KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan won't offer a share in the government to Taliban insurgents in return for a peace deal, and they'll have to lay down their arms and contest elections to gain power, a top aide to President Hamid Karzai declared in an interview.
National security adviser Rangeen Dadfar Spanta told McClatchy that no changes to the Afghan Constitution will be used to entice the Taliban into a negotiated settlement.
"Power-sharing as a condition for making peace is not acceptable to us. Because we have an elected parliament; we have an elected president. All three powers of the state in Afghanistan (have come about) through democratic processes. The Taliban, if they want to join power or win power, they have to take part in the democratic processes," Spanta said.
Spanta also said that Afghans must be able to take over all counter-terrorism operations by the end of 2014, but he noted that peace in the country was possible only if neighboring Pakistan wanted it.
The statement by Karzai's national security adviser quashed speculation that as part of a peace accord, the extremist movement would be given ministries and provincial governorships and the Afghan Constitution would be modified to allow the dominance of religious law. Late last year, Karzai formed a High Peace Council, made up of parliamentarians, officials and former warlords, to pursue a "reconciliation" deal with the Taliban.
While the U.S. strategy is to fight the Taliban, U.S. civilian and military officials have said consistently that the war can only end through a political settlement. However, the U.S. is wary of the Taliban's links with al Qaida.
Spanta said the government would offer amnesty to the Taliban but little more.
"Categorically I can tell you, no changes to Afghan Constitution. Everybody who makes peace with us has to accept Afghan Constitution," Spanta said. "We're offering them (Taliban) peace, security, a better future for Afghanistan and themselves."
Spanta, an experienced former foreign minister who's in the hawkish camp in Kabul on talks with the Taliban, said Afghans needed to be fighting at the same time they discussed reconciliation: "In one hand the sword, and the other hand Quran" for peace.
Pakistan and the Taliban both think that the current aggressive push by U.S.-led coalition forces must halt before serious peace negotiations can begin.
Spanta acknowledged that progress on political reconciliation was "rudimentary."
"There is no real discussion or negotiation with the leadership of Taliban, just some contact between our people and Taliban. And we don't know if this contact has the backing of the (Taliban) leadership or not," he said.
Coalition forces and the Afghan government have had a hard time finding senior Taliban figures who are willing to enter into discussions. It's unclear whether the insurgents aren't interested in a peace deal, fear surfacing for talks because of the risk of arrest or think they can't negotiate because their leaders are essentially being held captive by Pakistan, where they're hiding.
One possible channel of communication between the Taliban and Kabul — the movement's deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — was eliminated early last year when Pakistan arrested him. A more recent interlocutor, whom coalition forces promoted to Kabul, turned out to be a fake.
The Taliban movement is run by a leadership council known as the Quetta Shura — led by Mullah Mohammed Omar — which is thought to have operated from Pakistan since the toppling of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001. U.S. officials say the Pakistani military tolerates and supports its presence, a charge that Islamabad denies.
The insurgent leadership had been based in the western Pakistani city of Quetta, close to the Afghan border. However, Spanta said the" big, relevant part" of the Quetta Shura was now in Karachi, the teeming port city in the south of Pakistan, confirming reports that it's now more accurately described as the Karachi Shura.
It's possible to bring what Spanta called "simple countryside" Taliban back into mainstream Afghan society, he said, as they were motivated by the presence of foreign troops or bad governance. However, he said the "strong part" of the leadership was dependent on al Qaida or "state entities" for sanctuary, logistics and financing.
Spanta said Pakistan provided a haven to the Taliban as well as financial resources, training and a constant stream of indoctrinated recruits from the country's Islamic schools.
"Without Pakistan, we cannot win the big part of the leadership of Taliban," Spanta said. "We need frank, strong and open cooperation from the Pakistani establishment (military). ... You can never defeat a guerrilla war without destroying the backyard, without destroying the sanctuaries, without destroying the ideological production."
Spanta said Afghanistan opposed an enduring U.S. military presence in the country and that operations must begin to come under Afghan control this year, even if the security situation deteriorated. He said Afghans also must control development and humanitarian aid money. At the end of 2014 the international community's role must be reduced mainly to military training, he said, along with reconstruction assistance.
"Anti-terrorism operations have to be by Afghans and only by Afghans (by end 2014), Afghan-led and Afghan-implemented. If we cannot do that, that means we do not deserve to be free," Spanta said. "We must defend our country against terrorism, Taliban, al Qaida. And find in the middle of 2014 peace or a better situation or better cooperation with Pakistan. Or we don't deserve to rule, to be in the government of this country."
The international coalition set 2014 as the year to end combat operations and hand over security to Afghan forces, which are being trained and expanded, though many U.S. military officers remain skeptical of their capability. Vice President Joe Biden recently suggested that U.S. soldiers could stay on beyond 2014 if Afghanistan needed them.
Spanta said "some (U.S.) bases, small, limited, which are not in contradiction to Afghan sovereignty" could remain after 2014. Washington is thought to want to retain a counter-terrorism capability in Afghanistan after the current counterinsurgency mission ends.
The current U.S. military strategy centers on a massive offensive in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, in the Taliban heartland, that began last summer. Spanta said advances in Helmand had been "remarkable," and that the situation across the country was much better since the second half of 2010. However, he warned that part of the improvement could be due to the usual winter lull in the insurgency.
"The question is are these achievements sustainable? What will happen next summer there? This question is open," Spanta said. "Let us wait until summer, spring (2011), to be sure which percentage is down to a seasonal role and which part belongs to our success in the south. Let us wait."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY