Saudi peace initiative for a Taliban-Karzai truce fruitless so far


LAHORE: The Saudi-sponsored American-British initiative to broker a peace deal between the Karzai administration and the Taliban have failed so far due to trust deficit between the two sides and also because of the obstinacy of the former rulers of Afghanistan who are still determined to fight out the US-led Allied ‘occupation forces’ from the war-torn country, before re-establishing their gone empire — Islamic Emirate of Taliban.

Talks involving the Saudis and ‘facilitated’ by the American and the Britons have been both denied and admitted, but the reality is that somebody, somewhere and somehow is talking to the Afghan Taliban on behalf of those who are evolving an exit strategy for Afghanistan after the Taliban furiously fought their way into a position that has made them stakeholders in the Afghan power game. They first made their presence felt in traditional strongholds such as the southwestern Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Urozgan and Zabul. Nowadays they are able to organise attacks and maintain bases in faraway provinces such as Badghis and Faryab on the Turkmenistan border, Herat, Farah and Nimroz bordering Iran and Ghazni, Wardak, Logar, Kapisa and Parwan neighbouring Kabul. And probably all these developments have compelled the western powers to try a political surge involving parleys with all relevant groups in Afghanistan, instead of a military one, because they seem almost convinced that Taliban could be defeated militarily on their own soil.

Going by international media reports, Saudi Arabia, motivated by the decision makers in Washington and London, had been brokering talks between the Taliban and Karzai’s Afghan government for almost a year now, but without any results, primarily because of the fact that the Taliban have never been easy to talk to. In the period when they were the de-facto rulers of Afghanistan, nobody was talking to them anyway. They were not formally recognised as a legitimate government, there were no diplomatic missions to carry on the business of state. Several countries had ‘back-channel’ communications including the British, the Americans, the Swiss, and the French; but maintaining a working dialogue with the Taliban was made the more difficult because of their sometimes fluid command structures, and the way in which senior post-holders were moved around.

However, seven years after the US invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the deteriorating security situation in the country has prompted a review of the strategies that have failed to deliver victory to the resourceful NATO forces against the ragtag Taliban militia. Unbelievably, there is a military standoff despite the fact that the lightly-armed Taliban guerrilla fighters in terms of firepower should have been no match for the world’s only superpower and the best western armies. Subsequently, having declared Afghan war unwinnable, even the NATO military commanders now want to engage the Taliban not on the battlefield but at the negotiating table. There is talk of negotiations with the Taliban and even offering them a share in the Afghan government as part of a political settlement. Interestingly, in the words of the head of American Central Command, General David Petraeus, “America should be prepared to talk to its enemies”.

This is a sea change in the views of the Western nations that followed, or were rather arm-twisted, by US to send troops to Afghanistan to fight the supposedly common enemy, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Until now, they seemed determined to defeat the two radical Islamic groups and extend the writ of President Hamid Karzai’s weak government to all corners of Afghanistan. Now the emphasis is shifting and the game plan is to bring the Taliban on board and wean them away from Al-Qaeda. The outcasts of yesterday, after being demonised to no end, are being lobbied hard and Saudi Arabia is being used by the west to rope them in. Therefore, the United States has already, for the first time, declared officially that the Afghan problem needs to be resolved politically, through reconciliation. On October 9, 2008 US defence secretary Robert Gates said the US will be prepared for pursuing reconciliation with the Taliban, if the Afghan government chose to support them. His truce offer was followed by a similar plea coming from Hamid Karzai, asking the fugitive Taliban Ameer Mullah Omar “to return home under guarantees of safety to help bring peace to Afghanistan”.

In an exclusive interview to Geo television channel at his presidential palace on September 30, 2008, Karzai had said: “Through Geo, I propose Mullah Omar to get back to Afghanistan. I will be wholly and solely responsible for his security and I shall be answerable to the whole of the world on his behalf”. Hamid Karzai went on to state that he can engage in negotiations to give the NATO-ISAF forces safe passage out of Afghanistan, clearly indicating his frustration and the fact that the US-led war on terror has reached the tipping point in Afghanistan. His truce offer was apparently motivated by the fact that the year 2008 has been declared the bloodiest so far in Afghanistan for the NATO and AISAF since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Yet, Karzai’s offer was rejected by a Taliban spokesman, saying there would be no negotiations until foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan. “The so-called negotiations are a joke, but it shows that the Afghan government and their friends are failing and losing this war”, said the Taliban spokesman, adding that it tells us that even the Karzai government in Kabul realizes that they are a failure”.

As a matter of fact, Karzai’s offer came hardly two days after secret talks between the Saudi authorities and some Taliban representatives, which were held from September 24 to 27, 2008 in Makkah, in a bid to broker peace between the Karzai administration and the Taliban. However, the talks failed even after four day long marathon sessions as the Saudis failed to give a time frame on behalf of the Americans for the withdrawal of the US-led Allied Forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban representatives had maintained during the Makkah talks that the exit of the NATO and ISAF forces was a pre-requisite to strike a peace deal with the Karzai regime, in line with Osama’s stance that the US troops should leave Saudi Arabia as well as other Muslim countries.

Up to 17 Afghans met with Saudi leader King Abdullah and other Saudi officials over the course of four days in September. However, following the failed talks, a Taliban spokesman stated on October 1st that the Taliban were not engaged in talks with Afghan government. A subsequent statement by Mullah Mohammad said that a handful of former Taliban officials who are under house arrest or who have surrendered do not represent the Islamic Emirate of Taliban. As a matter of fact, however, it is not only Saudi Arabia which is trying to broker a peace deal between the Karzai regime and the Taliban, but Pakistan is also playing a vital role to make these talks a success.

And it is doing so not only at the behest of the west but due to the fact that the dilemma for Islamabad is more-or-less the same as for the Afghan government. The Pakistan Taliban control large areas of FATA and Swat, have Peshawar, the capital of the NFWP province, more or less surrounded apart from the Attock corridor, and are unlikely to succumb to a crushing military defeat. They are well-armed and provisioned, hugely experienced in the practise of asymmetric warfare and are probably winning the propaganda fight – notwithstanding attempts to usurp them and close down their communication and broadcast networks; or for local populations to rise in revolt.

Therefore, Pakistani authorities did use their influence to arrange several meetings between the Taliban representatives and some important members of the Saudi royal family, so that the former rulers of Afghanistan could be made to review their present policy and to move forward for a rapprochement. A senior Saudi official reportedly traveled to the trouble ridden North Waziristan on the Pak-Afghan border before the Makkah talks to interact with the Taliban high command. He actually wanted to see Osama’s No 2 Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri but he was not allowed to see him and instead asked to meet the third-tier leaders. However, the Taliban did agree to dispatch some of their representatives to Saudia to attend the Makkah talks.

Well placed sources in the Pakistani establishment say it was actually Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former head of the Saudi intelligence agency, who had requested the Pakistani authorities to use their influence on the Taliban and to make them agree to table talks at Makkah. Prince Faisal is said to have a close relationship with the Taliban and often acted as an intermediary between the Saudi government, Pakistan, and Islamic insurgents in the 1980s. Even otherwise, few people know that Dr Zawahir and Prince Faisal are distant cousins through the wife of King Faisal, Queen Effat.

The Saudis might have been prompted to host peace talks out of concern for the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They say Riyadh sees a stable Pakistan as a counter weight to longtime rival Iran. In addition, the Saudis similar Wahabbi religious outlook to the Taliban and their close ties to the group may make them an ideal candidate to eventually start a peace process, given the fact that Saudi Arabia was one of three countries to recognize the orthodox Taliban regime when it was in power. Yet, the mediatory role assumed by Saudi Arabia has greatly angered Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who has already pointedly stressed the need to be vigilant about “plots by the world’s arrogance to create disunity” between Sunnis and Shias”.

However, seven year after the 9/11 terror attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, the most important question remains: how the Taliban could be brought to the negotiating table and whether a political settlement is possible in view of the inflexible stands of the warring parties to the conflict. As things stand, the Taliban want a pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan before they could consider holding talks with the US-led coalition or the Karzai government. However, they would not be averse to talking to the US and its Western allies on the timeline for withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan. The US and NATO are unlikely to accept this condition and hence there would be a stalemate even if the talks went ahead.

The US and Karzai have their own preconditions, the most important being that the Taliban should accept Afghanistan’s new constitution and join the political mainstream under the existing system of governance. The US also wants Mullah Mohammad Omar to ditch Al-Qaeda and help arrest bin Laden. In fact, sections of the Western media and analysts were already reporting with glee that Mullah Omar had agreed to part ways with Osama and his Al-Qaeda. However, this was wishful thinking and Omar had already made it clear that the Taliban would not abandon bin Laden and his men just like that after having sacrificed everything, even their rule and lives, for the sake of their Al-Qaeda guests.

Under these circumstances, most Pakistani analysts believe, the so-called Saudi peace initiative for Afghanistan has failed to deliver for the time being, chiefly because of the fact that the distrust between the Saudis and Taliban is deep, because of the role of an agent the Saudi Royal family has played even before 9/11. Such a role in the past was usually played by Pakistan but its instability and controversial policies regarding Afghanistan have already made it a fringe player in the Afghan conflict. And the Saudi authorities too would find the going tough because detaching Taliban from Osama bin Laden would not be easy and keeping Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance as part of the pro-west ruling Afghan coalition would be an uphill task in case Karzai goes for a power-sharing deal with the Taliban.

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