Taliban leadership ready to talk

IssueJune 2010
News by Gabriel Carlyle

The Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar, “has given his approval for talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan and allowed his representatives to attend Saudi-sponsored peace negotiations” (Sunday Times, 15 March).

In April, two of the Taliban’s senior Islamic scholars told the Sunday Times “that their military campaign has only three objectives: the return of sharia (Islamic law), the expulsion of foreigners and the restoration of security”, and that the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar, was prepared to engage in “sincere and honest” talks.

The US apparently now recognises that talks are inevitable (“It is now more a question of ‘when’ than a question of ‘if,’ ” a senior Obama administration official told the New York Times earlier this year) but continues to pursue the chimera of a military “upper hand” before starting any talks. According to diplomats, Obama “has not even authorised the CIA to put out feelers to the Taliban leadership on a ‘deniable’ basis, a common way of initiating contacts” (Jonathan Steele, Guardian, 4 May). Nationally, 65% of Afghans favour negotiations with the Taliban, as do 64% of Britons. (See PN passim.)

Kandahar wants peace

Afghans living in Kandahar province – home to Afghanistan’s second-largest city and soon to be the site of a major US-led offensive – overwhelmingly back negotiations with the Taliban. According to a December 2009 survey conducted on behalf of NATO and released in March, 94% of Kandaharis think that “negotiation with the Taliban is preferable to continued fighting”, with 85% viewing the Taliban as “our Afghan brothers”.

Earlier this year, Afghan president Hamid Karzai threatened to delay or veto the looming assault in Kandahar – anticipated to be one of the biggest of the nine-year war – after he was heckled at a meeting of 1,500 tribal leaders and elders from the province. Sovereign in name only however, he has been unable to stop the offensive.

Corruption is the “underlying reason behind conflict in the country”, according to 88% of Kandaharis, with 67% saying that “corruption in the government forces them to seek alternate solutions to their problems” – including the Taliban. Indeed, 55% said that they believed “that the Taliban cannot be corrupted”.

Guns, cash and foreigners

In many respects Kandahar is a microcosm of the wider war, with its political and economic life dominated by commercial and military networks whose key sources of power are “control over guns, money, and foreign support” (Carl Forsberg, former US Marine Corps intelligence officer).

“There is no real government here. Kandahar is run by people in the drugs trade, armed with weapons and backed by foreign countries,” local human rights activist Shahida Hussein told Channel 4 News.

Of these networks, the most powerful is that controlled by Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, alleged to be heavily involved in the drugs trade and to have been on the CIA payroll for many years.

“Local officials who don’t obey him are killed. He has his own militias and elements of the Taleban. He can kill whoever he wants”, an elder from the rival Alokozai tribe told The Times.

Enforcing injustice

Such considerations are unlikely to give the UK government much pause for thought if British forces are moved to Kandahar from Helmand. In 2006, Britain insisted upon the removal of Helmand’s governor, strongman Sher Mohammed Akundzada, before it deployed to the province. However, they have since “found that re-employing some of [his] more brutal thugs as police chiefs is an effective way of establishing peace – at least in the medium term” (Anthony Loyd, The Times, 7 May).

Today, police in Helmand’s Sangin district “think nothing of beating and stealing from local people… with the British seen as the enforcement mechanism for deeply corrupt Afghan authorities” (Guardian, 22 April).

Topics: Afghanistan