- also want to be included in the negotiations. The Afghan army is almost exclusively made up by members of these minorities and is hated by Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group from which the Taliban draw their main support. Therefore, their interests are not the same as the Americans’ or Kazai’s.

Recently, the leaders of these minorities attacked the power structure in Kabul as dysfunctional, too centralized and rampantly corrupt and claimed that what Afghanistan needs in the first instance is an inclusive parliamentary form of government -“and not of a presidential system”- that can optimally represent all ethnic and regional interests.

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