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.
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“They have lost face and they are so embarrassed that they are now inventing new conspiracy theories,” says Rais.Skip to next paragraph
“It will help the political forces persuade the military establishment not to pursue a parallel security agenda in Afghanistan,” he adds, referring to aspirations for greater influence over Kabul.
But even if bin Laden’s death spurs greater Pakistani assistance in negotiations, the country’s credibility has been damaged.
“When it comes to bringing the Afghan Taliban leadership to the table … Pakistan is an indispensable partner,” says Anatol Lieven, author of “Pakistan: A Hard Country.” “The problem there is the US has to trust Pakistan as a broker. What just happened makes that considerably more difficult.”
Trust is severely lacking
Any negotiating in a peace process would require an element of trust among the parties – something severely lacking in this conflict. Yet a willingness to at least talk is springing forth from unlikely places.
In a leafy corner of Pakistan's capital, Ghairat Baheer welcomes three reporters into his multistory home. "Would you like some tea or coffee?" he asks, following up shortly thereafter with a platter of sweet biscuits.
In the middle of a night in 2002, he had a different set of visitors to his house: gunmen who whisked him away, eventually to Afghanistan. For six months, the US military confined him to a dark cell measuring 6 feet by 8 feet at a CIA prison in Kabul, he says. "My toilet was a small bucket," recalls Mr. Baheer. "I was given a meal each 48 hours – sometimes 24 hours. I used to eat in darkness; I couldn't see the plate."
He says he was tortured, including being suspended from the ceiling by his arms. (Another detainee at the site, known as the Salt Pit, died at the time. The CIA's inspector general forwarded the case to federal prosecutors, who later dropped it, according to the Associated Press.) Eventually Baheer was brought to the prison at the US's Bagram Air Base outside Kabul.
Baheer says he's never been a militant. Instead, he serves as head of the political wing for a faction of Hizb-e-Islami headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Before the Taliban came to power, Mr. Hekmatyar served as prime minister of Afghanistan and Baheer, his son-in-law, was the country's ambassador to Pakistan.
Hekmatyar earned a bloody reputation for his role in rocketing Kabul during the struggle among the mujahideen factions that fought over the capital after the Soviets left. Few leaders emerged from those years with good names, including rival Northern Alliance commanders now backed by the US and leading the Karzai government.
Hekmatyar's group was "ignored" at Bonn – it was a "joke," says Baheer – and has become a third component of the Afghan insurgency along with the Taliban and the Haqqani network.
In the Bagram prison, Baheer says he eventually won over the Americans with long talks about politics and his help in negotiating with detainees. From his six years in detention, he estimates that he now knows about 2,000 to 3,000 Americans by sight. He says he has worked hard to let go of his anger about what the Americans have done to him and his country.