The 'Reconcilable' Taliban
by Charles Lemos, Sat Mar 07, 2009 at 08:22:44 PM EST
Here is a proposition that is bound to cut deep into the national psyche: Should the United States seek to negotiate with some of the same people who gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden prior to the Sept. 11 attacks?
The President, in part at the urging of our European allies, is exploring an entente with some of the 'reconcilable' Taliban. It is important to note that the Taliban is not one unified group but an umbrella group of numerous Islamic groups that are loosely allied. Is it possible to peel some these groups away? Yes, because we already have. More accurately, the British have. In late 2007, the Afghan government with British help approached a group of moderate Taliban and encourage them to lay down their arms and back the Karzai government. From Global Security:
For years, Afghan officials including President Hamid Karzai have extended an olive branch to moderate Taliban to lay down their arms and back the government.
But their overtures have been largely rejected -- until now.
On January 7, the Afghan government announced that a former Taliban commander who switched sides before a battle last month to secure Musa Qala, a Taliban-held southern town, had been named the government's top official there.
By making a deal with Mullah Abdul Salaam, the new district chief of Musa Qala, the government appears to have taken a key step toward changing the face of Afghan politics. And Kabul is hoping the move will encourage more defections by moderate Taliban.
From his headquarters in Musa Qala today, Mullah Abdul Salaam told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that his appointment is already fostering reconciliation between the government and moderate Taliban.
"There were many problems before. There was no trust before. There was no one you could trust," he said. "People didn't know whom to contact. Now they are talking with me. They give me assurance and I give them assurances. There were many problems before. There was no trust before."
Mullah Abdul Salaam was once the Taliban's governor in the southern Afghan province of Oruzgan -- the birthplace of the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, as well as Karzai.
Now, the powerful local commander brings some 300 militia fighters to the side of the Afghan government in a strategic part of Helmand Province. More importantly, his allegiance to Kabul helps extend the central government's authority into an area seen as a bastion of popular support for the Taliban.
Christopher Langton, who studies Afghanistan at London's International Institute For Strategic Studies, says it is a particularly important area for President Karzai to stabilize.
"If it is stabilized, all sorts of follow-on could occur in other parts of the country when people see a successful outcome [in Helmand Province]," Langton says.
Langton says the stabilization of Musa Qala and the fertile farmland of the nearby Sangin Valley would allow repairs and upgrades to the nearby Kajaki hydroelectric dam. That, in turn, would allow the government to provide more irrigation, water, and electricity to as many as 2 million people in southern Afghanistan.
That would signal to Afghans elsewhere that their living conditions can be improved if they cooperate with the Afghan government. Langton says it also would allow the international community to be seen as an agent of positive change in Afghanistan rather than as an invader and occupier.
Taliban fighters captured Musa Qala in February 2007 after the collapse of a British-backed peace deal with militants in the area. Just before last month's NATO-led offensive to recapture the town, delegates from Kabul met with Mullah Abdul Salaam and won promises for the allegiance of his Alizai tribe. Since then, other tribal leaders in Helmand Province have supported Salaam's appointment as Musa Qala district chief.
So to begin with what the President is proposing has already met with some success by the Afghans themselves. According to the New York Times, Mullah Salaam "remains ostensibly loyal to NATO forces, and some British officials mention him as an example of how a campaign to woo Taliban district commanders might work."
Noting the war in Afghanistan had deteriorated over the last couple of years, the President is opening the door to a reconciliation process in which the American military would reach out to elements of the Taliban as the British have already proved can be done. Here's the relevant portion from the New York Times interview:
Q. Mr. President, we need to turn it to foreign policy. I know we have a review going on right now about Afghanistan policy, but right now can you tell us, are we winning in Afghanistan?
A. No. I think that we are - we are doing an extraordinary job, or let me say it this way: Our troops are doing an extraordinary job in a very difficult situation. But you've seen conditions deteriorate over the last couple of years. The Taliban is bolder than it was. I think the - in the southern regions of the country, you're seeing them attack in ways that we have not seen previously. The national government still has not gained the confidence of the Afghan people. And so its going to be critical for us to not only, get through these national elections to stabilize the security situation, but we've got to recast our policy so that our military, diplomatic and development goals are all aligned to ensure that al Qaeda and extremists that would do us harm don't have the kinds of safe havens that allow them to operate.
At the heart of a new Afghanistan policy is going to be a smarter Pakistan policy. As long as you've got safe havens in these border regions that the Pakistani government can't control or reach, in effective ways, we're going to continue to see vulnerability on the Afghan side of the border. And so it's very important for us to reach out to the Pakistani government, and work with them more effectively.
Q. Do you see a time when you might be willing to reach out to more moderate elements of the Taliban, to try to peel them away, towards reconciliation?
A. I don't want to pre-judge the review that's currently taking place. If you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and the Pakistani region. But the situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex. You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, so figuring all that out is going to be a much more of a challenge.
There's nothing in the above that is Earth-shattering unless common sense is Earth-shattering. The President recognizes that Afghanistan is complex, that solving Afghanistan requires a "smarter" Pakistan policy, that solutions in Afghanistan requires recasting "our policy so that our military, diplomatic and development goals are all aligned." It is clear that a military track alone is not going to stabilize the country. The President does seem to recognize this. A strategic review is underway and we will know more after it is completed.
As per the reconcilable Taliban, according to Al Jazeera the group that is being approached is the Hizb-i-Islami that is led by the former Prime Minister of the country Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Here's a profile of the group from Global Security:
The Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) was initially one of the most disciplined of the guerrilla groups that fought against Soviet occupation. Even though Hezb-i-Islami received millions of dollars worth of military and financial aid from the United States, they still failed to liberate Afghanistan from the Communists. The major Afghan political factions are largely based on the former resistance organizations. Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) and President Burhanuddin Rabbani's Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) were bitter rivals for political influence in Afghanistan. Following the Soviet withdrawal, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) initially supported the Hizb-i-Islami under Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to dislodge the Rabbani government. Pakistan feared that an exclusively non-Pashtun government of President B. Rabbani would lead Afghanistan's Pashtuns to revive the demand for Pashtunistan.
Hekmatyar was friendly with Osama bin Laden when the latter was participating in the war against the Soviets. Bin Laden was linked with the Mujahedin group of Professor Rasul Sayyaf, who allegedly was a Wahhabi. The groups led by Hekmatyar and by Sayyaf had little in common, but their two leaders were allegedly close to a blind Egyptian cleric -- Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman - who was imprisoned in 1995 for his part in a conspiracy to destroy several New York City landmarks.
It seems that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a bit of a free agent. At any rate, there's also this:
The important Taliban "Peshawar Shura" is headquartered in Pakistan's North West Frontier province. The militias headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani are fighting US forces alongside the Taliban. Hekmatyar operates in the tribal areas of Dir and Bajur, while Jalaluddin Haqqani is based in Waziristan. Local warlords in northeastern Kapisa province belonging to veteran Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami conducted guerrilla operations against NATO troops, along with.
In 2008, Hekmatyar apparently opened the door to talks with the Government of Afghanistan, in part through a spring 2008 letter addressed to President Karzai. Some suggest that there may be some potential for drawing Hekmatyar away from the insurgent fight and into a constructive role. Others caution that his reputation for Islamic extremism and human rights abuses call into question the likelihood and advisability of any reconciliation with him.
If the Hezb-i-Islami are opening the door to talks, what's wrong with talking?