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Chapter 13

Aghan Endgame


By Ahmed Rashid


Having ruled most of Afghanistan for six years before being defeated by the Americans after 11 September 2001, history granted the Taliban one of its rare gifts – a resounding second act. The Taliban now claim some degree of control in every part of Afghanistan, and threaten the safe and orderly withdrawal of US and NATO forces from the country in 2014. Once they have outlasted those overwhelmingly modern armies, the Taliban stand ready to take an enormous stake in the Afghanistan that comes after. 

The last 12 years have seen the Taliban transform, expand and turn itself into a franchise. The Taliban ideology has changed from being hardcore jihadist to increasingly Afghan nationalist fighting a war of liberation against a foreign occupation – just as the Afghans fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s and forced their withdrawal. Many in the Taliban rank and file make up what is essentially a peasant army of illiterate and not particularly ideological fighters, but what binds them together is hatred of the foreigners. At the same time, the Taliban franchise has now spread throughout the region. Today there are Pakistani and Central Asian Taliban, each determined to create a shari’a state, inspired both by the more nationalist and anti-American agenda of the Taliban and the global jihadist agenda of al Qaeda. 

However, the Taliban resurgence is the result of American neglect and short-sightedness in the early years of its occupation of Afghanistan, followed by a serious lack of vision or nation-building commitment, when it decided to commit more troops and money. Meanwhile Pakistan, a purported ally of the US and Afghanistan followed a dual-track policy of being both a US ally but also giving safe sanctuary to the Taliban leadership. 

When the 19 suicide bombers rammed their planes into landmarks in Washington and New York on 11 September 2001, it was the end of an era for the West, which now for the first time confronted a global terrorist movement. However, in Central and South Asia there was the powerful hope that the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan would finally bring an end to Afghanistan’s long-running wars that had begun with the Soviet invasion in 1979. This final war ushered in the promise of peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan and across the region as leaders from President George Bush to Prime Minister Tony Blair promised never to abandon Afghanistan again and to rebuild the country. Expectations amongst the Afghans were enormous. 

The savage and brutal deterioration of social and economic conditions for the Afghan people living under the sway of the Taliban and al Qaeda in the years before 11 September should have signalled to the world that enormous dangers were lurking there, as Afghanistan became a terrorist sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and some 2,500 of his fighters. Extremists from Central and South Asia, the Middle East, the Far East, Africa and even Europe poured into al Qaeda camps to receive training in Jihad and war. 

The Taliban seeds were sown in the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and the lack of an Afghan consensus on how or who should rule the country. The civil war was abetted by Afghanistan’s ambitious neighbours, particularly Iran and Pakistan, who wanted to carve out zones of influence and backed warlords as their proxies. The Taliban, who were mostly from the Pashtun ethnic group – the largest ethnicity in the country and the traditional rulers – emerged partly from the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan where conditions were appalling, and partly from young former mujahedin who had fought the Soviets and were totally disillusioned with their elders continuing to fight a civil war. They appeared first in Kandahar, captured the city and declared a Jihad against all the warlords and started to disarm the population as they marched north. They were soon backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and in 1996 they captured Kabul, pushing the anti-Taliban resistance into isolated pockets in the north even as the Taliban conquest cost tens of thousands of lives. 

The only resistance to the Taliban taking total control of Afghanistan was the Northern Alliance (NA) and its leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. The NA included elements of all the major non-Pashtun ethnic groups who lived in the north – Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and Turkmen. 

However, al Qaeda had prepared well for 9/11. Two days earlier, Massoud was assassinated by two Moroccans pretending to be journalists, who killed him with a suicide bomb packed into a television camera. Al Qaeda had planned the assassination to take place several weeks earlier, so that the Taliban could have defeated the NA, leaving the Taliban in control of the entire country just as 9/11 unfolded. It would have left any invading force bereft of allies on the ground. Even though the NA was almost on its last legs, it held on, hoping that now the Americans would support them. 

The Taliban were deeply divided over the role of the Arabs and al Qaeda. Moderates within the Taliban leadership, who despised bin Laden and al Qaeda and were secretly willing to talk to the international community, suffered a major setback when their leader Mullah Mohammad Rabbani, the second-in-command of the Taliban movement, died of cancer in a Karachi hospital on 16 April 2001. Rabbani had strongly opposed the growing influence of the Arabs and had criticised the naïvety of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in befriending bin Laden. With Rabbani gone, al Qaeda appeared to take control of the country as it persuaded Mullah Omar to issue extreme edicts that had nothing to do with Afghan culture or tradition. 

In the weeks after 9/11, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar rallied the Taliban to defy the US and refused all offers of giving up power or surrendering bin Laden and al Qaeda to the Americans as Bush demanded. The US was reluctant about putting too many troops on the ground so it mounted a CIA-led operation. On 7 October 2001, “Operation Enduring Freedom” began with heavy US bombing raids on Taliban bases and infrastructure across the country, and on some 50,000 Taliban troops massed outside Kabul defending a long frontline against NA forces. 

Four weeks of US bombing followed before the first breakthrough on the ground took place in the north on 9 November, when Mazar-e Sharif fell to the Uzbek and Tajik forces of NA generals. There was a Taliban rout and within the next three days all of northern, western and central Afghanistan fell to the NA. As the Taliban fled, abandoning even Kabul, they were pounded mercilessly from the air by US aircraft and many more were killed and wounded. 

Mullah Omar surrendered Kandahar on 5 December 2001, escaping into the desert on a motorbike. By then, most of the Taliban had left their Kandahar stronghold for the safety of their villages or for the neighbouring Pakistani provinces of Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier. Al Qaeda fighters, including bin Laden who held out for a time in the Tora Bora mountains in eastern Afghanistan, also escaped by crossing into Pakistan’s tribal agencies. Washington had failed to stop this mass escape because it refused to deploy sufficient American ground forces in the battle, depending instead on the unreliable NA warlords. It was the biggest American mistake of the war. 

The Taliban had suffered enormous casualties, losing some 8,000 to 12,000 men: 20 percent of their total force. Twice that number was estimated to be wounded and some 7,000 were taken prisoner. However, although they were seriously damaged, the Taliban were not defeated. Almost their entire leadership structure remained intact. They would eventually reorganise in Pakistan. Very quickly, the Taliban were presented with opportunities to re-assert themselves. It soon became apparent that the Bush administration had no great desire to rebuild Afghanistan, or even to provide sufficient troops or money for the new regime’s security and recovery. Within weeks of winning the war in Afghanistan, US troops were training for the invasion of Iraq. US attention turned away from Afghanistan to Iraq. 

The war had gone faster than anyone could have predicted and the business of forming a new government in Kabul was left to the UN under the auspices of ambassadors Lakhdar Brahimi and his deputy Francesc Vendrell. The UN organised a conference at a German hotel resort near Bonn of various Afghan factions but the dominating faction was the NA, which had emerged as the victors against the Taliban. The Pashtun tribes were under-represented and the Taliban were totally absent. The meeting began on 27 November 2001 and after much wrangling ended on 5 December when Hamid Karzai, a prominent Pashtun tribal leader from Kandahar, who was the first Pashtun leader to take to the field against the Taliban, was elected as the interim President of Afghanistan. Ministerial portfolios were distributed among the factions with the largest share going to the NA. 

To minimise their exposure in Afghanistan and to concentrate their efforts on the upcoming invasion of Iraq, the Americans cut deals with the NA warlords – even though the majority had participated in the vicious 1990s civil war and were hated by the populace. These warlords were funded by the CIA and told to keep the peace outside Kabul. However, their rapacious and extortionist behaviour towards the people, which appeared to be sanctioned by the US, provided a major reason for the Taliban revival. A few Taliban commanders surrendered to US forces but they were harshly treated and then packed off to the US prison camp for terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. 

The Americans made no attempt to negotiate with the Taliban; and the Pashtun population – the tribal core of Taliban support – distrusted the Americans from the start. There were barely sufficient US troops to patrol the cities, let alone the countryside, and it was only later that the US realised the need for training a professional Afghan army and police force. Likewise, Afghan hopes that billions of dollars would flow into the country to rebuild the infrastructure, create jobs, invest in agriculture and industry, and provide incentives for the Taliban to return home from Pakistan and live peacefully, were thwarted by a lack of US funding and attention. 

The Pakistan Army had stopped deploying troops along the Afghan border in the north-west in early 2002 because of the build-up of tensions with India after the storming of the Indian parliament by Kashmiri militants. For much of that year tensions with India preoccupied the army and allowed al Qaeda to move around at will in the border regions, and for the Taliban to rebuild support, create new allies among the local Pakistani Pashtun tribes, while at the same time using the free space to train and gather funding and supplies of weapons. 

In the winter of 2002, Mullah Omar, now based in Baluchistan province, created a new Taliban Shura – or ruling council – appointing four commanders to reorganise resistance in the four southern provinces of Afghanistan: Uruzgan, Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul. They began to raise funds and buy arms, helped by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In eastern Afghanistan and in the seven tribal agencies in northwestern Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA), the reorganisation was led by the former Taliban Minister of Tribal Affairs, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his son Sirajuddin, who operated out of Miranshah in North Waziristan. Another faction was led by the veteran Pashtun, Islamist Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, who returned from exile in Iran. 

The Haqqanis had especially strong ties with Pakistan’s ISI. It was an instinctive move for the ISI and for Pakistan’s all-powerful army, which loathed the ascendant NA because it received support from Pakistan’s regional rivals, India, Iran and Russia. The Pakistani military was also deeply perturbed by the sudden influx of Indians into Kabul, fearing that New Delhi would destabilise Pakistan via its western border. The Taliban were thus supported as Pakistan’s proxy in a shadowy and violent regional game of influence and power. The Taliban launched their first guerrilla attacks in the southern Afghan provinces during the winter of 2002–03. 

Nevertheless the ISI did move against al Qaeda, arresting several leading figures who were hiding out in Pakistani cities, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the planner of the 9/11 attacks, and Abu Zubaydah, a key recruiter for al Qaeda. In retaliation, al Qaeda enlisted local Pakistani extremist groups to try and assassinate President Pervez Musharraf. Two unsuccessful suicide attacks were made on his life in December 2003, but that failed to convince the Pakistan military that they now faced a growing threat at home from the alliance of al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani militants who would soon become the Pakistani Taliban. 

Those early years after 9/11 proved to be critical. The Taliban were far from popular and had little political control across the south. At that time, even a few more US troops could have made a huge difference in stemming the incipient insurgency. But insofar as Washington paid any attention to Afghanistan, it was to focus on killing bin Laden, rather than on stabilising the countryside, building the economy and infrastructure or even dealing with the Taliban as a serious threat. 

By late 2004, US and NATO intelligence officers concluded that the ISI was running a full training programme for the Afghan Taliban out of Quetta and Peshawar. Yet for several years the Americans refused to deploy sufficient troops in the south, the critical Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan. The 2005 summer military campaign by the Taliban effectively demonstrated their new weapons, strategies and prowess. Having been tutored by al Qaeda fighters from Iraq, the Taliban had dramatically improved their ambush tactics, their use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mines on the roads, and their use of suicide bombers to carry out attacks in urban areas and against troop convoys. 

In the south, the Taliban appointed governors and judges in a bid to set up a parallel administration and justice system to woo the local population. It was successful and soon spread to eastern Afghanistan. In addition, the Taliban targeted the Afghan administration – officials, bureaucrats, teachers and, most of all, the police force, which was already demoralised and disorganised. Because the Taliban insurgency directly threatened his government, Afghan President Hamid Karzai repeatedly warned President Bush that the Taliban constituted a growing threat and an even greater regional challenge than al Qaeda. But the White House refused to accept his arguments. 

As long as the Karzai government failed to govern effectively, or provide services and jobs to the people, and as long as it allowed corruption and drug trafficking to take place, the Taliban were perceived to be winning by default. The failure of the government to provide effective justice only furthered the Taliban cause. Equally important to the Taliban’s growing success was Pakistan’s refusal to abandon the Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta. Nor would Islamabad put any pressure – as demanded by the US – on the forces of Hikmetyar and Haqqani. 

Taliban attacks grew increasingly audacious. They attempted to assassinate Karzai in April 2008 while he was taking the salute at a parade in Kabul; on 13 June 2008, there was a mass attack on Kandahar prison that freed 1,100 inmates, including 400 Taliban members. The following month, the Indian embassy in Kabul was bombed, and nine US soldiers were killed and 15 wounded in a single day’s fighting in Kunar province – the highest single battlefield loss for the US army since the war began. For the first time more Western troops were dying in Afghanistan than in Iraq. 

As the US got bogged down in Iraq and the Taliban insurgency surged in Afghanistan, the US finally began to encourage the expansion of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) – the peace-keeping force in Kabul – to expand beyond the capital. Intensive talks began between the Bush administration and NATO as to how NATO states could commit and deploy extra troops. The provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) that the Americans had established in some critical provinces were deemed a success, and there was a demand that different NATO countries should set up PRTs in every one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. PRTs were groups of up to 100 soldiers, helped by trainers and development workers, who were expected to provide backup for development and training to local people at the provincial level. Many of the European countries that supported sending troops to Afghanistan under NATO auspices only agreed to do so in order that they could avoid sending troops to Iraq and still remain in Washington’s good books. 

NATO took command of ISAF in Kabul and the first German troops arrived in northern Afghanistan in early 2004. In a four-phase plan, NATO began to deploy troops in PRTs to every province, starting with the north in 2004 and ending with the south in 2006 where British, Dutch and Canadian troops would face the full brunt of the Taliban insurgency. However, many countries sent troops with caveats attached, in which governments forbade their troops to take part in any fighting. There were now two separate command structures. The NATO-ISAF command which included US troops and was responsible for peace-keeping in the country, while the US-led coalition, still called “Operation Enduring Freedom”, hunted down the Taliban and al Qaeda. Eventually both commands would be led by US generals. 

The suicide bomber became a regular feature of the Taliban arsenal and infantry attacks were increasingly planned around suicide bombers, creating a breach in the defences of the target. The Taliban had mounted only six suicide attacks in 2004 but that had risen to a staggering 141 in 2006, causing 1,166 casualties. Meanwhile the excessive use of airpower by US forces, because of a shortage of troops and helicopters, antagonised the local population as bombs frequently killed as many civilians as they did Taliban fighters. The Taliban became adroit at using civilians as shields and hostages to prevent being bombed. There was a huge escalation in the use of air power by NATO, largely because there were insufficient troops on the ground and NATO countries wanted to avoid casualties. In the last six months of 2006, there were 2,100 air strikes by US forces compared to just 88 air strikes over Iraq in the same period. 

In 2006 the Taliban escalated their aims dramatically as they attempted to occupy Kandahar, the second largest city in the country and the heart of the Pashtun belt. In September 2006 they infiltrated fighters into Kandahar from a base near the city. NATO forces only discovered the well-established base when they launched a major offensive to defend Kandahar. The Taliban had prepared large amounts of arms, ammunition and other logistics from Pakistan, and the battle to save Kandahar was a turning point on the US and NATO’s thinking about Pakistan’s role. For the first time Western commanders publicly accused Pakistan of aiding and abetting the Taliban. 

In April 2007 Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, who commanded the US and NATO forces, became the first US general to publicly tell Congress and NATO that it could not win in Afghanistan without addressing the sanctuaries the Taliban maintained in Pakistan.79 The US began to pour in more money in order quickly to set up an Afghan National Army of some 134,000 men and a trained and equipped police force of 80,000 men. However, Washington’s major focus was still Iraq. There were now troops from 37 countries taking part in NATO military operations, but increasingly there was a need for more fighting troops. In 2006, when NATO-led forces had increased to 45,000 men, only one-third were available for fighting. 

Al Qaeda also taught the Taliban how to set up sophisticated media outlets, producing tens of thousands of DVDs and inspirational tapes which sold for a few pennies in the bazaars of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Taliban now used websites, FM radio stations and email, and their spokesmen – often based in Quetta – gave interviews to journalists based in Pakistan. Their favourite propaganda tool became the FM radio station that could be loaded on a donkey or the back of a pickup, and carried around an area to avoid detection while broadcasting Taliban messages. This was all in sharp contrast to the Taliban of the 1990s who abhorred the media, banned most media outlets including television and refused to see the usefulness of propaganda. Much of the Taliban’s new-found acumen came from the al Qaeda media outlet “al-Sahab”, which issued 89 messages of various kinds in 2007 – including tapes of bin Laden and Ayman al Zawaheri. 

Immediately on assuming office, President Barack Obama ordered several rapid reviews of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the first time more Western troops were dying in Afghanistan than in Iraq. There was a worsening of the humanitarian crisis as drought hit many parts of the countryside, and development came to a virtual halt as aid agencies limited themselves to Kabul after 26 aid workers were killed during 2008. The fighting had spread across the country with some spectacular attacks by the Taliban. The new administration unveiled its strategy on 27 March 2009 after consulting with all parts of the US government, especially the military. The new policy promised major attention to be paid to what was now termed AfPak. Obama appointed veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as the Special Envoy for AfPak, while a change at US Central Command headquarters had bought in General David Petraeus, who had won accolades for his counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. A new US army doctrine now accepted that stabilising war-torn countries was just as important as defeating the enemy. 

The US poured 21,000 marines into southern Afghanistan in the spring of 2009, including 4,000 military trainers to speed up the building of the Afghan army and police. NATO promised to deliver at least 10,000 extra troops to provide security for the August presidential elections. For all the lead foreign actors – the US, NATO, the EU and the UN – most of the year 2009 was taken up preparing for the elections and ensuring their security. Relations between the US and Karzai had become fraught as Karzai was convinced that Obama and Holbrooke wanted to replace him. Furthermore, the Taliban were preparing to disrupt the elections, and had poured men and materials into the country.

Taliban control of just 30 out of 364 districts in 2003 had expanded to 164 districts at the end of 2008.80 Taliban attacks had increased by 60 percent between October 2008 and April 2009. Forty-seven American soldiers died in August and 44 in July, making it the deadliest two months in the war for the US army. Thus by all counts it was clear that the Taliban danger was spreading, not receding. Karzai ultimately was re-elected President for a second term, but the elections were heavily rigged by his supporters and there was a grave political crisis for several weeks which only ended when the leading opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah backed down from a second ballot. Obama was to increase American troop strength in Afghanistan again, until the total US–NATO forces in 2010–11 reached 140,000. However, by 2012 the US planned to start pulling out its military and hand over to Afghan forces, completing its withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. 

Meanwhile the perception that the Afghan Taliban were waging a successful war against the US partly led to the spread of the movement as a role model for Islamic extremism, as a strategy for armed groups who want to overthrow local state structures, and as a militant force to impose shari’a and the Taliban interpretation of Islam. The Pakistani Taliban who controlled the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan became the largest threat. The tribal boundaries became a major terrorist training centre where suicide bombers were trained and to which thousands of militants flocked, from Pakistan, China, Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. By 2012, hundreds of German, Dutch and British Muslim militants had been trained in these camps, eliciting a new threat to Europe. 

The Pakistani Taliban became a major threat to the Pakistani state as they attacked both US forces in Afghanistan, and military and government targets in Pakistan. Soon the Pakistani Taliban began to control huge swathes of Pakistani territory in the north-west and the military went on the offensive to try and drive them out. Swat became a major centre for the Taliban. The army launched three offensives in the Swat valley before eventually driving out the militants, who had taken control, in 2009. However, many of their leaders escaped to Kunar province in Afghanistan from where they continued the fight against the army. Some of the major Central Asian groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Chinese Muslims or Uighurs who had based themselves in Pakistan since 2001, also emulated the Taliban in their military and political tactics and their strict interpretation of Taliban. The Taliban had become a fully fledged regional factor. 

Realising that the intensity of the insurgency could grow, Karzai initiated an attempt to talk to the Taliban and their allies. In 2005 he appointed a Peace and Reconciliation Commission that was charged with trying to persuade Taliban commanders and fighters to return home under an amnesty and with some incentives. However, the programme was opposed by the NA leaders in the cabinet and Parliament, while it received no support from the Bush administration who considered it a policy of appeasement. Karzai also had encouraged Saudi Arabia to establish a link with the Taliban, and several meetings were held in Riyadh between representatives of Karzai and former Taliban commanders. Increasingly there were attempts to woo those whom the international community termed “moderate Taliban”. They included those commanders and soldiers who were not fighting for ideological reasons but out of anger, frustration, and hatred for the Americans, for the money they earned or out of fear of retribution by the Taliban. 

The looming American withdrawal has made Karzai and the international community more amenable to negotiating with the Taliban. In fact, even the US has begun contact. Under German mediation, the US engaged in direct talks with Taliban representatives in Germany and Qatar in early 2011. Although the Taliban suspended the talks in January 2012 on the disputed issue of prisoner exchanges between the two sides, the talks are expected to resume again. 

The Taliban are aware that they cannot go back to ruling the country effectively and alone, even if they could overwhelm Kabul after the American withdrawal. Their goal: a partner like Karzai with whom to share power, rather than to have to resort to bloody conquest. The hope for the future is that once US forces begin to leave, the Taliban will become more amenable to speeding up talks, leading to a ceasefire and eventually a political solution to the conflict. 

Pakistan fully supported the idea of talks between the Taliban and Karzai but on its own terms. In February 2010 the ISI and CIA arrested several leading Taliban figures in Pakistan, including the Taliban second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader. It became clear that the ISI were hardening their terms for a major say in any future dialogue with the Taliban. Barader and other Taliban leaders were at odds with the ISI, wanting to bypass the ISI and open a dialogue directly with Kabul and the US, and this is why the ISI had him and his colleagues arrested. 

The Pakistan military feared being superseded in any future negotiations in the belief that it had more at stake in Afghanistan than any other neighbouring country. It wanted a major role in any peace talks and aimed to convince the Americans of that. However, the Obama administration still remained divided over the utility of accepting the idea of negotiating with the Taliban leadership. US politicians and officials insisted that the Taliban had to be significantly diminished through military offensives over the coming year before any such talks could take place, although the US military believed that talks should start sooner. All US officials agreed that the Taliban has first to make a decisive break from their operational alliance with al Qaeda. 

On a cold Bavarian winter’s day, in a well-to-do village close to Munich on 28 November 2010 German diplomat Michael Steiner was celebrating his 61st birthday. But there was no party. Instead Steiner and two American officials were meeting face to face for the first time in ten years with a senior Taliban envoy – the result of intensive German diplomacy. The first US contact with the Taliban had been cleared by President Obama himself a few weeks earlier. History may well judge that day as a turning point in the 10-year-long war in Afghanistan, no less momentous than when the US began talks with the Vietnamese half a century earlier or when Britain began secret talks with the Irish Republican Army in 1972. 

After many months of shuttling between capitals and meetings with the Taliban, Steiner had brought together two US officials – Frank Ruggiero from the State Department and a deputy to Holbrooke, and Jeff Hayes from the National Security Council staff, together with the Taliban’s Syed Tayyab Agha, in his late thirties, a secretary and long-term aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Also present was a prince from Qatar’s ruling family whom the Taliban had asked to be present.81 

There was an intense need for secrecy because any disclosure could endanger Agha’s life. There were fears that al Qaeda or other spoilers could try and kill him. Close allies like Britain’s MI6 or Pakistan’s ISI had not been told about the meeting. The Americans did not trust the ISI to keep a secret and in the past few years Taliban leaders had become highly critical of the ISI, saying that the spy agency constantly threatened them and their families in Pakistan, even though the ISI supported the Taliban’s war effort against the Americans. The Pakistanis would not take kindly to being bypassed. 

The small group spent a total of 11 hours with each other – six of them in concentrated talks. There were no pre-conditions, assurances or commitments and both sides avoided actual negotiations. This was a “getting to know you” session. At the end, Agha bought up the issue of the prisoners that the US was holding – in Bagram, Afghanistan and Guantánamo, Cuba – that the Taliban wanted freed. The Taliban were obsessed with getting their commanders out of jail. 

“Talking to the Taliban” had become the most controversial issue for all sides in the war. Karzai had promoted the idea as early as 2004, because he understood that a military victory in the conventional sense was not possible, especially as long as the US continued to under-fund the war effort and economic development, and while Taliban safe havens in Pakistan went unquestioned by the Bush administration. The Obama administration was divided, between civilian advisers who wanted talks with the Taliban and a quick military exit, and the US military who demanded another year or two of military surge. Richard Holbrooke was convinced of the need to talk but he lacked support from anyone in the US cabinet. Obama’s civilian advisers kept being outmanoeuvred by the generals. 

The Taliban remained adamant that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan and an Islamic system be restored to their country, but on both counts they were more flexible than before. They had distanced themselves from al Qaeda. The Taliban leadership had never sworn an oath of loyalty to al Qaeda or to bin Laden as other groups did, nor did it adopt al Qaeda’s global Jihad agenda or help train foreigners to become suicide bombers, as the Pakistani Taliban had done. The Taliban had mellowed on girls’ education, the media and health services for women compared to the policies they pursued in the 1990s. Mullah Omar issued a decree in March 2010 banning attacks on schools, which did not stop completely but were much reduced. 

The Taliban have also tried to reassure neighbouring countries that they would not host groups that were hostile to Afghanistan’s neighbours. In an Eid message on 15 November 2010, Mullah Omar said his group has a comprehensive policy “for the efficiency of the future government of Afghanistan about true security, Islamic justice, education, economic progress, national unity and a foreign policy . . . to convince the world that the future Afghanistan will not harm them”.82 In his Eid message a year later in August 2011, after secret talks had begun with the Americans, Mullah Omar admitted for the first time that talks were ongoing. The Taliban were also exhausted by the long war, they had suffered terrible casualties and they wanted to return home from refugee camps in Pakistan. Moreover they wanted to break free from Pakistan and the control exercised by the ISI, which they now detested. 

The second round of talks with the Taliban took place in Doha, the Gulf capital of Qatar on 15 February 2011. They had been delayed due to the tragic death of Richard Holbrooke on 13 December 2010. The US levels of mistrust were still high, and officials asked Agha to prove that he had access to Mullah Omar and other leaders by demonstrating whether he could get the Taliban to deliver on confidence-building measures that the US may propose. Agha fulfilled the demand, and it was confirmed that he was speaking on behalf of the Taliban leadership. 

Three days after the Doha meeting, Hillary Clinton, in the most significant US public statement to date, told the Asia Society in New York that, “we are launching a diplomatic surge to move this conflict toward a political outcome that shatters the alliance between the Taliban and al Qaeda, ends the insurgency and helps to produce not only a more stable Afghanistan but a more stable region.”83 It was the first tantalizing public hint that the US was talking to the Taliban. 

In a third round of talks in May they talked about the need to open a Taliban office in Doha and the freeing of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo. As part of the confidence-building measures the Americans agreed to remove a large number of Taliban from the UN sanctions list that designated them as global terrorists. President Karzai also freed several Taliban prisoners from detention in Kabul. It was clear early on that the Taliban were serious about negotiating at least a reduction in the violence, if not an end to the fighting. 

The Taliban demanded that the talks remain top secret and no leaks or revelations take place or the dialogue would be broken off. They also demanded that there would be no arrest or harassment of any Taliban members who took part in the talks. In May 2011 after the third round of talks, there were a series of leaks in the US and German press which endangered Agha as he was named as the Taliban interlocutor.84 The leaks came from some of Karzai’s ministers who were opposed to the talks, and those in Washington – particularly in the Defence Department – opposed to the talks. These leaks disturbed the talks and the fourth round was not held until August. 

The leaks prompted the Germans and Americans to level with the Pakistanis and the ISI for the first time in May and June 2011. US officials met with General Kayani in Rawalpindi, telling him about the contacts with the Taliban and asking him to protect Agha. Kayani and the ISI were angry that their Western allies had gone behind their backs to make contact with the Taliban. This was the role that the ISI had always wanted to play. The Pakistanis were doubly angry with the Taliban who had shown that they were not fully under their control. 

In Washington the idea of talking to the Taliban had become more acceptable, largely due to the efforts of Richard Holbrooke, his deputy Frank Ruggerio, his adviser on Afghanistan Barnett Rubin and Douglas Lute at the National Security Council, who had all battled to win over other parts of the US government, especially the generals. Holbrooke’s successor, Marc Grossman, also quickly became deeply engrossed in the talks process. 

In Europe there was stronger public pressure on governments to talk to the Taliban and seek a political settlement to end the war. “Success will not be achieved by military means alone,” British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told an American audience. He asked the Americans for “a workable reconciliation strategy” and he urged the Afghan government “to pursue a political settlement with as much vigour and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort”. Such speeches showed that Europe was way ahead of the Americans in wanting a quick resolution to the war.85 

Moreover there were also deep divisions in Kabul. In June 2010 Karzai held a national consultative peace jirga that aimed to establish a national consensus by bringing all ethnic groups together to agree to peace talks with the Taliban. However there were significant absences – such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras – who did not believe in talking to the Taliban. In September Karzai constituted a 70-member “High Peace Council” headed by the Tajik religious leader and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, which was tasked to negotiate with the Taliban. Once again the group was supposed to be representative of all ethnic groups and women, but many of its members were former warlords who were despised by the Taliban and the public. Karzai never fulfilled his promise to expand the national dialogue into an inclusive process to include members of civil society, women and minorities. 

On 8 February 2010 the ISI infuriated Karzai by arresting Mullah Barader in Karachi, together with a dozen senior Taliban figures who were loyal to him. Taliban leaders in Pakistan went underground, talks between Kabul and the Taliban stopped and relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan plummeted. The military angrily told him that if he wanted Pakistani cooperation he should reduce Indian influence in Afghanistan by shutting down the Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, which bordered Pakistan. 

Pakistan was making it clear that it wanted to direct any talks with the Taliban and wanted something in return for doing so. Within days the Indians in Kabul were again under attack. On 26 February in a suicide attack on two Kabul guesthouses, 16 people were killed, including seven Indian doctors and nurses and two army majors. Pakistan’s obvious attempts to control any peace process between the US, Kabul and the Taliban was in fact reducing its influence and leading to mistrust of its intentions by all regional and Western powers. 

Pakistan still holds many of the Taliban cards. Taliban leaders and their families live in Pakistan where they have businesses, shops and homes which makes them vulnerable to the ISI, which has not hesitated to arrest entire Taliban families and clans in order to put pressure on certain commanders. The Taliban need the supply and support network that the ISI allows them to have in Pakistan to sustain their war effort, as well as the constant pool of Afghan and Pakistani recruits. Many of the suicide bombers used in Afghanistan are Pakistani young men. Moreover a stream of Pashtun and Punjabi militants fight for the Afghan Taliban and are encouraged to do so by the ISI. 

By January 2012 the US–Taliban talks were suspended indefinitely, although it is almost certain that they will resume after the American elections in November 2012. Increasingly more and more Americans are seeing the validity of peace talks as the only way to bring peace to Afghanistan and stabilise an increasingly unruly Pakistan. With Western forces leaving Afghanistan and the weak Kabul government clearly unable to carry out its responsibilities, only an end to the violence and a political deal with the Taliban can ensure the survival of the Afghan state. The future of Afghanistan and the region will depend on whether that will be possible, or whether a state of renewed civil war will follow the Western withdrawal. 

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