By Mina Habib
While the Afghanistan authorities and their international allies now agree that talking to the Taleban is essential, they are not quite on the same page.
The latest example of frictions over who should lead the talks process came when news emerged this week that the Taleban had agreed to open an office in Qatar to serve as a point of contact for negotiations.
The Afghan government clearly felt it was being sidelined from the peace process, and recalled its ambassador from Qatar for “consultations”, to mark its unhappiness.
However, it reined in its anger and tried to show it was unconcerned.
President Hamed Karzai said he had consulted with senior figures and agreed that a Taleban office was needed to facilitate peace negotiations.
Government spokesman Siamak Herawi told IWPR in a telephonic conversation that the authorities merely wanted the peace process to be owned and coordinated by Afghans.
“The Afghan government is not opposed to opening an office for the Taleban, but we would prefer it to be located in either Turkey or Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The Qatar option has been under negotiation for two years, and agreement was reached around the time of the second Bonn conference, held on December 5 this year to plan for the future beyond the United States troop withdrawal in 2014. The meeting concluded that peace talks with insurgent groups should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. (See Afghans Unenthused by Bonn Conference.)
Negotiations on the office in Doha, the capital of Qatar, involved United States, Qatari, German and Taleban representatives, so it is understandable that Kabul felt left out.
The US has been holding its own quiet negotiations with the insurgents for at least a year. One round of talks took place in November 2010 in Munich, and a second in Qatar in July 2011.
Vulnerable to accusations that it is trading sovereignty for the security its western allies have provided it with, the Afghan government has always been unsettled by anything it sees as unilateral action by its American allies. Military strikes in which civilians die, and search-and-arrest operations seen as over-aggressive, have proved major irritants in relations.
Following on from the separate talks conducted by US officials, the announcement that the Taleban were opening up shop in Doha caused consternation among Afghans, including political opponents of Karzai.
“For foreigners to establish a political office for the Taleban is an obvious act of outside interference in this country’s domestic affairs,” said Ahmad Shah Behzad, the deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament, which consistently clashes with Karzai. “The establishment of such an office can be viewed as a form of support for terrorism.”
Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, spokesman for the opposition Coalition for Change and Hope, said reconciliation was a good thing, but not at any price.
“Talks of any kind with the Taleban should take place inside Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the insurgents delegate could travel there with confidence since “they have sent emissaries to Kabul several times”.
Sancharaki acknowledged that the talks process was at an early stage, and suggested that the Americans might simply be trying to probe the Taleban to identify weaknesses and possible divisions in their ranks.
“The US has not yet confirmed the contacts. It has not backed the creation of such an office yet. Besides, until the Taleban clarify their position on this matter, any kind of judgement will be premature,” he said.
But he warned, “If the Americans sacrifice all the achievements for a Taleban-like stability, it will do great damage to their image in the world.”
Political analyst Abdol Ghafur Lewal expressed suspicions about the Americans’ intentions in pursuing peace talks along a separate track.
“Afghans do not want the gains they have made to be sacrificed for deals between the Americans and the Taleban….It is possible they [the Americans] might trade away those achievements,” he said. “They are trying to clinch a deal with the Taleban to secure peace and get America out of the war.”
Lewal said that if talks were to be held, it was essential that the Afghan government was at the centre of them
“Every negotiation and contact is a positive step towards ensuring peace, and the Afghan people prefer the logic of talks over war,” he said, “but if such talks take place without the Afghan government being aware of them, they could do irreversible damage.”
Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar is a member of the High Peace Council, which Karzai has tasked with negotiating with insurgent groups, and insists this body should manage all talks.
“It has been accepted that the process is an Afghan process, owned by the Afghans…, not foreigners. We will be seriously concerned if this principle is violated,” he said.
In September, the High Peace Council’s chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated by a suicide bomber. (See Rabbani Killing Casts Doubt on Afghan Peace Efforts.)
Those with long memories recall the last days of the Soviet-backed regime in the late 1980s, arguing that attempts to reach a settlement with mujahedin groups failed because the talks were led by the Russians, rather than the then government of President Najibullah.
“The results of that mistake, that calamity still cause us pain,” Lewal said.
Others point out that the real unknown is how seriously the Taleban are about concluding a peace deal. They note that the central Taleban demand remains the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.
“The Taleban have the same old position,” political analyst Wahid Mozhda said. “They won’t be reconciled with the Americans, and they won’t negotiate with the Afghan government, because they see it as a puppet. The [Qatar] office will thus be purely symbolic until their position becomes clearer.”
Mozhda recalled a Taleban statement earlier this year, which said, “We are not without an address – our address is the frontlines of war where the Americans are present.”
IWPR contacted a Taleban spokesman, Zabihollah Mojahed, by phone, but he said he was unable to comment because he had not received any instructions about these issues.
Ordinary Afghans continue to worry that assuming some kind of peace deal is reached, the insurgents will extract so many concessions that Afghanistan turns into a different kind of place in which the hard-won improvements and civil liberties of the last decade are eroded.
“If establishing an office for the Taleban leads to the loss of our social liberties, we will not agree to the government negotiating with the Taleban,” Wahid, a young bank employee in Kabul said.
Shahla, a female high school pupil in the capital, added her concerns about the future role of women, saying, “We are happy for peace to be secured, but the price must not include depriving us of the right to study and work, or violating all our rights.”
Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul. This article was published at IWPR’s ARR Issue 418.