KABUL, Afghanistan — Former Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef is not an optimist when it comes to reconciliation with the Afghan government. Among the many reasons to be skeptical about the positive outcome of talks, he sees last month’s arrest in Pakistan of a former brother-in-arms, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
“The arrest of Mullah Baradar will not harm peace negotiations,” he said with a wry smile. “It will halt them altogether.”
Zaeef’s gloomy assessment was borne out this week by former U.N. Special Representative to Afghanistan Kai Eide, who told the BBC that Baradar’s detention was most likely a carefully designed ploy by Pakistan to scupper secret peace talks that the mullah, who was second only to Mullah Omar in the Taliban hierarchy, was conducting with the Afghan government.
"The effect of [the arrests], in total, certainly, was negative on our possibilities to continue the political process that we saw as so necessary," Eide said in an interview aired Friday. "The Pakistanis did not play the role that they should have played."
If it was a deliberate slap in the face to peace talks, it worked: meaningful dialogue has all but ceased, and there will be very few representatives of the Taliban at the widely heralded Peace Jirga scheduled for late April in Kabul.
“Since the arrests, no Taliban leaders are willing to talk,” said Zaeef.
Baradar was detained along with several other high-level Taliban leaders in mid-February, in the Pakistani city of Karachi, in a joint operation with the CIA.
The arrests brought an outpouring of self-congratulation on the American side, and a cascade of kudos for Pakistan, which was seen as finally becoming a reliable partner in the regional fight against terror.
But Eide and Zaeef have now given voice to what most Afghans assumed from the very beginning: rather than cooperating, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) may actually be erecting roadblocks on the way to a negotiated settlement of the eight-year war in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made no secret of his desire to hold peace talks with the Taliban, whom he calls “sons of the soil.” But his willingness to negotiate has made some of his fellow countrymen — and, most particularly, countrywomen — nervous.
“The Taliban are against three things,” said Fawzia Koofi, a prominent Afghan politician, and the first woman to act as deputy speaker of parliament. “The foreign presence in Afghanistan, the Constitution, and women taking part in society. Which of these things is Karzai willing to give up?”
Most people agree that some form of negotiation is inevitable. Even the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, acknowledges there can be no purely military solution to the long, bitter conflict.
But there is harsh disagreement about the benefits and risks of talking to the Talban — among allies, inside Afghanistan, and even within various factions of the Obama administration.
Conflicting signals have kept all parties off-balance, and very little progress has been made.
“From Karzai’s point of view there is a genuine desire to have the Taliban involved,” said Alex Strick van Linschoten, author and researcher on the Taliban. “But there is no clear message from the United States.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated cautious willingness to open dialogue, but has also said publicly that she does not support talks with “really bad guys.”
Western diplomats laugh a bit scornfully at this, given that negotiations are ongoing between the Afghan government and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, head of the strict and strident Hezb-e-Islami party.
Hekmatyar’s violent anti-Western sentiments are well-documented, and Hezb-e-Islami fighters have been responsible for several insurgent attacks sometimes attributed to the Taliban. In 2008, 10 French soldiers were killed and more than 20 others wounded in an ambush in Surobi, an area to the east of Kabul. Surobi is controlled by Hezb-e-Islami, and their fighters are thought to have been involved, either alone or in concert with the Taliban.
Nevertheless, a prominent Hezb-e-Islami leader, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, is now the minister of the economy, and Hekmatyar himself is being persuaded to come in from the cold.
"Who, then, is a ‘really bad guy?' " said one Western official. “We reject talks with Mullah Omar but court Hekmatyar? It does not make a lot of sense.”
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke caused a bit of a stir during a speech he gave at Harvard University in early March, when he denied that the United States was involved in any kind of reconciliation but added that “almost every Pashtun family has someone involved with the movement.”
Holbrooke was forced to come out and “clarify” his remarks. “ I was not suggesting that all Pashtuns are Taliban or all Taliban are Pashtuns,” he said in a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. “The U.S. Government is supportive of Afghan led efforts to reintegrate and reconcile those elements of the Taliban into society who agree to abide by the laws and Constitution of Afghanistan and to renounce violence and ties to Al Qaeda."
But if reconciliation is limping along, another program, called “reintegration” is moving full speed ahead.
This is an attempt to tempt low-level Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons and join the government, in return for some money and a job.
Zaeef is scornful of the reintegration approach.
“Taliban do not fight for money,” he insists. “They fight for jihad. It is very difficult; you are on patrol for days on end, and get meat maybe once a month. Afghan police eat meat every day. If people just want money, they can join the government.”
Zaeef’s portrayal of the Taliban may owe more to loyalty than to reality, but even the plan’s ostensible proponents are a doubtful.
“It might not work,” admitted one Western diplomat involved in the process. “Many people doubt that those being reintegrated will actually change their spots.”
Much more likely, say Afghans familiar with previous attempts at reintegration, is that the fighters will take the money, support their families for a few months, then run off and join the insurgents again when the cash runs out.
“It’s a bottomless pit,” said a Western official.
Quite a bit of money has already been fed into the reintegration scheme: a pool of more than $140 million was pledged by participants in the London Conference in January. But should these funds prove insufficient, there is plenty more on offer.
“Money is not a problem,” said the Western diplomat.
While various governments dither over the wisdom of talking with the Taliban, real possibilities are being lost, say experts on the process.
For the first time, the Taliban are talking about some form of power-sharing, instead of insisting that they should resume control of the country.
“The aim of the Taliban is not governance,” said Zaeef. “We do not want to collapse this government.”
He pointed to a statement released by the Taliban hierarchy in late February, in which they specified their goals: complete independence of the country; establishment of an Islamic system representing the wants and aspirations of the Afghan people; and progress and prosperity of the country and its people.
This represents a real change in focus, according to van Linschoten. “They are not talking about running the country,” he said.
Not that the Taliban are giving up.
“Our first priority is to achieve these goals through talks and negotiation,” read the statement. “But if the invading powers in Afghanistan are not ready to give the Afghans their natural rights, which is the right of independence and establishment of a government based on their aspirations and wants, then the mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate are determined to carry on the fight until the realization of the said goals.”
The “invading powers” seem only too happy to talk about withdrawal, but not in the context of concessions to the Taliban. Rather, as President Barack Obama made clear in his West Point speech in December, the United States was ready to hand over control of the country and its conflict to Afghan forces as soon as possible.
“Once the foreign forces are gone, Afghans will find some way out of this conflict,” said Zaeef. “The Taliban do not want to fight. But if the government wants to fight we will defend ourselves.”
However, internal divisions within Afghanistan may make this unlikely. Ethnic, regional and political differences run deep in the country, and it will be difficult to find a common language with an enemy who has been targeting the Afghan government as well as the foreign forces for the past several years.
The international military are determined to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table by force, if necessary. They talk about “sticks” and “carrots” and urge a bit more of the former before proffering the latter.
But this approach will not work with the Taliban, said Zaeef.
“If one side feels lower or weaker than the other then they do not want to talk; this is the rule,” he said. “The Taliban are deprived of their basic rights. They are not recognized, they have no room to maneuver.”
Nether the troop surge, nor the reintegration program, and especially not the Peace Jirga, will help, he insists.
“A jirga is supposed to be a meeting of two sides,” he said. “The Taliban will not be there. There is almost no real will for peace negotiations. Instead, things are moving in the opposite direction."