Five mullahs hold the key in Afghan peace talks

By Syed Nazakat inDelhi 

When US President Barack Obama’s revealed his plan to start phased pull out of American troops, begging with 30,000 troops, fromAfghanistanhe knew that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement.  So as theUStroops start moving out fromAfghanistanafter ten years, the focus has shifted from battleground surge to the beginning of a search for negotiation with Taliban. Obama’s war advisers previously made it clear that the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, must lead any high-level peace or “reconciliation” process involving Taliban leaders, and, since 2008, Karzai has carried out sporadic talks with current and former Taliban, occasionally aided bySaudi Arabia, but to no end. Now theUSadministration wants to establish direct talks with Taliban. At the centre of US President Barack Obama’s plan to have an honourable exit from Afghanistan are five key figures—former Taliban commanders Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi, Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mullah Tayeb Agha. Obama’s war advisers have been talking to them in an effort to shift the focus from the battleground to negotiation. 


Zaeef, a co-founder of the Taliban, has in recent months received American and European diplomats at his home inKabul’s Pashtun-dominated Khush-Haal neighbourhood. Unlike other Taliban commanders who defected after the US-led forces swept Afghanistan, Zaeef still has credibility with the Taliban fighters and his views are said to reflect those of the Taliban leadership. “There are many foreign dignitaries who have asked my opinion and advice,” Zaeef told THE WEEK on phone. “I told them, ‘If you are sincere, we can end the war without further bloodshed’.”

The peace initiative has also made Mullah Abdul Salam Roketi, a former Taliban military chief of Jalalabad and close aide of Taliban chief Mullah Omar, a central figure. Though Mulah Omar disliked him for his surrender before the foreign troops, but his close connections with the Afghan government inKabulmay facilitate the talks. A former Taliban military commander, Mullah Rocketi renounced his former allegiance to run for the Presidency in 2009. During a rare interview with this correspondent in his heavily-fortified house inKabulin 2009, Rocketi had defended the fight of Taliban against theUSled troops but has said that once foreign troops start living Afghanistan, Talban has no reason to fight. Another key person who has been approached by the Karzai government to establish contacts with Taliaban is Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil. He may be balancing act — reaching out to insurgents while keeping his Karzai backers satisfied that he is not appeasing Taliban. During the Taliban rule Muttawakil was Foreign Minister. He has always been described as the more respectable face of the Taleban. Articulate and relatively moderate – even known to show a sense of humour – he acted as international spokesman for the Taleban, putting a gloss on the group’s human rights abuses. He was perhaps the first Taliban commander who opposed the growing influence of Al-Qaeda inAfghanistan. he has  publicalaly said that supporting Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda had brought suffering toAfghanistan. But he still defended some other aspects of the Taliban’s former policies. He is close toSaudi Arabiaand was one of the Taliban commander who was invited by the Saudi King Abdullah in 2008 was attempting to broker peace talks between the warring parties fromAfghanistan.

An Afghan tribal leader told THE WEEK that the Taliban leaders who had spoken to him wanted to end the war. He said they preferred direct talks with the US without Pakistan’s intervention. “They know the trouble inAfghanistanstarted because of foreign interventions—whether it wasRussia, theUS or Pakistan. We have to decide our fate on our own,” he said.

Reconciliation, however, is a delicate task. Omar, who has been hiding—presumably inPakistan—since the fall ofKandaharin 2001, is not a participant in the ongoing talks, nor does he attend the secret meetings of the Taliban leadership council. When he does communicate, it is through written statements. Therefore, one purpose of the peace initiative is to reach Omar and to know who among his close circle, if any, might be willing to negotiate.

To facilitate talks, a UN Security Council resolution has removed 14 Taliban leaders from the sanctions list. More importantly, theUShas engaged Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mullah Tayeb Agha to persuade the Taliban. Baradar, Omar’s brother-in-law and his second-in-command, was captured inKarachilast year. According to a senior Afghan official, Baradar is now willing to be a part of the peace jirga. 

However, it could be the youngest of the five mullahs, 30-year-old Agha, who is likely to lead the negotiations. A former personal assistant to Omar, he is in contact with the Taliban leaders in Quetta shura and has reportedly participated in at least three meetings with US negotiators. 

But the pursuit of peace can be risky. The Taliban, despite having suffered massive losses in the past 10 years, controls areas in southernAfghanistanand, in the past two years, has even spread to the comparatively peaceful northern regions. This has alarmed the non-Pashtun, anti-Taliban militias, who are vehemently against the negotiations. A civil war along ethnic lines is a possibility. And then there isPakistan, which has a history of interfering inAfghanistanby training and arming militias it favours. 

(25 July, 2011, THE WEEK)




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