The country's most powerful opposition group announced last week that they have been engaging in peace talks with the Taliban. The move signals both the growing divisions within the Afghan government and the increasing possibility that elements of the insurgent group could be drawn into the political process, say analysts.
Representatives of the United National Front – an assemblage of ministers, members of parliament, and warlords led by former Northern Alliance commanders – say they have held secret talks with the Taliban for at least five months.
"Leaders of some Taliban sections contacted us," says Front spokesman Sayyid Agha Hussein Fazel Sancharaki, "saying, 'We are both Muslims, we are both Afghans, and we are both not satisfied with the government's performance.' "
The government, which has had a series of secret talks with the "moderate Taliban" since 2003, has in contrast taken a different approach to negotiations. It insists that the Taliban must first surrender completely – disavow armed insurrection and accept the foreign presence.
But some observers say this strategy is too stringent and will not produce fruitful talks. "Why are they negotiating with Taliban who aren't fighting?" former Taliban official turned political analyst Wahid Muzjda asks. "The problem is with those who are fighting the government, and yet the government refuses to speak to this group."
Loosening the rules for talks
Mr. Sancharaki notes that his party will be more flexible in negotiations. "The Karzai government is using peace negotiations for political gain," he says, referring to President Hamid Karzai. "They will only talk to the Taliban if they lay down their weapons. This is impossible. But the National Front will have an agenda and a clear program for talks."
Perhaps to avoid being outmaneuvered by the opposition, Mr. Karzai's office responded by stating that both houses of parliament can negotiate directly with the insurgent group. The response marked a shift from previous policy in which Karzai tightly controlled the negotiation process.
The announcements come at a time when the government and the Taliban are feeling increased pressure to come to the table.
Last year marked the bloodiest year of the insurgency yet – the United Nations reports that Taliban attacks and NATO reprisals killed more than 6,000 people, including at least 1,200 civilians. The nation also saw more than 130 suicide attacks in 2007, and 10 percent of the country is under Taliban control, according to a recent US intelligence estimate.
Using Taliban to angle for power
As frustration with the poor security conditions has chipped away at the government's support, analysts say that the Front is announcing the talks now in order to increase pressure on Karzai.
"[They] are trying to use the Taliban to enhance their leverage vis-à-vis Karzai, to force him to make concessions in terms of ministerial posts and other appointments," says Antonio Giustozzi, a research fellow at the London School of Economics.
As Karzai's foreign and domestic support slips, the Front hopes to use its new status as Taliban interlocutor to win international backing.
"The people of this country are turning against the international community because of the record of the Karzai government and the security situation," says Sancharaki. "The international community should look to the National Front as a partner in bringing about peace and stability in Afghanistan."
The Front formed last year when former Mujahideen commander and president Burhanuddin Rabbani organized other strongmen and former Northern Alliance commanders in opposition to Karzai.
While the Front claims the support of 40 percent of members of parliament and scores of other influential figures, it still has difficulty shaking a checkered past.
Human rights groups allege that the commanders were behind many atrocities during the civil wars of the mid-'90s, and sections of the population consider the commanders nothing more than warlords.
Talks with the Taliban increase the strength and prestige of the Front and further isolate Karzai, says Mr. Muzjda. "This is an election year," the political analyst says, referring to the spring 2009 presidential elections. "They are trying to bolster their popularity and show that they are committed to peace."
Regardless of their intentions, experts say that recent declarations of negotiations help draw the Taliban into the political process and convince all sides that a powersharing agreement is possible in the future.
"All these talks have the net effect of legitimizing the Taliban and weakening the rationale for foreign presence in Afghanistan," Mr. Giustozzi says.
While most expect the insurgency to continue for several years, the Taliban is facing increasing pressure to open dialogue – despite losses inflicted upon NATO and its Afghan allies, the insurgents have not been able to defeat the coalition in most conventional battles.
Shared antipathy for Karzai
Although the core leadership is likely to resist peace talks, observers say that some Taliban commanders might be drawn to the Front due to shared antipathy for Karzai and to the opposition group's more flexible negotiation approach.
A recent Taliban statement openly called for coordination with the Front. "There is no doubt that the former ... commanders of Jihad have given a lot of sacrifices for Islam and for the path of freeing the country," the statement said, referring to Front leaders. "Now, it is necessary that they ... sacrifice once again against this invasion."
Yet ongoing deliberations in the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania – where members are debating troop commitments in Afghanistan – are convincing some insurgents to eschew negotiations and continue battling until all foreign soldiers leave the country, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi says in a phone interview.