In Afghan 'peace talks,” who's doing the talking?

Steven Lee Myers and Mark Mazzetti / New York Times News Service /


Published Jun 26, 2011 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s strategy for gradually ending the war in Afghanistan relies heavily on peace talks with the Taliban. But those talks have hardly begun, and even some administration officials acknowledge that the odds of success are slim.

Among the many reasons: It is not clear that the Taliban want to negotiate, or who even represents the organization. The Afghan president has distanced himself from the talks, raising doubts about whether the country’s leaders would be open to a reprise of Taliban involvement in the political process.

And Pakistan, the vital third leg of negotiations because of its ties to the Taliban, is increasingly a wild card because of recent strains with the United States over the drone assaults on terrorist suspects inside Pakistan.

Obama told soldiers last week that “because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out a political settlement, which ultimately is going to be critical.” So far, however, those signs are hazy at best, according to officials and diplomats.

U.S. officials have participated in three meetings this year with an English-speaking Afghan who was once a personal assistant to the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. Those meetings, in Germany and Qatar, appear to have accomplished little more than confirming the man’s identity, and perhaps not even that.

Adding another layer of complexity to the already murky effort, the English-speaking Afghan, Tayeb Agha, who was an aide to Omar during the Taliban’s rise to power, was arrested by Pakistani authorities last year and then released, leading U.S. officials to assume that he is negotiating on behalf of the Taliban with the blessings of the Pakistani authorities.

“We’re at that stage where it’s very confusing,” one senior administration official said, adding that the meetings could not even be called “talks” at this stage, let alone “peace talks.”

The wariness in part reflects the fact that the administration has been badly embarrassed by previous diplomatic efforts. An Afghan was given substantial sums of cash last year and was flown on a NATO aircraft in the belief that he was a Taliban envoy — but he was an imposter.

Even so, the renewed diplomatic push signals a significant shift in Obama’s strategy since he came to office in 2009 and increased U.S. forces in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000 troops, from 34,000, in an effort to crush a resurgent Taliban insurgency.

While the military has secured parts of the country and bolstered the Afghan government’s security forces, the administration now recognizes that a final U.S. withdrawal depends on a political settlement with the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement equated closely with the ideology of al-Qaida. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were orchestrated by al-Qaida under the Taliban’s protection.

The administration has imposed significant conditions for any reconciliation. The Taliban’s leaders must disarm, sever ties with al-Qaida’s remaining leadership, recognize the Afghan government and accept the country’s constitution, including basic rights for women, who were severely repressed when the Taliban governed here in the 1990s.

It is uncertain whether the Taliban or even parts of their leadership are willing to accept such conditions, and many experts are deeply skeptical.

“There really can’t be a deal on the core red lines, because that’s what red lines are,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said of the conditions, using the diplomatic term for nonnegotiable demands.

Another step to entice the Taliban into the political process occurred recently when the United States won approval at the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that separated the Taliban from al-Qaida on the terrorist blacklist that was the basis for international sanctions after 9/11.

The resolution creates a process for removing Taliban leaders from the list, including some who have already broken with the movement and joined President Hamid Karzai’s government. U.S. officials hope the prospect of being freed from sanctions will encourage others to change sides.

Some have questioned the wisdom of the administration’s new strategy. “I don’t think it’s productive to talk to the Taliban to begin with because they have every incentive to have us leave,” said Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University who was an assistant to the late special envoy Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to the region.

Another question, he and others noted, is Karzai’s commitment to the process. Last week, he acknowledged the talks but said the United States, not his government, was leading them. He went on to angrily criticize the international military operation that brought him to power.