No Afghan-Taliban peace talks, for now

Kabul may have tried to reach out to current insurgents by meeting with former Taliban in Saudi Arabia late last month.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    At the table: Afghan and ex-Taliban officials met with Saudi King Abdullah.
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The Taliban are not engaged in peace talks with the Afghan government, despite recent reports to the contrary, say sources close to the insurgents and the government.

Instead, meetings held last month in Saudi Arabia – which brought former Taliban officials together with members of the Afghan and Saudi governments – may be an attempt by Kabul to start negotiations with the current Taliban.

"The meetings signal that the Afghan government is weak and is desperate for a solution," says Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst in Kabul and former official in the Taliban government.

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They've come at a time when the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan is reaching unprecedented heights, causing some analysts to doubt that the militants will be interested in making peace.

Moreover, the former Taliban members who participated in the Mecca meetings may not have much sway in persuading current militants to come to the table. "These people don't represent the Taliban," Mr. Muzhda says. "Most of the people have almost no standing with the current Taliban leadership."

No current Taliban attended the meeting

Up to 17 Afghans met with Saudi leader King Abdullah and other Saudi officials over the course of four days in late September, according to sources who either attended or are familiar with the meeting. Attendees included: Mullah Muhammad Ghaus, former foreign minister under the Taliban government, which ruled Afghanistan until 2001, who currently lives in Quetta, Pakistan; Abdel Hakim Mujahed, former unofficial Taliban representative in the United Nations; and Abdul Salaam Hashimi, former director of finance for the insurgent group Hizb-i-Islami, which is currently aligned with the Taliban.

None of the attendees currently belongs to the Taliban, according to one former Taliban official who attended the meetings. Some of the attendees – such as Maulavi Arsala Rahmani, a former deputy minister and currently senator – didn't wield much influence in the former Taliban government. Others, such as former Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, have since fallen out of favor with the leadership. On the Afghan side, attendees included parliamentarian Arif Noorzai and National Security Adviser Zalmay Rasul.

Both the Afghan government and the Taliban deny that the Saudi meetings could be construed as peace talks. A statement issued late last month by fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar said that "a handful of former Taliban officials who are under house arrest or who have surrendered do not represent the Islamic Emirate," referring to the Taliban.

Nonetheless, officials in Kabul may be intending to use the former Taliban members as intermediaries between them and the current Taliban, says Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. "Some of these former Taliban have ties to current Taliban, especially some junior members of the movement," he explains.

For example, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaif, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who attendted the Mecca meetings, is widely respected within Taliban circles. Abdullah Zakari, an early ally of Mullah Omar who has since left politics, and former foreign minister Mullah Muhammad Ghaus also attended the talks and are said to still have friendly relations with the Taliban leadership.

The Taliban, however, are unlikely to come to the table as their position in Afghanistan strengthens. "[T]he Taliban will never formally negotiate with Karzai," says Hamid Gul, a former chief of Pakistan's intelligence agency, known for his close historical relationship with the Taliban. "They won't budge an inch especially at a time when America is seen as losing the war."

Outside interest in talks

Yet many outside Afghanistan would like to see peace talks begin. Sources familiar with last month's meetings sayPrince Turki Faisal, former head of the Saudi intelligence agency, also attended. Mr. Faisal is said to have a close relationship with the Taliban and often acted as an intermediary between the Saudi government, Pakistan, and the Islamic insurgents in the 1980s.

Saudi authorities may have been prompted to host the talks out of concern for the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Officials in Riyadh may see a stable Pakistan as a counterweight to longtime rival Iran. In addition, the Saudis' similar religious outlook to the Taliban and their close ties to the group – Saudi Arabia was one of three countries to recognize the regime when it was in power – may make them an ideal candidate to eventually start a peace process.

Media reports suggest former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was also present at the meetings. While Mr. Sharif has not confirmed this, he has a history of attempting to bring warring parties in Afghanistan together. During the height of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, Sharif tried to broker a deal among leading warlords. Later, as prime minister, he cultivated close ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Western officials – who in a series of recent statements have suggested that the Afghan war cannot be won militarily – may be hoping that these meetings can initiate a process by which moderate Taliban peel away from extremists. "The US would certainly like to drive a wedge between Al Qaeda and the bulk of the Taliban," says political analyst Mr. Rahmani.

On the ground, however, news of the Mecca meetings may have only strengthened the Taliban's resolve. "These so-called negotiations are a joke, but it shows that the Afghan government and their friends are failing and losing this war," says a Taliban commander from the province of Ghazni. "It tells us that even the government realizes that they are a failure."

Caryle Murphy contributed from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Shahan Mufti contributed from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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