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Can US and Taliban cut a deal in Afghanistan?

Even before Osama bin Laden's killing, the Taliban were softening their image while the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan set the stage for talks. Now the US must decide if it's worth years of further military and diplomatic effort to hammer out an agreement.

By Staff writer / May 3, 2011

Afghan Taliban fighters at a surrender ceremony in Hellmand Province on Jan. 1. This is the cover story for the May 2 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

Reuters photo/John Kehe staff illustration


Kabul, Afghanistan; and Islamabad, Pakistan

Muhammad Hassan Haqyar once sat close to the heart of Afghan power, wielding influence as an administrator in the Ministry of Mines during the Taliban years. The government in those days was filled with illiterate bumpkins better versed in an uncompromising interpretation of Islam than the nuances of statecraft.

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But Mr. Haqyar was different. A religious scholar, he was an expert on Islam and disagreed with certain Taliban dictates. He even wrote a book arguing that Islam promoted girls' education – though he cautiously published it under a pseudonym. When a Taliban superior found out about it, he summoned him for questioning.

"He told me to come talk and he said, 'We are not against women's education,' " recounts Haqyar. " 'We just don't have the resources.' "

As implausible as it may sound, the assertion that the Taliban, then and now, aren't against women's education is being floated by a growing number of Taliban members and sympathizers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nor does the revisionist history stop at girls' schooling. Some Taliban members argue that they were misunderstood about Osama bin Laden, too. They would have handed him over to the United States – eventually.

It is all part of what appears to be a charm offensive by some elements of the Taliban – a concerted effort to soften their image in what may be a precursor to a possible political breakthrough 10 years after the advent of war.

These changes were observed before the killing of Osama Bin Laden. But the US success in targeting the Al Qaeda leader last weekend is likely to force the Taliban as well as Pakistan’s military hard-liners to look even more closely at negotiation. The US, meanwhile, will need to decide if it’s worth more years of both military and diplomatic engagement to reach an Afghan settlement, or if now is the moment simply to declare victory and begin departing.

In interviews across Afghanistan and Pakistan over the preceding two months, members of the insurgency and their supporters have sounded strikingly similar notes, almost as if reading from the same sheet music. "The world ignored us and we had no resources ... no money for girls' education and even boys' education," says one Taliban commander from Wardak Province. "If we have resources and money, we'll start doing these things."

Perhaps most significant, when the Taliban reclaimed the Pech Valley in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan last month, the insurgent commander there, Haji Muhammad Dawran Safi, told the Afghan Islamic Press that they intended to keep all schools and health institutions open. He dismissed allegations that the Taliban have torched schools around the country, noting: "We do not want to deprive Afghan children of education."


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