Obama Administration Supports Afghan-Taliban Reconciliation Under Certain Conditions, But Will Those Conditions Be Met?

By Patrick Goodenough | October 7, 2010 | 5:10 AM EDT

The war in Afghanistan entered its 10th year on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. In this Monday, Dec. 31, 2001 file photo, Marines in full battle gear prepare to board transport helicopters at the U.S. military compound at Kandahar airport for a mission to an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/John Moore, File)

(CNSNews.com) - As Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday convenes the first meeting of a new “peace council” designed to oversee peace talks with the Taliban, news reports indicate that some exchanges already are underway, and that important U.S. government criteria for reconciliation may be at risk.

The key conditions set by the Obama administration for Taliban leaders seeking reconciliation with Kabul are a pledge to stop fighting, to end support for al-Qaeda, and to abide by the Afghan constitution.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley reiterated the “red lines” on Wednesday, adding that “anyone who adopts those criteria, in our view, can play a role in the future of Afghanistan.”

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, however, senior Afghan officials said this week that the U.S. criteria may have to be dropped to lure the Taliban into substantive negotiations.

The report said talks were held at a Kabul hotel on Tuesday and Wednesday, involving Afghan and Pakistani officials as well as former Taliban representatives.

It quoted Karzai’s adviser on Islamic affairs, Nematullah Shahrani, as saying that in return for the concession, the Taliban would be expected to abandon its own precondition for talks – the departure of all foreign forces.

Afghanistan’s Tolo News channel also reported on the talks in Kabul, and identified some of the participants. Among them was Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former confidant of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and ambassador to Islamabad at the time when Pakistan was one of just three countries that recognized the fundamentalist militia’s regime in Kabul.

After U.S.-led forces attacked Afghanistan following 9/11 – nine years ago on Thursday – Zaeef remained a belligerent spokesman for the Taliban from his base in the Pakistani capital.

But with Pakistan pressured by the Bush administration to cut ties with the Taliban, Zaeef’s embassy was shut down in November 2001, and the following January he was arrested.

Pakistan handed him over to the U.S. and he was held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility until 2005, when he was released and returned to Afghanistan.

Zaeef’s name was removed from the United Nations’ Taliban and al-Qaeda blacklist over the summer, at Karzai’s request.

Tolo News said others in the talks included Ali Ahmad Jalali and Aftab Ahmad Shirpaw, former Afghan and Pakistani interior ministers respectively, and a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Asif Durrani.

The ISI has a close relationship with the Taliban, having helped to set up the militia during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Elements in the covert agency have been accused of ongoing collusion with the Taliban long after Pakistan officially cut ties after 9/11.

Separately, the Washington Post reported Wednesday that “secret” talks were underway between representatives of the Taliban and the Karzai government. It quoted unnamed sources as saying this was believed to be the first time Taliban representatives had been authorized to speak for the so-called Quetta Shura – Omar’s mainstream Taliban faction.

The Obama administration supports Karzai’s plans for “reconciliation” with Taliban leaders – in line with the delineated criteria – and also for a “reintegration” program that aims to persuade up to 36,000 low-level fighters to abandon the Taliban by offering jobs and incentives to those who renounce violence.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday the U.S. government would not itself engage in talks with the Taliban but supported Afghan-led reconciliation efforts.

Crowley at the State Department said talking to the enemy “does not contradict” U.S. strategy.

“Ultimately insurgencies end, more often than not, because of a political agreement, not because of a military defeat,” he said.

“We believe that some of these groups may well be willing to seek a political solution. We recognize that other groups will be holdouts and that’s why we are intensively bringing the fight to them.”

At the Pentagon, spokesman Geoff Morrell confirmed that the U.S. military has “seen high-level outreach by some members of the Taliban to the Afghan government,” but said it was important to keep up the pressure.

“We need to take the fight more aggressively and for a greater duration to the Taliban and other extremists in Afghanistan, for them to feel the kind of pressure necessary … to spark a movement of reintegration and reconciliation,” he said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow