Thursday, April 10, 2008

Clamouring for negotiations

Lately, we have seen (e.g., here) that calls for negotiations with the Taliban have been coming from various Afghan politicians and observers. Now, there is the claim by the United National Front - Afghanistan's closest thing to an opposition party - that they have in fact already begun talks with Taliban insurgents:

Afghan opposition courts Taliban
By Anand Gopal - Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Kabul, Afghanistan, April 3 - 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.

If successful, officials argue that the talks will change the way the United States deals with Afghanistan, by forcing Washington to contend with the opposition.

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." ...

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 Front formed last year when former Mujahideen commander and president Burhanuddin Rabbani organized other strongmen and former Northern Alliance commanders in opposition to Karzai. ...

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," [Professor Antonio] Giustozzi says. ... (link)
The Globe and Mail has a piece arguing the merits of peace talks with the Taliban:
Talking to the Taliban: when and why
Special to Globe and Mail - April 7, 2008

... Whereas Dutch NATO forces engage in dialogue with Taliban in Uruzgan, and the British in Helmand, Canada's position has mirrored that of the United States: “We don't talk to terrorists.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose government we are supposedly supporting, has repeatedly stated a desire to negotiate with the Taliban and other armed opposition, but has received little evident support from NATO. The terms of the United Nations engagement, set by Western allies, contains no peace mandate.

Let us make some clear assertions. This war, which is partly a continuation of the pre-2001 Afghan civil war, cannot be ended through military means. The Taliban and other armed opposition groups have some war goals we would regard as illegitimate (for example, ending female education and institution of a Taliban regime) and some we should seriously consider as legitimate (for example, ending the categorical exclusion of one faction from the political process and eventually having foreign troops leave the country).

There is also a regional dimension to the Taliban's war goals. Many insurgents express concerns about what they see as excessive Iranian influence promoting structural discrimination against Pashtuns. It is also interesting that [Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith] uncovered distrust for Pakistan's intentions among Taliban foot soldiers. They hold this in common with the Kabul government, which sees Pakistan as supporting the insurgents. ...

Supporting peace dialogue does not mean acceding to measures Canadians and the Afghan constitution would regard as illegitimate. It means seeking common ground and working from there. It does not mean immediate foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Most Afghans agree that in without a peace process, this would bring a disastrous escalation of the civil war. Military peace support functions are necessary while a peace process unfolds. ... (link)
Next door in Pakistan, there is now what appears to be some serious momentum toward negotiations with insurgents. The recent elections there resulted in victories for Bhutto's PPP and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, as well as the avowedly socialist Awami National Party, who are Pashtun nationalists. Both the PPP and the PML-N are at least lukewarm on negotiations with Taliban insurgents at war with the Pakistani government. The ANP, however, appears to be already engaged in negotiations, and further emphasizes that they see negotiations as vital for dealing with the Afghan Taliban as well:
Jirgas only way to defeat extremism: Asfandyar
Friday March 28, 2008

[President of the Awami National Party Asfandyar Wali Khan:] “We want to resolve the issue [in Afghanistan] through our customary Pashtun ‘Jirgas’; that is the only peaceful way of resolving the issues, and we are in contact with those with whom we want to have dialogue,” he added.

“We believe in peaceful resolution of all issues including Kashmir through dialogue, but it is sad that when we talk about dialogue we are labelled as ‘traitors’ and Indian agents,” he added. ... (link)
Whereas Wali is labelled a traitor to Pakistan for his efforts, in this country a political leader's stated commitment to peace earned him the vicious nickname of "Taliban Jack". (Considering that Afghanistan's Karzai has sought negotiations, it is revealing that we haven't heard any Western commentators deriding "Taliban Hamid"; somehow I doubt we'll hear about "Taliban Wali" either.)

Pakistani newspaper The Nation has more:
[Asfandyar Wali Khan] also underlined that the United States had agreed that Pakistan’s Parliament is the body to settle issues, including that of war on terror. “All the political parties of the country have agreed that there should not be any military operation in the name of war on terror as Pakistan faced more loss than any other country of the world did”, he added.

Responding to a question, the ANP chief said that peace could not be restored in FATA until the end of so-called war on terror. He said that hundreds of people had been killed, arrested and tortured in the name of war terror. ... (link)
The ANP's chief minister-designate of Northwest Frontier Province, Amir Haider Khan Hoti sheds further light on the approach:
Our policy is very clear. The way this issue has been handled so far, in our opinion and in our assessment, was not the proper way to deal with it. In any society, more so in our Pashtun society, no issue is ever resolved through the use of force and power. Issues are always resolved through dialogue, jirgas and negotiations. Even beyond Pakistan, countries which have had conflicts had to eventually return to the negotiating table to resolve their problems. In England, for instance, the British government had to negotiate with the Irish Republican Army, which it had previously dubbed as a terrorist organisation, and worked out the Good Friday Agreement. ...

[I]f we, the parties to this conflict, do not sit together and talk to each other, this problem would not be solved. This problem is not going to be solved by my going to talk to the elders only. That may be good. But unless we somehow approach the one who has taken up arms, or is involved in suicide bombing or has gone to the other extreme, and reach an understanding with him, the problem would not be solved. You have to approach and sit with those elements. We may not sit with them directly. We may involve elders to approach them. But they will have to be approached and engaged in negotiations.

But having said this, I understand that this is an uphill task. There may be some forces who would want to sabotage this process which in any case is a very complicated process. ...

[The Americans] should understand our problem. We don’t want them to help us resolve our issues. What we want them to do is to let us solve our problems by ourselves. And I hope they will understand. ... (link)
Notice that Hoti foresees talking even with those involved in suicide bombings - perhaps an indication that the ANP has no intention of limiting talks to what others call the "moderate Taliban".

Pakistan's oldest English-language paper, Dawn, has still more:
ANP gets in touch with local Taliban
By Zulfiqar Ali

PESHAWAR, March 29: The Awami National Party and the local Taliban have formally made contacts to negotiate peace and find a solution to the growing militancy in the NWFP and tribal areas. ...

The Taliban have welcomed the ANP’s victory in the elections and congratulated the party leadership. “Greetings have been extended to the ANP leadership and Mullah Omar has praised party’s victory in the elections,” said a senior officer-bearer of the ANP.

However, he said he did not know exactly whether Mullah Omar of Afghanistan had greeted the party or it was a local Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. ... (link)
To get a sense of how this is being interpreted by articulate Pakistani opinion, check out this editorial in the Daily Times:
Editorial:Taliban conditions for talks

[Pakistani Taliban] leaders, including Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, Maulvi Sher Bahadar, Dr Muhammad Ismail, and party spokesman Maulvi Omar, said they were ready for talks with the government if Pakistan were “to give up its pro-US stance first”. ...

[They] also demanded implementation of sharia law and the jirga system for their territory “according to tribal traditions”, assuming that sharia law was not in force in the rest of Pakistan. They added, however, that “jihad against America would continue in Afghanistan”, but that they were ready “to end their activities and improve law and order in Pakistan if the government showed flexibility”. ...

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said on Saturday that fighting terrorism would be his top priority but offered to hold talks with those militants who laid down their weapons ...

The answer to the prime minister’s own "condition" offered to the Taliban of laying down arms was given at [a recent Taliban leaders' meeting] through the resolution that the Taliban would not lay down arms in Pakistan "as long as the US army was present in Afghanistan". This makes clear the possible modality of negotiations between the Taliban and Islamabad. Before Pakistan sits down at the table with them, it will have to at least announce that it is no longer supporting American policy in the region. It will also have to waive its condition that the Taliban lay down their arms. ... (link)
The latest development: Chief Minister Hoti has spearheaded the drive to make good on the pledges above in the NWFP:
Cabinet body to negotiate peace in Swat

KABUL - April 8 (PAN): The NWFP cabinet, making good on its election campaign pledge, Tuesday constituted a committee to initiate dialogue with pro-Taliban miscreants in the troubled northwestern valley of Swat, a private Pakistani TV channel reported.

Formed at a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the committee is jointly headed by senior ministers Bashir Ahmed Bilour of the Awami National Party (ANP) and Rahimdad Khan of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). ... (link)

And there are attempts at negotiations afoot in Pakistan's Balochistan province:
Balochistan government in contact with dissidents

KABUL -Apr 7 (PAN): In an effort to bring normality to the resource-rich southwestern province, bordering Afghanistan, the Balochistan government has decided to initiate peace talks with local militants instead of pressing on with military means alone. ...

Dawn quoted [Governor Nawab Zulfiqar Ali] Magsi as saying a stop to the military sweep and restoring peace in the restive province would be the new governments priority. The use of force over the past five years not failed to yield any breakthrough, he argued. ...

He went on to justify his initiative by saying: The crux of the problem is that no one has tried to talk to the Baloch dissidents in the past. Instead of engaging them in a continuous process of talks, the government resorted to the unabated use of force, which further alienated the people. (link)

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