Obama has finally opted for troop reinforcement. But by evoking the beginning of a scheduled withdrawal 18 months from now, he has also incited the Karzai government to keep the channels of discussion with the Taliban open.
And what if the stabilization of Afghanistan could come only at this price? While Barack Obama’s decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan seems to sound the death knell for that option envisaged by the more cynical members of the American administration, those who don’t believe in a military solution in the country continue to militate in favor of a “discussion” with the enemy. Not with the “pragmatic” Taliban Hamid Karzai boasted of having been able to rally to his cause – and who are today considered traitors by the guerrilla – but with the most ideological fringe of the “students’ of religion” representatives, the Mullah Omar and Hezb-e-Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. These are the ones who are inflicting losses on NATO’s forces and laying siege to Kabul. “If you want significant results, you have to talk to important people,” Norwegian diplomat and UN representative in the country Kai Eide declared the day before the elections to encourage discussions with the guerrilla movement’s leadership.
The idea is highly controversial. Its detractors explain that any attempt at dialogue would be considered a sign of weakness by the fundamentalist guerrilla at precisely the moment when the West is demonstrating the scope of its determination to pacify the country militarily. Didn’t Mullah Omar just violently reject the proposals for national reconciliation that President Karzai since his investiture has ceaselessly tried to engage him in? Nonetheless, Barack Obama has repeated that NATO’s troop withdrawal should begin in 18 months. Yet, nothing proves that the counterinsurgency strategy he has opted for will be a success in the meantime. Consequently, the Afghan president maintains all channels open and, far from official platforms, enemy leaders are talking to one another.
In spite of the fighting, meetings occur between the clandestine headquarters of the blind mullah and the Afghan government. From Pakistan to Kabul, intercessors see to it that messages are passed under the watchful eye of the Americans. Even American Defense Secretary Robert Gates has declared that, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, it would be necessary to come to the point of conducting a policy of a reconciliation with people who have killed American soldiers: “Isn’t that how wars always end?” he declared during a NATO meeting.
Maulvi Arsala Rahmani is one of those messengers. Under the Taliban regime, he was minister for religious affairs. Today, he has returned to the Afghan Senate. He receives people in his house in Kabul, where he is under good protection and spied on by several countries’ intelligence agents. Enveloped in an Uzbek coat lined in gray fur, he prays with fervor, as though better to reflect on the questions he is asked. To hear him tell it, he would like to reconcile everybody. For he likes Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and … Mullah Omar. He mentions his “friend, Osama” (bin Laden), whom he knew well in Sudan, then during the jihad. According to Rahmani, Mullah Baradar, the present Taliban operational commander, is a “good and honest man.” And he misses Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose armed groups are covering the south of the country with blood: “We always used to be together …” Nonetheless, he believes that the time has come for the guerrilla movement to dissociate itself from his “friend Osama.” But are the members of Mullah Omar’s choura (council of notables), with whom he is in contact, ready for that divorce? In his opinion, it’s not impossible. For, in spite of their military “success,” the Taliban, like all soldiers, would like to be able to go home. Moreover, and contrary to what has been suggested in Mullah Omar’s communiqués, it is sometimes the guerrilla leaders, and not the Afghan presidency, who take the initiative for these meetings, Maulvi Arsala Rahmani assures me. Last year, Mullah Baradar led a Taliban delegation to Kabul to talk with Karzai’s older brother, Qayyum.
Born to the same tribe as the Afghan president, Mullah Omar’s right hand man is supposed to be a more conciliating man than his mentor. Patient, charismatic, he has proved to be a redoubtable enemy for NATO’s troops. At the head of the Quetta choura in Pakistan, it is he who manages the war chest – the booty from kidnappings and trafficking – and who coordinates attacks. Above all, it is he who has been authorized to speak in the name of the man the insurgents consider the commander of the faithful: Omar. “Should there ever be discussions, he will be an indispensable interlocutor,” asserts Rahmani.
In Kabul, the former minister is sharing his home with another one of these “intermediaries” who sound out the Taliban and regularly meet with Barack Obama’s advisers. His beard is black, his turban, cream-colored: Pir Mohamed was the president of the University of Kabul under the Taliban regime: “Afghanistan is composed of several groups. No one should be excluded … That’s what I said to Holbrooke, who shares my point of view!” Repeating – for whatever purpose it might serve – that, at the time, he had tried several times to convince Mullah Omar to allow him to give girls a religious education, he asserts that today he has warned the White House special envoy against the new pacification strategy for the country: “Afghanistan is not Iraq. The Taliban come from very different origins. Mores come from Uzbekistan, Kandahar or Khost. And one may neither set the tribes against one another nor buy them: there are too many of them!”
Yet, is seems that the political leadership of the Taliban, tossing around between Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi, would like to put an end to its wanderings in Pakistan. That’s the sense of the messages from the Quetta choura and its representatives, Baradar and Mohamed Mansour, former chief education officer. The rebels would like to install themselves somewhere, then form a government-in-exile to elaborate the conditions for a negotiation with the Karzai government. Why not in Saudi Arabia where Mullah Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, has already tried to organize a meeting between the enemy sides? Then from Riyadh, the Taliban leadership could negotiate its own neutrality in exchange for a right to return, amnesty and participation in political life after the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Isn’t this scenario unrealistic or premature? Our intermediaries agree: it will not be easy to convince Westerners to guarantee a safe haven for the same people they’re fighting. But the two men insist on the necessity of cutting the guerrilla off from its Pakistani sanctuary. Even though they know Afghanistan will not be at peace until Pakistan agrees to it. “As long as Pakistan’s vital interests, such as the future of the Durand Line, are not taken into account, all discussions will fail,” explains Rahmani. According to him, the key to potential negotiations is in the hands of the Pakistani mullahs, themselves under ISI – the Pakistani secret services’ – control. As are Mullah Fazel Rahman and Sami ul-Haq, who lead the coalition of Pakistani fundamentalist religious parties. “Before the Taliban, it is they who must be convinced to make peace, because today they control al-Qaeda and bin Laden and hold the future of the region in their hands …” On this point, at least, the former Taliban and Barack Obama come to the same conclusions.
Maulvi Arsala Rahmani
Religious affairs minister under the Taliban regime, he is a member of the Afghan Senate today. He has contacts within circles close to the Pakistani secret services.
Former rector of Kabul University. He meets regularly with Richard Holbrooke and representatives of the Quetta choura.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef
He was the sole interface between the Taliban regime and the international community from 1996 to the end of 2001. He was imprisoned at Guantanamo from 2002 to 2005. He would like to see the Saudis play a role in future peace talks.
Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil
Former foreign affairs minister for the Taliban, he played the role of intermediary between the Americans and Taliban groups in Kandahar and negotiated the conditions for surrender with the Americans at the fall of the regime.
Shahnawaz Tanaï, former defense minister for Najibullah’s pro-Soviet government, compares the two occupations of Afghanistan.
In the last presidential election, he came in sixth out of 41 candidates. A good showing for a man who was once defense minister to Najibullah, the former pro-Soviet president of Afghanistan, murdered by the Taliban. Shahnawaz Tanai nostalgically evokes the “good old days” of the Soviets, which he seems not to be the only one to miss. According to him, there are many commonalities between NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan and the Soviet period. First of all, the Russians, like the Americans, relied on warlords of evil repute in order to take over power. Then Russia, like NATO today, was unable to pacify the country because of the open border with Pakistan, which assured the Mudjahadijn a rear staging base. “In 1985, six years after the beginning of the Soviet invasion, the debates began in Russia, exactly like today in the West, on the legitimacy of the government in place in and on the Soviet Union’s economic troubles …The Russian Army’s morale was at a nadir and people in Moscow were wondering about the opportunity of sending more soldiers: Brejnev was for, the KGB was against …” In 1988, Najibullah sent his defense minister to Moscow to convince Gorbachev to stay in Afghanistan: “I gave him the advice I could give the Americans today: to envisage the stages of a withdrawal, you must first secure the major axes and the principle cities, Mazar, Herat, Kabul, and give the army logistical support.” Najibullah’s former minister remembers a meeting between Najibullah and Fidel Castro: “Castro advised Najibullah to appear less dependent on Gorbachev. Karzai should also put some distance between himself and the Americans …”