It may be the tipping-point everyone has been waiting for in the Afghanistan conflict.
CNN reported last Monday that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted high-level talks for four days in late September between senior Taliban members and Afghan government officials during Ramadan. Described as “an icebreaker”, no al Qaeda representative however was present at the meeting, as Taliban leader Mullah Omar has reportedly broken with Osama bin Laden’s organization. Encouragingly, the CNN report states further discussions between the two sides are scheduled in two months.
First indications of a nascent reconciliation initiative under Saudi supervision surfaced in France three weeks ago. France’s Prime Minister, Francois Fillion, said he wanted to explore ways to separate the local Taliban tribal fighters from the international jihadists.
“Efforts in this direction are being led by Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia,” he said, indicating the talks have NATO and American sanction.
Besides France, the United Nations and several other NATO countries have signalled recently they are ready to try means other than military ones to bring the conflict to an end. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Taliban cannot be defeated by arms alone and that “all parties, including the Afghan government, believe that the ultimate resolution lies in political talks…” A British brigadier general departing the war zone as well as Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan made similar statements.
The United States also approves of talks involving the Taliban. One State Department official said the American government is “very supportive of an Afghan reconciliation program.”
To this end, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has invited Mullah Omar to become a presidential candidate in his country’s 2009 elections. In the past, Karzai has tried to hold talks with the Taliban, but without success. Mullah Omar has always insisted on the removal of all 70,000 foreign troops first before any negotiations. But the Taliban demand only demonstrated its lack of sincerity regarding peace, since it knows the Kabul government would not survive its onslaught without the foreign military presence.
Saudi Arabia is viewed as the best candidate to mediate any negotiations between the two sides, being one of only three states to have recognized the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. An original backer of Mullah Omar, Saudi officials are familiar with the Taliban leadership, their way of thinking and their radical interpretation of Islam.
Saudi involvement also gives the Taliban a face-saving way of entering negotiations with the Kabul government, which, up until now, it has called a “puppet regime” of NATO. It is unlikely the Taliban would ever enter any infidel Western or UN-sponsored talks. But Saudi Arabia, as leader of the Sunni Islamic world, is a broker acceptable to the Taliban and to Muslim public opinion in other countries as well.
All sides in the Afghan conflict have their own reasons for seeking a negotiated settlement at this time. Saudi Arabia fears rival Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan, demonstrated by its weapons sales to the Taliban. The Taliban was originally very anti-Shiite, having once executed nine Iranian diplomats in 1998. The Saudis only broke with its leadership when it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, whose anti-Saudi activities the Saudi regime wants to curtail, if not neutralize, with these talks.
For Western countries’ part, there is a sense the war is a stalemate. While they met their initial goals of deposing a murderous religious dictatorship and a dangerous terrorist state, some allies are not willing to embrace an open-ended commitment. Canada, for example, has already stated it will pull its troops out in 2011.
Rising casualty figures and increasing instability and violence in Afghanistan this year, due partially to jihadists arriving from their losing cause in Iraq, has also put pressure on NATO governments to find a solution. The world economic crisis is also becoming their main concern and will make expenditures on a distant, never-ending war more difficult to justify.
A sense of stalemate in the seven-year conflict has also been given as the Taliban’s reason for deviating from its well-known inflexibility. But this is highly unlikely. The Afghan mujahideen fought the Soviets for ten years until victory; and like-minded jihadists have been battling in Kashmir for almost four times that long. Radical Islamists, such as the Taliban and al Qaeda, are prepared to wage jihad forever, as instructed in the Koran, until they subjugate the world.
What probably stirred hardliner Taliban leaders to seek talks is the deteriorating situation in their strategic tribal agency base areas in Pakistan. Two months ago, the Pakistani army launched a major offensive with heavy artillery, tanks and fighter bombers against Taliban and al Qaeda assets there. Although well dug in, the jihadists have lost more than a thousand fighters and are hard-pressed.
But what is probably causing the Taliban even greater concern than the relentlessness of the offensive is that the tribes they once dominated are going over to the government. At the end of August, one formed a battle party that fought 900 Taliban, while another this week raised 20,000 fighters. Their support is regarded as crucial in the government’s ridding the tribal areas of the Taliban and al Qaeda for good.
Shutting down the jihadists’ Pakistani base areas would also see a virtual end to the insurgency in Afghanistan. And it is most likely due to this realization the Taliban is now willing to play the peace card in order to remain a factor in Afghanistan.
But such negotiations will take time before any successful conclusion. Soviet-Afghan mujahideen peace talks lasted years. There will also be denials and disruptions and other such delaying tactics employed.
Meanwhile, NATO must stay the course, especially as the Pakistani army’s offensive unfolds. It is also imperative the Western alliance triple the Afghan government’s security forces to 500,000, like in Iraq. So many armed and trained men would guarantee any peace agreement as well as preserve the West’s hard-fought goal of never seeing Afghanistan become a terrorist state again.