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By Syed Nazakat/Kabul & Jalalabad

It is called Kabre Gora, the graveyard of the whites. Surrounded by mud houses and streets clogged with battered taxis, the graveyard in Kabul is a haunting reminder of how Afghans treat invaders. The cemetery, built in the 19th century during Britain’s wars in Afghanistan, today has a cenotaph in addition to the graves. Row after row of names on the marble, together with nationality, ranks and regiments, tell the painful tale of foreign soldiers who died in the US-led war in Afghanistan. Not all names are in yet.

Sami, the caretaker, shows me the fresh graves of three soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) who were ambushed by the Taliban in the eastern province of Logar. Twelve ISAF soldiers died in 2001, in the battle to oust the Taliban. Today the body count stands at 3,200, of which 2,174 are American. Till December 2012, as many as 17,674 US soldiers have sustained grave injuries or have lost limbs. “Afghanistan has become a big graveyard,” said Sami. “Everybody has suffered here.”

The US and its allies, which currently have some 1,30,000 troops in Afghanistan, are now in direct and secret talks with the regime it ousted 12 years ago. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who once protested the US attempts to reach out to the Taliban, is all set for the reconciliation talks now.

Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban chief, is not a participant in the talks. He does not even attend the secret meetings of the underground Taliban leadership, held in Pakistani safe houses. When he does speak, he does so through pre-recorded audio tapes and through the Taliban website, http://www.shahamat-english.com.

He issued a rare statement on the website last Eid, claiming victory over the ISAF. “The initial talks with the US had not meant submission or abandoning our goals,” he said. Instead, he said, the talks were aimed at initiating an exchange of prisoners, opening a political office in Qatar and accomplishing the basic goals of the Taliban.

Three months later, in December 2012, he sent his top aides to France to attend the first ever meeting with the Afghanistan government. The secret meeting was facilitated by the US and organised by the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think-tank. The US, which is withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan next year, has secretly removed the travel ban imposed on top Taliban commanders like Maulvi Shahabuddin Dilawar.

“Dilawar is a very close aide of Mullah Omar,” Abdul Hakim Mujahid, former Taliban envoy to the UN, told THE WEEK (see interview). “Because of his postings in Saudi Arabia and the US, he has good connections in diplomatic circles.” Until last year, Dilawar was based in Peshawar, Pakistan, and was teaching young Talibs at a madrassa. After he was taken off the blacklist, he and a few other Taliban leaders moved to Qatar to set up the liaison office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan and Qatar had long been working on the agreement, paving the way or creating the office to facilitate reconciliation talks,” Afghanistan’s foreign minister Dr Zalmai Rassoul told the parliament on December 25, 2012. “The Qatar office will provide information about the peace-seeking Taliban, who represent the movement.”

The situation in Afghanistan has changed so much that the distinction between good and bad Taliban no longer exists. The US is now directly talking to Mullah Omar’s interlocutors. It has agreed to free five top Taliban commanders from GuantanamoBay. Top on the list are Mohammad Fazl, former deputy defence minister of the Taliban, Noorullah Noori, former deputy intelligence minister, and Khairullah Khairkhwa, former interior minister. The Obama administration is currently weighing the cost of their release. To facilitate the talks, Karzai has released a number of Taliban militants from Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul. The Afghan government said that around 131 Taliban prisoners will be freed from Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces.

In 2008, Karzai sent his elder brother, Abdul Qayum Karzai, to Mecca during Ramadan to meet Taliban representatives. The meeting was reportedly hosted by the Saudi king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Saudi officials have disclosed no details of the meetings, though Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud confirmed that the talks were held on Karzai’s request.

The Mecca meeting was followed by a series of meetings outside Afghanistan. A senior official in the Karzai government confirmed that in a meeting held in Munich in 2010, Taliban leader Tayeb Agha met representatives of the German foreign intelligence agency, the CIA and the US state department. Further rounds of talks followed in Kabul, Islamabad and Doha. Finally, the meeting in Chantilly, 48km from Paris.

“Without US support the meeting would not have been possible,” said Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, a prominent ethnic Hazara leader and founder of the People’s Islamic Unity Party. He said that the Afghan government hoped to transform the Taliban into a political movement and that the notorious Haqqani faction would join the peace process, if there was progress with the Taliban. “Everybody acknowledged that nobody will win the war by military means,” said Mohaqiq. “Everybody acknowledged that there is no alternative other than reconciliation. Otherwise we will head to a bloody civil war.”

Some voices are still obstinate. “Dialogue with the Taliban will deliver nothing,” said Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament and a possible presidential candidate for the 2014 polls. “I do not understand why we are talking to the Taliban? What are we negotiating with them?” She said there was growing belief that the Americans were trying to strike a secret deal with the Taliban before leaving, which could once again put Afghanistan in jeopardy.

During the Taliban regime, in 1999, Barakzai was arrested by the Taliban’s religious police for stepping outside the house without a male escort. She was ill and was going to a doctor. “I resisted the draconian system and formed an underground school,” said Barakzai. Today she is one of the leading advocates of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

In an obvious attempt to answer some of the harshest criticism of the group’s brutal rule from 1996 through 2001, Taliban envoys told Afghan leaders in Paris that it would “give all legitimate rights to women in the light of Islamic principles, national interest and our noble culture”.

The main question is about the kind of arrangement the US wants with the Taliban. President Barack Obama’s original plan was to hand over the security to the Afghan army and police, and to withdraw his troops by 2014. Germany and France were keen to pull out before 2014, and the Dutch have already left. And, following a series of deadly attacks against its men in August 2012, New Zealand announced that it would withdraw its 145-man contingent in April 2013. But the resurgence of the Taliban has forced Washington to consider retaining 3,000 to 9,000 troops after 2014 and simultaneously seek reconciliation with the Taliban.

The ground situation is bleak, even as the third phase of the transition process is on. A visit to Maidan Shar, a Pashtu dominated area, some 50km from Kabul, tells a grim story. In 2008, when the foreign troops tried to enter the area, they faced stiff resistance from the Taliban. Even today, Maidan Shar, which lies on the threshold of Kabul, is dominated by the Taliban. The situation may have improved in the Afghan cities and towns, but senior Afghan military officers admit that the Taliban dominates the villages and has the ability to strike any city at will.

What has complicated matters is that the foreign troops have not been able to raise a well-trained, well-equipped and disciplined Afghan army. The US spent more than $20 billion in 2010-2011 on training and equipping the Afghan army and police force. Yet, the Afghan army has not weaned itself from air support, artillery, communications and combat medical aid provided by the coalition forces.

The army does not have tanks and its own air cover. The soldiers do not have night-vision goggles to go after the Taliban after dark. Drug addiction, corruption and desertion are common in the army. Defence ministry spokesman Maj-Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi said the desertion rate of 10 to 15 per cent was on the rise. He said deserters were not being punished because, “after all, it is a volunteer army”.

The war-weary people in Afghanistan mostly dislike foreign troops, and they have no great love for the Taliban either. While Obama and Karzai are selling an optimistic dream, Afghans have no such illusions. “The warlords are already jockeying for power,” said Sanaullah Sidiqi, a KabulUniversity student. “And, the Taliban is just waiting for the Americans to leave. We are heading towards a more difficult time.” His friends Sabera, Mehreen and Tehina nod in agreement as they pose for a photo at DarulAmanPalace, which was set afire during the civil war. Will the Taliban come back, I ask. “The Taliban?” said Mehreen. “They are already here! At least after dark. Just over that pass.” He pointed towards Maidan Wardak province. “That is where they are the strongest.”

The US seems willing to accommodate the Taliban, provided they stop fighting and attacking government officials. One idea under consideration is an interim agreement under which the Afghan opposition, the Taliban and others might endorse minimum objectives— rejecting al-Qaeda, supporting an inclusive political system and accepting the Afghan constitution.

Mullah Omar has outrightly rejected these demands. His envoys said that the Taliban does not want any monopoly on power and that Afghanistan is a homeland for all Afghans. The Mullah remains adamant that the talks with the US will not succeed if all foreign troops do not leave the country in 2014.

The goal is to elect a widely accepted new president in 2014, when Karzai completes his second term in office. The plan, in part, involves focusing on neighbouring Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and Taliban militants have found refuge in the troubled tribal areas. In the latest batch of Talibs freed by Pakistan, with the approval of the US and Afghan governments, are Nooruddin Turabi, the former justice minister, and Muhammad Azeem, a former personal bodyguard of Mullah Omar.

Pakistan had already released 18 Afghan Taliban militants in November, in support of US and Afghan efforts to revive peace talks with the Taliban. A peace deal in Afghanistan would be advantageous to Pakistan, too. Peace could liberate Pakistan from its seemingly inexorable decline, made worse by its economy collapsing and its army failing to combat militants groups and the Pakistani Taliban.

Time is running out for Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, too. He is stepping down at the end of this year and seems to be keen to avoid a civil war in Afghanistan. “The civil war would be very bad for Afghanistan,” said Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan. “But its consequence would be disastrous for Pakistan.”

A visit to Torkham, a chaotic border station in Jalalabad, reveals how irrelevant the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is and why it is hard to fight insurgency here. Every day hundreds of people pass through Torkham without passports or any other identification document. They do not even have their bags inspected. On the rare occasion when they are confronted by border guards, a modest bribe of 200 Afghani sees them through.

“On both sides of the border there are same people, the same tribes and they refuse to accept this as a border,” said Ahmadullah Khan, a resident of Jalalabad. “It is impossible to control the movement of people at Torkham.”

This fluid border has made Pakistan a haven for the Taliban. They often cross over from Pakistan and attack ISAF troops. In one such deadly attack last month, Talibs attacked a key coalition base in Jalalabad, detonating a series of car bombs in an apparent attempt to break through the perimeter of the heavily fortified installation. The ISAF called the attack a failure because the Taliban did not penetrate the base. But the attack demonstrated once again that the Taliban retains the capacity to strike in one of the most fortified provinces of Afghanistan, in spite of regular claims from Afghan and ISAF officials that they have been weakened.

This lethal resurgence has left the US and its partners in the ISAF with little choice but to advance a political initiative for an honourable exit. Whatever the nature and outcome of the talks, one thing is clear—after 12 years of war the Taliban is taking centre stage in Afghanistan.

(January 30, 2013, THE WEEK)

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