If peace talks do ultimately begin between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban leadership, they may well follow a “road map” to a political settlement drawn up by a group of ex-Taliban officials who have been serving as intermediaries between the two sides.
The four Taliban mediators have been encouraging both Karzai and the Taliban leadership to begin with steps toward military de-escalation and confidence-building before proceeding to the central political-military issues that must be negotiated, a member of the mediation team, Arsullah Rahmani, told IPS in an interview at his home in Kabul.
The first step toward a settlement is “an agreement between Karzai and the Taliban about no killing of doctors and no damage to roads, etc [by the Taliban], in return for no night raids and detention [by the United States],” said Rahmani, formerly a Taliban commander and now an elected member of Afghanistan’s upper house.
Rahmani said the mediation group’s plan calls for the two sides to address the question of changing the constitution in the last stage of the negotiations, after they have reached agreement on the key international issues of withdrawal of all foreign troops and al Qaeda and the Taliban’s renunciation of ties with al Qaeda.
The mediators, all four of whom occupied prominent positions in the Taliban regime until it was overthrown by the U.S. military intervention in 2001, have passed their proposal for peace negotiations to Karzai, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and the United States and NATO, according to Rahmani.
Karzai personally asked the ex-Taliban officials to help get peace negotiations started, according to Rahmani. He also appeared to reflect the team’s de-escalation proposal when he told al Jazeera in January that he would seek an end to nighttime raids on Afghan homes as well to as the arrest and detention of Afghans on suspicion of belonging to the Taliban.
The team also believes the Taliban is at least favourably inclined toward their “road map” to a settlement. Former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, another member of the team, told IPS that the Taliban “are going to accept some of our suggestions.”
The mediation team has the advantage of being led by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who is said to have been one of the founders of the Taliban movement.
Zaeef helped organise Islamic courts during the Taliban regime, worked in the Taliban defence ministry and was the regime’s last ambassador to Pakistan. He was subjected to degrading treatment at the Kandahar detention facility before spending two and a half years in the U.S. detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.
Suhail Shaheen, who was spokesman for the Taliban Embassy in Pakistan when Zaeef was ambassador there, and is now a journalist, has written that Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his inner circle “have chosen Zaeef as their point of contact for talks with the Americans and NATO.”
It is unclear how Zaeef and other team members have communicated with Taliban leaders. Muttawakil said in an interview that it would be dangerous to the Taliban to try to contact them directly. “I don’t want anyone to be harmed,” he said. He has communicated with the Taliban primarily through his own statements to the news media, Muttawakil told IPS.
The mediation team was allowed to visit Saudi Arabia in October 2008, at a meeting which some Taliban officials reportedly attended. But a Taliban official denied that any Taliban officials had attended.
However, Zaeef has also been allowed to travel to Dubai on a number of occasions, and may have been able to speak directly to senior Taliban officials there.
The mediators and other close observers of the Taliban position do not expect the al Qaeda issue to be difficult to resolve. Rahmani said the Taliban statement of Dec. 4 offering to negotiate “legal guarantees” against “meddling” beyond Afghanistan’s borders was a signal that the Taliban leadership is prepared to renounce ties with al Qaeda under a peace agreement.
The immediate concern of the mediating team is that the United States will block political moves toward a settlement.
“I don’t understand U.S. policy,” Rahmani said. “Sometimes they say ‘we will negotiate with the Taliban, and sometimes they say ‘we must destroy them’.”
The United States has refused in the past to provide assurances that Taliban officials would be given safe passage to participate in negotiations in Kabul. The mediation team is now suggesting that negotiations should take place outside Afghanistan.
“The Taliban should have the ability to go to other countries, should have an office outside the country, in Turkey, for example,” said Rahmani. “If we have offices of both sides in another country, they could reach agreement.”
The existing constitution of Afghanistan is expected to be the real sticking point in the negotiations. The former Taliban officials have different interpretations of the Taliban’s position on that issue.
Rahmani told IPS he believes the Taliban will “accept the constitution with some changes. They’re going to demand changes in a few articles, not the whole thing,” he said. The ex-Taliban commander says that assessment is based on discussions with the Taliban, adding, “It’s not my opinion. This is what they said.”
Muttawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, believes, however, that the changes the Taliban are likely to demand would be very far-reaching.
In an interview with IPS, Muttawakil said he expected the Taliban to reject some provisions “copied from the U.S. constitution”, such as the position of vice-president, and to demand “an emirate government”.
Muttawakil suggested that the primary implication of such a proposal would not be to eliminate electoral institutions but to ensure that laws based on Islam are enforced. “The important thing is Sharia law,” said Muttawakil.
Sharia-based laws exist on paper already, he said, but are not being enforced. “Narcotics and corruption are forbidden by Islam,” said Muttawakil, but are being allowed under the present system.
Former Taliban foreign ministry official Wahid Muzhdah, who is not a member of the mediating team but is an analyst of the Taliban’s thinking, says the Taliban insistence on “Sharia law government” means they want religious scholars, or ulema, to exercise ultimate power over the law and perhaps even the selection of a government.
The Taliban position is that not everyone should have the right to elect the president, according to Muzhdah. Although the idea of giving the ulema veto power over the choice of government would represent a direct challenge to the liberal democratic institutions in the existing constitution, Muzhdah recalls that it was widely discussed during the period immediately following the overthrow of the Communist-led regime in 1992.
The political negotiations between Karzai and the Taliban may also hinge on the idea of an interim government that would preside over a process of revising or rewriting the constitution, according to Muzhdah.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ally of the Taliban who commands an insurgent group independent of the Taliban leadership, has called for such a temporary government to ensure that a new constitution is written with participation of “all parties”.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.
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