U.S. Reaches Out to the Taliban

KARACHI, Pakistan -- U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials have reportedly met with Taliban leaders in an effort to devise a political solution to an escalating guerrilla war in Afghanistan.

According to a Pakistani jihadi leader who played a role in setting up the communication, a recent meeting took place between representatives of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Taliban leaders at the Pakistan Air Force base of Samungli, near Quetta.

The source told Asia Times Online that four conditions were put to the Taliban before any form of reconciliation could take place that could potentially lead to a Taliban role in the Kabul government:

  • Mullah Omar must be removed as supreme leader of the Taliban.

  • All Pakistani, Arab and other foreign fighters currently engaged in operations against international troops in Afghanistan must be thrown out of the country.

  • Any U.S. or allied soldiers held captive must be released.

  • Afghans currently living abroad, notably in the United States and England, must be given a part in the government, through being allowed to contest elections.

Apparently, the Taliban refused the first condition point-blank, but showed some flexibility on the others. As such, this first preliminary contact made little headway.

The channels for the contact have been set up by Taliban who fled to Pakistan when the government collapsed in Kabul and were sheltered in ISI safe houses. These people, working with Pakistani jihadis who know how to approach the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, are acting as go-betweens.

Violence against U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan has been increasing. Small hit-and-run attacks are a daily feature in most parts of the country, while face-to-face skirmishes are common in the former Taliban stronghold around Kandahar in the south.

Observers familiar with Afghan resistance movements say the one that has emerged since Taliban's fall is stronger than the movement that opposed Soviet invaders for nearly a decade starting in 1979.

A key reason for this is that the previous Taliban government -- which dispersed almost intact in the country after capitulating to advancing Northern Alliance forces without a fight -- is backed by the most powerful force in Afghanistan: clerics and religious students.

For centuries, clerics were the most respected segment of Afghan society. But before 1979 they never participated in politics; their role was one of reconciliation of conflicts. Things changed during the Afghan resistance movement against the USSR. Clerics threw their weight behind the mujahedeen struggle, but, with a few exceptions, they were not in command.

With the withdrawal of the Soviets and the emergence of the Taliban in the early 1990s, however, the situation once again changed. The Taliban, taking advantage of the power struggles among bitterly divided militias in Kabul, consolidated themselves into an effective political movement led by clerics. In 1996, they seized power in Kabul. Part of their success lay in the fact that initially, many Afghans were reluctant to take up the gun against clerics.

Now, in the renewed guerrilla war against foreign troops, the clerics are calling the shots. Hafiz Rahim, for instance, is the most respected cleric in the Kandahar region.

U.S. forces have employed maximum air support and advanced technology in an attempt to curtail attacks, but without the help of local Afghan forces they have been unable to track down Rahim, who has targeted U.S. convoys scores of times. The United States has admitted a few U.S. casualties; the Taliban claim to have killed many more. For funds, the Taliban use money they looted from the central bank before abandoning Kabul, estimated in excess of $110 million, in addition to money received from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda.

At the same time, famed warlord Gulbbudin Hekmatyar has joined the resistance after returning from exile in Iran. His Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) is the most organized force in the country, and it has added real muscle to the resistance. Many top slots in the Kabul administration are occupied by former HIA members who, although they were once anti-Taliban, are loyal to the Islamic cause and anti-U.S. Also, several provincial governors and top officials are former HIA commanders. They are suspect in the eyes of the Americans, but cannot be removed because of their huge political clout.

With this groundswell of support -- even if in places it is only passive -- and with Kabul's influence restricted to the capital, the Americans and their allies will remain vulnerable targets. In fact, many experts on Afghanistan argue that traditionally, similar situations have spawned insurrections in the Afghan army against foreign administrators.

At present, Kabul is divided into two main factions. The first is pro-U.S., represented by U.S. and allied troops and those loyal to President Hamid Karzai. The second is pro-Russian and pro-Iranian, represented by Defense Minister General Qasim Fahim and his Northern Alliance forces.

Although the camps are cooperating at present, they are silently building their support bases to make a grab for full power once the present interim administration runs its course, a process that is due to begin in October with a loya jirga (grand council).

Syed Saleem Shahzad is based in Karachi, Pakistan, and is affiliated to The Star (Dawn Group of Newspapers) as senior political correspondent, and to Asia Times Online.

Asia Times Online is a free, daily Internet publication that takes an in-depth look, from an Asian perspective, at political, economic and business developments relating to Asia.

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