Opinion polls in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last few months have reinforced the message that the people of the region want a negotiated solution to the conflicts currently raging. Such a solution is more attainable, given recent progress in the Afghan national reconciliation process. In Afghanistan, the International Republican Institute (IRI) carried out a poll in mid-May, published in June, that showed 68% of Afghans think “the government should hold talks and reconcile with the Taliban”.
In Pakistan, IRI carried out a poll in March which found that while 45% of people supported the Pakistani army “fighting the extremists” in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, 52% did not. 72% didn’t support US military incursions in the tribal areas, and 61% disagreed that “Pakistan should cooperate with the United States in its war against terror”. Most importantly, 72% supported “a peace deal with the extremists”. The British line is that since then the Pakistani assault on Swat and surrounding areas has shifted Pakistani opinion in favour of military action.
Afghan peace plan
On 21 May, the New York Times reported that “leaders of the Taliban and other armed groups” including former US ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s group Hizb-e-Islami, had been talking through intermediaries about a potential peace agreement with the Afghan government.
Crucially, these talks seemed to be directed “not at individual bands of antigovernment insurgents – the strategy suggested by President Obama – but at the leaders of the large movements.”
Daoud Abedi, an Afghan-American businessperson, and a member of Hekmatyar’s party, “said he hammered out a common set of demands between the Taliban and Mr Hekmatyar’s group”. This was the proposed schedule:
‘The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. “Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents.
“Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. “Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.’
According to a former Taliban minister, quoted in the Independent on 2 April, some of the more aggressive demands are for “internal consumption” within the more hardline groups involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban negotiators would apparently be content, for the time being, with confidence-building gestures, one being the removal of some senior Taliban figures from the UN’s “consolidated list”, which freezes the assets and bans the travel of 142 people associated with the Taliban.
Intriguingly, Afghan president Hamid Karzai called for such a softening of the list on 28 March, in the context of providing the “right environment” for “the peace process with the Taliban”. Names “that are not part of Al-Qaeda, that are not part of the terrorist networks” should be removed from the list, he said.
The same story reported that preliminary talks between Karzai and the Taliban seemed to have “yielded a significant shift away from the Taliban’s past obsession with repressive rules and punishments governing personal behaviour”.
It was said that the Taliban were now prepared to commit themselves to “refraining from banning girls’ education, beating up taxi drivers for listening to Bollywood music, or measuring the length of mens’ beards.”
Burqas would be “strongly recommended” for women in public, but not be compulsory.
These undertakings were confirmed to the Independent by mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, formerly Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, and now a key intermediary in the Saudi-sponsored national reconciliation process.
Zaeef told the New York Times recently that: “the public declarations of Mullah Omar, who usually vows to fight on, are not necessarily to be taken seriously.”
In May 2007, the upper house of the Afghan parliament passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, negotiations with the Taliban, and a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.