01 October 2007

Al-Qaeda wants a part of Afghan talks

Asia Times
South Asia
Oct 2, 2007
Al-Qaeda wants a part of Afghan talks
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - While the Taliban and the Afghan administration of President Hamid Karzai play political football with the idea of peace talks, the stumbling block remains al-Qaeda, which is firmly opposed to any dialogue unless it can gain something for itself.

Over the past few weeks, the Taliban have responded positively to Karzai's offer of talks, but just when it appeared there might be progress, there's a setback.

Speaking on his return from the United States on Saturday, Karzai said that he was ready to meet Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of another insurgency group, Hezb-e-Islami, for peace talks aimed at sharing power.

But on Sunday, Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a Taliban spokesman, was quoted by Reuters as saying that peace talks with Kabul would not take place as long as the more than 50,000 foreign troops remained in the country. "The Karzai government is a dummy government. It has no authority so why should we waste our time and effort?" Yousuf was quoted as saying. Previously, the Taliban have said that they would talk without preconditions, and they could well revert to this position.

Coincidentally or not, Karzai made his offer hours after one of the biggest bomb attacks in six years killed 30 people in Kabul.

Karzai said that President George W Bush and Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, had both supported the idea of peace talks when he met them in the US. Karzai said he would allocate some government posts to the Taliban and that both Hekmatyar and Mullah Omar could stand in elections scheduled for 2009, if they wanted power.

Although Karzai has offered talks before, this was the first time since the Taliban's ouster in 2001 that the Washington-anointed leader had gone as far as to effectively legitimize the insurgency.

Recently, several top Taliban commanders met again in the Pakistani city of Quetta to hold talks with the Afghan government through Afghan tribal elders acting as go-betweens.

These talks are claimed by the Karzai government as proof of debate among Taliban commanders for peace. However, what is overlooked is the ideological strength of al-Qaeda, which has once again wrested control of the hearts and minds of the Taliban, at least in southeastern Afghanistan. And until al-Qaeda's leaders are drawn into the talks, any other dialogue is bound to fail.

Mushahid Hussain Syed, chairman of the foreign relations committee of the Pakistani Senate and also the powerful secretary general of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, told Asia Times Online: "Only a year ago when I made the proposal that if Mullah Omar is too hardline to talk too, and the Afghan government should start negotiations with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Afghan government was so upset that it officially protested to Pakistan. But I am happy that now Mr Karzai himself has endorsed the same proposal."

There is a delayed realization in the Western camp that the Taliban are a reflection of Afghanistan's majority Pashtun population and that their brand of Islam in fact blends strongly with conservative Pashtun traditions. Even after the Taliban defeat in 2001 by the US and its allies, that same brand of Islam is reflected in Afghan court decisions and in many other matters dealt with by the present administration.

The upshot is acceptance that the Taliban should be accommodated politically as well, yet the Western coalition still does not have the stomach to talk with al-Qaeda, which is exerting its influence from the Pakistani tribal areas of North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

People forget that the reason Afghanistan was invaded in the first place was because of the sanctuary that the Taliban offered al-Qaeda. The majority of Afghanistan's tribal and clerical councils recommended to expel Osama bin Laden after September 11, 2001, but al-Qaeda's influence prevailed.

The US and Pakistan, as partners in the "war on terror", made numerous efforts to split the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and at times they succeeded. Notably, there was major disagreement on strategies between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2006, which led to many al-Qaeda leaders leaving the Waziristans and Afghanistan. And this year, a Pakistani-sponsored massacre was carried out in South Waziristan against Uzbek militants by Pakistani Taliban commander Haji Nazeer. Prominent al-Qaeda commanders were expelled from the area, yet after a few months al-Qaeda had regained its influence and all Pakistan Taliban groups and al-Qaeda members are fighting side-by-side against the Pakistani armed forces.

If the al-Qaeda factor is to be neutralized, the group needs to be engaged, just as attempts are being made to embrace the Taliban. When Prince Turki al-Faisal (now ambassador to the United States) was the Saudi intelligence chief, the kingdom kept its channels of dialogue with al-Qaeda open, even after September 11, by using the Taliban leadership.

And recently, Saudi Arabia made a fresh approach at dialogue with al-Qaeda by sending an envoy to speak with it in North Waziristan. (See Military brains plot Pakistan's downfall Asia Times Online, September 26, 2007.)

These talks did not make too much progress, but al-Qaeda is certainly looking for some kind of "amnesty" for itself. Until this happens, the Taliban's commanders in southwestern Afghanistan might win some breathing space, but there can be no guarantee of any lasting political settlement in the region.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com