Path To Afghan Peace Seen In Compromise

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Baltimore Sun
May 20, 2007
Officials want to reach out to Taliban; U.S. stands opposed
By Kim Barker, Chicago Tribune
KABUL, Afghanistan--A year ago, Mohammad Tariq and nine of his friends drove from Pakistan to Afghanistan and joined the jihad.
The young Taliban recruits met with local commanders in southern Helmand province, the heart of the Taliban-led insurgency against the U.S.-backed government. There the men learned their fate.
"The leaders told us we would be suicide bombers," said Tariq, now 21. "I thought about it. Then I thought, 'Why should I kill myself for you?'"
Five men stayed. But within days, Tariq and four friends gave up their dreams of jihad and drove back to Pakistan. And last month, Tariq, a one-time Taliban foot soldier and former Afghan refugee, decided to join the government he once opposed. He sat in a room in Kabul with 40 other former insurgents and swore allegiance to the fledgling Afghan government, joining about 3,700 one-time insurgents who have signed up with the Afghan reconciliation program since it started two years ago.
Now some government officials want to broaden this program and negotiate directly with the Taliban, which is mounting its most serious challenge since being forced out of power in late 2001. The idea of negotiation is also gaining support among Afghans who are frustrated with the continued fighting and with international troops who are increasingly accused of causing large numbers of civilian casualties.
This month, the upper house of the Afghan parliament voted to hold direct talks with the Taliban and other insurgents, while urging foreign and Afghan troops to stop hunting for militants. This vote shows how some Afghans are leaning - toward compromise with insurgents and away from foreign troops. This bodes poorly for NATO unless complaints of civilian casualties decrease drastically, experts say.
"The only way to find peace in this country is to sit with each other and negotiate with each other," said Mohammad Akram, second in charge of the nation's reconciliation program.
But to the outside world, the cost of negotiation is much higher. The Taliban are considered to be a terrorist group by the United States, Afghanistan's biggest supporter, and the Americans will not negotiate with terrorist groups. The Taliban also have ties with al-Qaida.
U.S. officials support the reconciliation commission used by Taliban dropouts such as Tariq. Officials do not, however, support negotiation or direct talks.
Ronald Neumann, who until March was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said Wednesday that the Taliban could negotiate if they wanted to do so. But "it is not going to negotiate its way into power," he said.
It's not clear what bargaining chip Afghan officials are willing to trade. Taliban leaders have so far said they will only negotiate if foreign forces leave Afghanistan. And other concessions they want seem equally unlikely.
"We don't want the government of Kabul to give us a nice house in a nice neighborhood in Kabul, some money and some personal comfort," said Zabiullah Mujaheed, a purported Taliban spokesman. "It doesn't mean anything for us. We have bigger targets: Islam and a true Islamic government."
Taliban leaders also say they do not want to negotiate with President Hamid Karzai because he is seen as a puppet of foreigners. Even former Taliban feel that way. "When Karzai became president of Afghanistan, I hated his face because he followed foreigners," said former Taliban member Azizullah, 22, who like many Afghans uses one name.
But despite such hurdles, for the first time, momentum is building for negotiations, largely because nothing else has worked and because security keeps worsening, especially in the country's troubled south.
In January, Karzai said his government would be open to peace talks with the Taliban. Several weeks later, he hired a new chief of staff known for helping the United Nations negotiate deals with the Taliban regime when it held power.
In March, the lower house of the country's parliament passed a controversial bill to encourage all former warring factions, including the Taliban, to join in national reconciliation. In return, they would be immune from prosecution for earlier atrocities.
In April, Karzai spoke openly about the discussions he had been having with the Taliban. "We have had representatives from the Taliban meeting with different bodies of Afghan government for a long time," Karzai said at a news conference, refusing to give details. "I have had some Taliban coming to speak to me as well."
And on May 10, the Afghan Senate voted to hold direct talks with the Taliban and other insurgents - and demanded that international troops stop hunting and destroying militants, largely because of complaints of civilian casualties. The bill would have to be approved by Karzai and the more independent lower house.
On that day, 21 civilians were reported killed in NATO airstrikes.
The Senate president, Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, a close Karzai ally, is also in charge of the reconciliation commission. At the reconciliation ceremony last month, he seemed more sympathetic to the Taliban than to foreign troops, saying that a senior Taliban leader had been "martyred" by U.S. troops.