Debate in Afghanistan: Can negotiations with Taliban succeed?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 11, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Now that the Obama administration has embraced the idea that U.S.-backed government in Kabul should open negotiations with moderate Taliban commanders, debate rages in Afghanistan over whether the time is right and any deal can be reached.

Arsala Rahmani, an influential Muslim cleric from violence-wracked Paktika Province, says he has a plan and believes he would make the perfect go-between.

"The Taliban don't have any trust in the Afghan government or the international community," the said in a recent interview. "The treatment for the disease is to create confidence."

Rahmani would appear to have the right resume.

Now a leading senator in the Afghan upper house, he has been on all sides of the nation's four decades of strife: He led guerrillas against the 1979-89 Soviet occupiers, was deputy prime minister in the first post-communist government and held top posts in the Taliban regime, including acting religious affairs minister.

"Negotiations with the Taliban are possible," said Rahmani, who joined other former senior Taliban in Saudi Arabia last year to discuss a way forward with senior Saudi officials whose government was once a patron of the Islamic militia.

President Barak Obama broached the possibility of talks with moderate Taliban in an interview with the New York Times published on Sunday, and Vice President Joe Biden repeated the idea Tuesday at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

"I do think it's worth engaging and determining whether or not there are those who are willing to participate in a secure and stable Afghan state," Biden told reporters.

The premise underlying negotiations is that the insurgency can be short-circuited by splitting commanders who are fighting because of grievances like the civilian deaths in U.S. military operations away from true believers loyal to Taliban founder and Osama bin Laden ally, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Other experts have serious doubts. They say Omar and the leaders of associated militant groups believe that President Hamid Karzai's government has lost popular support and they are winning against U.S.-led military forces. So long as they are of that view, there can be no peace, these experts say.

"Afghanistan was created by God for this kind of guerrilla fighting. It has high mountains and long valleys and narrow trails," said Wahid Mughzdah, a former anti-Soviet fighter-turned-political analyst who worked in the Foreign Ministry during the former Taliban regime. "Al Qaida and the Taliban understand that America doesn't have a chance of success in this country."

Further, he said, the Taliban are no longer only concerned with imposing Islamic rule on Afghanistan, but have adopted al Qaida's aim of staging Islamist revolutions throughout Asia and the Middle East.

Moreover, he and other experts said, negotiations cannot succeed without the assent of Omar's ideological allies in Pakistan, where he is widely believed to have sanctuary. These include current and former officials of the military's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

Experts said they could not imagine an accommodation between Omar, who seeks to re-impose harsh Islamic rule on Afghanistan, and Afghans who have embraced democracy and spurned a return to an era of repression in which female education, the employment of women, music and television were banned.

Yet others insisted that with most Afghans grown weary of four decades of war and poverty, the groundwork should be laid for eventual talks.

Abdul Salam, a former Taliban commander who acquired the nom de guerre of Mullah Rocketi because of his proficiency with rockets, said the government must drop its refusal to talk with Taliban leaders who are on a blacklist, and Omar must end his demand for the departure of foreign troops.

"If they wanted, there could be negotiations," said Salam, a leading member of Parliament.

Rahmani agreed but said the governments in Kabul and Washington must be prepared to discuss amnesty for Taliban leaders, an end to house searches by U.S.-led NATO troops and the status of detainees, including those held in U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan.

The Taliban would have to halt the destruction of schools and infrastructure and attacks on government officials like teachers, he said. He also said the insurgents would have to drop a demand for a withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces, and renounce links with al Qaida.

"The Afghan Taliban are not al Qaida," he said. "They should have the confidence that Afghanistan is their country, Afghanistan is their homeland and they have the right to live in their country."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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