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Hichem Karoui: Taliban meeting the enemy
June 23, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The US and the Taliban negotiate in Qatar. It is official. This is indeed the main purpose for opening a political office in Doha for the Taliban. In this game there are only two possible results: success or failure. Success in bringing an ending to 12 years of conflict, with the return of peace, is certainly a hope worth the risk. But failure would bring discredit mostly to the US foreign policy, because of its acceptance to negotiate with an Al Qaeda supportive organisation.

So far, Taliban did not publicly disavow Al Qaeda. It did not even renounce attacking US targets in Afghanistan. Viewed from the US, the terrorist threat is still very much real.

According to IEP’s 2012 Global Terrorism Index, Iraq and Afghanistan accounted for 35 per cent of the global total number of terrorist incidents from 2002 to 2011. In terms of the execution of terrorism, most attacks are successful. Success rates vary from 89 per cent to 97 per cent depending on the year of measurement.

In Afghanistan, hardliners attack a wide range of targets including private citizens. There are also an unusually high number of attacks against businesses, educational institutions, police and the government. The military is being attacked in less than 3 per cent of instances. Terrorist attacks do not spare schools. They primarily aim at girls. They also attack election/polling stations, and road construction teams, which indicates that hardliners are engaged in war against civil society. Although terrorist incidents occurred all over the country, Kabul and Kandahar experienced the most.

Cautiously, President Obama said about Doha Taliban’s office, it was an important first step towards reconciliation between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s government. The Taliban have long refused to talk to Karzai’s representatives but the opening of the office was seen as a first step toward those meetings.

Oddly enough, in this “game” the Americans seem to be the party that is pushing toward the negotiations. When the Taliban hoisted a banner emblazoned with the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” they provoked Hamid Karzai’s ire. He reacted by halting negotiations with the US on a bilateral security agreement governing America’s future military footprint in his country and said he would not send members of his peace council to Doha to talk with Taliban representatives.

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, had to allay him, and the Taliban had to remove that banner. Yet, though their Doha office is not an embassy and should not be treated as one (Washington insisted), the Taliban perceive it as a victory. “With the establishment of this office, we want to hold talks with the international community like an independent and sovereign state,” said Mullah Ehsanullah, a local Taliban fighter to AFP.

The Taliban believe that they defeated the US and forced the Americans to recognise them as an interlocutor for peace. That is indeed a good point. It is always hard for any power to win a war after invading a country. History proves that invaders, soon or late, are compelled to leave the country for the locals.

It sounds that the US has now reached this point.

The negotiations are not expected to be easy. The prisoners of war constitute one of the subject-matters of the discussions. The Taliban did not make a secret of their intention of exchanging US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been in captivity since 2009, for 5 of their commanders in US custody.

The Americans particularly detain two senior Taliban commanders wanted for the killing of thousands of Shiites in Afghanistan. These are Mullah Mohammad Fazl (Taliban army chief of staff) and Mullah Norullah Noori (senior Taliban military commander). Apparently, they neither denied nor regretted this war crime.

Reports also mentioned Abdul Haq Wasiq (Taliban deputy minister of intelligence), Mohammed Nabi (senior Taliban figure and security official) said to have “strong operational ties” to various extremist militias, and Khairullah Khairkhwa (Taliban governor of the Herat province and former interior minister) accused of having sought help from Iran in attacking US forces. Several others are detained in Guantanamo. These 5 are said to be among Mullah Omar’s most notorious commanders.

However, there is probably more difficult a case to handle than that of exchanging war prisoners. For example: would the Taliban condemn violence and renounce it? What would they get in return? Participation in the government? What if they don’t want it? What if they prefer the continuation of the armed struggle after the withdrawal of foreign troops and the post-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)?

As some observers have noted, the establishment of an Islamic state based on Shari`a law in Afghanistan has been the cornerstone of the Taliban’s political goals since the movement began in the 1990s.  The hypothesis that the Taliban would engage in direct negotiations with the US for the instauration of a peaceful post-ISAF transition, has never been validated. At this point, everybody is still groping in the dark, and the Taliban revealed to be fine politicians, for they accepted to negotiate with the US without giving any guarantee that they would agree on the same view. A picture much close to that of Somalia is threatening these peace talks. Remember the Shari’a courts established by the Shabab movement.

 The Taliban may also want to provide law and order through Shari`a, thus capitalising on the shortcomings of the current formal judicial system in Afghanistan. The idea that they may attempt to expand courts to contest Afghan government control and habituate their authority over the local populace, while making everybody believe they are negotiating for a fair deal, is a strong hypothesis.

Another hypothesis is that no fair deal would be possible from the first round. The unrevealed will of each party to smear and drag the other in the mud would lead to more of the same warfare until exhaustion compels them again to negotiate.

Nonetheless, it is still legitimate to hope; at least because on both sides they know that such a struggle would be very hard to win on the battlefield.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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