AN ATOL EXCLUSIVE Taliban and US get down to talks
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - United States President Barack Obama has pledged to begin
withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011, and as a part of the initial
outlines of this exit strategy the Taliban are for the first time in serious
negotiations with the US.
The Pakistan military and Saudi Arabia are acting as go-betweens to facilitate
the talks, a top Pakistani security official directly involved in the
negotiation process has told Asia Times Online.
According to the official, the Pakistan army has already been in contact with
top Taliban commanders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani. Information is then
passed onto the Saudis, who in turn
liaise with the Americans.
At this stage, no direct contact has been made with Taliban leader Mullah Omar,
although he characteristically does not involve himself personally in such
talks; they are handled by close associates.
The security official indicated, however, that unlike in the past nine years
since the ouster of the Taliban and the US-led anti-insurgency operations in
Afghanistan, Mullah Omar has shown a positive and flexible attitude.
The Taliban have previously insisted that all foreign troops - currently
numbered at 150,000 - leave Afghanistan before any peace talks could begin.
Separately, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has set up a High Peace Council to
facilitate talks with Taliban leaders.
The initial talks have covered two main areas - the issue of about 60
Pakistanis in the US's Guantanamo detention facility, and al-Qaeda.
"A delegation of Pakistani officials will soon visit the Guantanamo Bay prison
to personally interview the Pakistani prisoners. [Their release] would be a
goodwill gesture from the American side, and also set the stage for
negotiations between the Taliban and Washington," the Pakistani official told
Another element touched on in the talks is the American demand that it maintain
a military presence in northern Afghanistan, while agreeing to give control of
the south to the Taliban. The Taliban do not agree with this - they want a
complete US withdrawal. This remains a point of major disagreement.
The al-Qaeda factor
A key problem remains al-Qaeda - the US has no interest in any deals with the
group and wants to specifically separate the Taliban from al-Qaeda.
The US has always insisted that any future Taliban government would have to
expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. The Taliban agree on this, but want al-Qaeda
to be given "honorable treatment". It was the presence of Osama bin Laden and
his al-Qaeda in Afghanistan that led the US to invade the country in late 2001
in retaliation for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
On its part, al-Qaeda, armed with new allies, has its own agenda regardless of
whether the Taliban make peace with Washington or continue their war.
Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, is fully cognizant of the
sensitivities of the issue. The army does not want to shove anything under the
rug, it aims to address every issue so that when more advanced negotiations
begin with the Taliban, all irritants will have been resolved.
The Pakistani military has established a system of backchannel communications
in which issues are discussed with Taliban leaders. Notes are then shared with
Washington and Riyadh simultaneously. In this process, Saudi Arabia plays a
In view of the al-Qaeda problem - which has the potential to derail any peace
efforts - Kiani recently went to Riyadh and spent five days in discussions with
King Abdullah, intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz and other
officials. The central theme was how to rehabilitate bin Laden and other Saudi
citizens, beside arranging refugee status for other al-Qaeda members. Bin Laden
was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in the 1990s.
The director general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant
General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, was sent to Washington regarding a proposal for
al-Qaeda to shift from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qaeda's struggle is entering a decisive phase, one in which it does not
necessarily need the protection and support of the Taliban - unlike in 2002,
when al-Qaeda was badly beaten as a result of US attacks and reduced to a few
thousand members in a rag-tag militia. It had also lost a number of leaders in
the "war on terror", either killed or arrested by Pakistan from 2002 onwards.
Since then, the organization has revived its fortunes, from the Caucasus to the
Pakistani tribal areas, from India to Iraq and Somalia.
In Afghanistan, the southwest is controlled by Mullah Omar's Kandahari clan,
while the southeast is completely under the command of pro-al-Qaeda commanders
such as Qari Ziaur Rahman and Sirajuddin Haqqani. Their forces include
thousands of non-Pashtun linked with the anti-Iran Jundallah and the powerful
313 Brigade of Ilyas Kashmiri. They also draw support from the
Laskhar-e-Jhangvi and last but not least the Pashtun Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan
Recently, al-Qaeda launched Chechen and Uzbek fighters from the Pakistani
tribal areas back into the Central Asian republics and Russia. In the latest
attack, on Thursday, 18 people were killed and more than a hundred injured in a
suicide bombing in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz.
Under the command structure of Laskhar al-Zil, a shadowy army comprising
various al-Qaeda-linked groups, al-Qaeda is reasserting itself in Iraq, Yemen
and Somalia, and at the same time planning to open up a new and constant front
According to ATol contacts in the militant camp, al-Qaeda has no objection if
the Taliban strike a deal with Washington that paves the way for an American
withdrawal from Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda would simply leave Afghanistan and jack
up its operations in Pakistan and India. Al-Qaeda has already escalated attacks
in Pakistan to create space for itself.
In the past few weeks, al-Qaeda-linked groups like Tariq Afridi have struck
deals with local warlord Mangal Bagh to target major cities in restive Khyber
Pakhtoonkhwa province, including Kohat and the capital Peshawar.
Commander Badr Mansoor has been tasked to increase activities in cities near
the tribal areas, including Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu and Lucky Marwat. Sabir
Mehsud of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has been asked to escalate attacks in the main
urban centers of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and Quetta, while commander Bin
Yameen has been ordered to mobilize cadre in the Swat Valley.
While the Taliban-Washington dialogue process is in its early stage, al-Qaeda
is well on the way to setting up an infrastructure to prove that it - not any
state, army or the Taliban - is the real player of the upcoming game.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org