Peshawar, Pakistan After two weeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I’m struck by how much hot air is expended on rumors of talks with the Taliban.
If you believe the tales, Afghan President Hamid Karzai (or his brother Qayum) was talking to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s No. 2 man, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, before the latter was recently arrested in Pakistan.
A second popular rumor has it that Pakistan arrested Baradar so it could control any talks between U.S. officials and Taliban leaders. A third says the United States is stopping Karzai from meeting Taliban leaders, or blocking a “peace jirga” in Kabul that has just been postponed until late May.
And all these rumors assume that talks among Karzai, the Americans, and top Taliban leaders are the only sure route to peace in Afghanistan.
Only problem: As far as I can ascertain, none of these rumors are true.
Indeed, Karzai has called for reconciliation with the Taliban in recognition that the Afghan people are weary of fighting. Clearly, the Afghan leader wants to give the impression he’s pushing for peace talks. But it’s far less clear whether he’s doing this to bolster his image at home, or because he really believes the Taliban are ready to compromise. I tend to think it’s the former.
However, the rumors that anyone is talking to Taliban leaders are very premature.
U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani sources assure me no meetings were held with Baradar by Karzai, his brother — or, as some claim, by a U.N. official. Messages were sent from Karzai to Baradar via fellow Popalzai tribesmen (Karzai and Baradar are both Popalzais), but no talks ensued. Nor have the Saudis been mediating talks.
As for Pakistan, there’s no question its top intelligence agency, the ISI, wants a piece of any action. Pakistan has legitimate worries about who will rule Afghanistan should the Americans quit the country and leave a big mess behind. But it would be a mistake to assume that the Pakistani military believes — or desires — the Taliban should retake power in Kabul.
“The Taliban should not expect the same treatment as before from Pakistan because Pakistan has seen the consequences of their bad behavior,” says Mahmoud Shah, a retired Pakistani general who formerly headed security affairs along the Afghan border. In the 1990s, Shah says, Pakistan backed the Taliban because they brought order to the anarchy that had erupted in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets by jihadi fighters.
But, Shah continues, Pakistani support for the Taliban backfired after they became the protectors of Osama bin Laden: “9/11 damaged Pakistan,” Shah says, “and those Taliban are why Pakistan suffered. Why would Pakistan have a soft spot for them?”
Indeed, Afghan Taliban leaders and the Pakistani military clearly have no love, or trust, for each other. The Pakistani army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, pulled out a thick, stapled sheaf of papers listing 434 Afghan Taliban who have been arrested inside Pakistan. U.S. sources told me the Pakistanis were holding 37 top Taliban operatives.
As for Baradar, he apparently was captured by accident when U.S. and Pakistani agents broke up a meeting of insurgents. Pakistan backs Taliban participation in talks — and Baradar may be a pawn — but the ISI won’t place all its bets on one group.
The question of whether the Taliban want a deal — or are willing to compromise their ideology — haunts any discussion of talks with insurgents. U.S. military officials are more interested in wooing mid- and lower-level Taliban to leave the fray by offering jobs and development aid.
But U.S. officials no longer oppose Karzai’s attempts to woo top Taliban leaders; the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, recently praised the Afghan leader for reaching out to all segments of the population. However, he also believes Taliban leaders still think they are winning and won’t compromise unless they have been further weakened by targeted military strikes.
Omar and his inner circle are aware of this jockeying and recently have been trying to burnish their image. Stories have been leaked to the press that Omar is ready to talk, although the Taliban officially deny this. Omar also recently put out statements opposing the destruction of girls’ schools, a widespread practice in territory the Taliban control.
Yet there is no clear sign that Afghan Taliban leaders are ready to compromise on their unyielding ideology, even should all foreign troops leave the country. Nor is there any sign they are willing to lay down their guns.
Yusufzai, the Taliban expert, says: “There can be no real sharing of power between any group and the Taliban. Their way of thinking is that they want complete power.”
The sad thing about the focus on talks with the Taliban is that it assumes these militants speak for those Pashtuns who are unhappy with Kabul’s corruption. But the reality — as I’ve heard over and over from groups of elders from many Afghan provinces — is that Afghan Pashtuns are disenchanted both with Karzai and the Taliban.
The belief that talks with the Taliban provide a silver bullet for peace misses a basic point: Most Afghans don’t want a return of Taliban cruelty, but just want the chance to live, and work, in peace.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org