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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"It was against Al Qaeda opinion, because Al Qaeda wants a revolution all over the Muslim world," Mujda explained last year. He asked his Taliban contacts if this statement was official and if it meant a severing of ties with Al Qaeda. A contact close to Mullah Omar replied that it was the Taliban's position, and hinted that the message was really a signal that they wanted to talk peace.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Talking to the Taliban
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"That means we are ready to talk and have negotiations with the Afghan government and the US, but [US officials] never accepted that because they want to ignore us and say we don't understand their messages. We have sent a lot of messages to these people, but they never listen," Mujda said the contact told him.
Mr. Semple, another of the new Kremlinologists, reads the latest rhetoric on girls' education from Taliban commanders as a similar signal to the US. "They are certainly trying to make themselves more palatable," says Semple. He cautions, though, that "it's not just that they need to be palatable to the international community, but they need to be prepared to contemplate political compromise with fellow Afghans."
Still, even if the Taliban were ready to talk, there is no guarantee all elements would speak with one voice. Omar himself has struggled over the years to retain control of the disparate movement. Most notably, the cleric has released handbooks of conduct for Taliban fighters that argued against needless targeting of civilians, but there have since been numerous suicide attacks on so-called soft targets.
"The Taliban is not a central system. Some people are listening to the main shura; some are not," says Sami Yousafzai, a senior Pakistani journalist who has met with top Taliban leaders. "Omar is not in physical contact with anyone."
Since taking command of the NATO effort in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus has targeted mid-level commanders, killing many. That has helped sever some of the ties between the leadership and those in the field. But it's also emboldened a younger generation of Taliban who are in many ways more extreme.
"There is a saying that the older [Taliban] will not kill you for at least five hours; the new will just kill you on the spot," says Mr. Yousafzai.
The new Taliban are more versed in information technology, too. They frequently peruse Al Qaeda and Taliban websites, he says. When it comes to a possible peace deal, the leadership may have trouble bringing the younger generation along.
"The older [Taliban] who served in government as ministers or deputy ministers, at least they have an idea, if they are coming to reconciliation, what their [government] role would look like," says Yousafzai. "But the new generation has no idea. They just fight jihad."
Still, despite the considerable obstacles to any kind of peace process, there seems to be at least some movement on the long-moribund diplomatic side of the Afghan conflict. Those halting steps, to be sure, will likely be driven by how America and Pakistan work together after Osama bin Laden's killing and whether the Taliban can sow doubt again about the US commitment to the war and the peace.