The Lure of Office Space and Other Ways to Talk to the Taliban

The latest moves in the Afghanistan endgame have moved the insurgents closer to talking with the Kabul government — but there is no real breakthrough yet

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Released Taliban prisoners sit on chairs and pray during a ceremony in the Pul-e-Charkhi jail while Afghanistan National Army soldiers keep a lookout on Jan. 4, 2013

One of the more intriguing moves in the Afghanistan endgame was the joint announcement by the U.S. and Afghan Presidents that office space had been made available for the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. The office, formally announced during Hamid Karzai’s recent trip to Washington, will provide a physical space for face-to-face talks with the Taliban.

The hope is that providing a place to operate above ground (plus the mediation of the Qataris) will lure the Taliban — who officially refuse to speak to the Karzai government — into serious talks with the Kabul regime. Still, a senior government official aware of discussions between Karzai and Obama says the opening of the Doha office is conditional: it cannot be used as a Taliban diplomatic post — one that would give them a sense of international recognition and legitimacy; nor can it be used as a fundraising platform. “It can be closed down anytime if the conditions are not met by the Taliban,” he says.

The status of the office would be reviewed in six months. If the Taliban continue to refuse to talk to the Afghan government by then, the office will be closed, two senior officials tell TIME. One also suggests that slapping further sanctions — in the form of reactivating the U.N. blacklist that defines Taliban leaders as terrorists — would not be off the table.

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Critics of the Karzai regime’s overtures for peace say it is a one-way road, with the Taliban responding with a campaign of high-profile assassinations. A rigid timeline for Taliban cooperation around the Doha office is the first time the Afghan government has presented serious conditions to the insurgency. Some interpret it as an attempt by the government to show that there is a limit to their patience for Taliban intransigence.

A series of developments in recent months have breathed some fresh air into the otherwise stagnant peace process. Several high-level Taliban prisoners from Pakistani jails have been released after Salahuddin Rabbani, the chief of the High Peace Council appointed by Karzai, held talks with Pakistani officials in Islamabad; and Pakistan’s foreign secretary also announced on Friday that his government would release all the remaining Taliban prisoners in their custody, including their former No. 2 Mullah Ghani Baradar, soon. But, perhaps, a more dynamic development has been the participation of official Taliban envoys in informal talks in Chantilly, near Paris, in late December.

What was supposed to be a closely guarded discussion away from the media turned out to be a showcase for the Afghan Taliban and a telling glimpse into how the various factions in the Afghanistan debacle “play” with one another. For the first time, their official representatives were meeting members of President Karzai’s government, the political opposition as well as civil society in a formally announced gathering. But, breaking previously negotiated ground rules for these so-called private and “informal” talks, the Taliban quickly leaked their talking points to the media, broke into long diatribes about the “puppet government.” They also offered no hints for reconciliation or compromise.

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According to participants at the Chantilly talks, the Taliban had two representatives at the meeting, which was hosted by a French think tank. Shahabuddin Delawar, who is emerging as their new chief negotiator, did most of the talking. Their second envoy, Mohamad Naim, simply took notes. On the vital issues — like the status of the constitution or the presence of foreign troops — they read their position from prepared statements rather than engaging in open discussions. They rejected the constitution because it was drafted “in the shadows of invader B-52 fighting jets.” They also called the Islamic Emirate, their form of government, “a reality on this earth … a system in power in the country” and went on to list their achievements. The envoys seemed to have little authority other than presenting predetermined positions and taking notes to report back. At least two participants suggested the envoys were in constant e-mail touch with central leadership and would emerge with new papers in each session.

Many fear that, in its desperation to seek a deal with the Taliban, the Afghan government — and the U.S. as it seeks an exit from the 11-year war — might not stand firmly on what has been achieved in the past decade in furthering basic rights in Afghanistan. The U.S., recently, has stopped mentioning the Taliban along with al-Qaeda.

“The aim of the peace process is not to bring back the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban — it’s very clear, we have certain redlines,” says Rabbani of the High Peace Council, speaking from his home in Kabul, where his father and predecessor as head of the council was assassinated by a Taliban turban bomber last year. “We will stand firmly on the achievement of the last 10 years.”

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But at Chantilly, according to two participants, representatives of the High Peace Council and President Karzai’s advisers were soft in their defense of those basic human rights, out of fear they might offend the Taliban representatives. “With great confidence, the Taliban would call the Afghan government a puppet and the Afghan police and army an enslaved force,” recalls one participant. “There was no one to take ownership for the achievements of the last 10 years.”

“The government was in a defensive position, but it couldn’t defend well,” says Ahmad Zia Massoud, a former Karzai Vice President and current head of the opposition coalition, the National Front. The one “comprehensive defense of the last decade’s achievements” came from Nader Nadery, a former human-rights commissioner representing the civil society. “On the second day, the government representatives became more vocal in their defense. But initially, they seemed fearful of the Taliban,” Massoud says.

Members of the opposition, on the other hand, used the Chantilly opportunity to politic, furthering their own electoral agendas. One opposition participant even went as far as telling the representatives of the Taliban, against which he fought throughout the 1990s, that it was the government that had widened the gap between them. The opposition also called for an interim government before the next elections, when Karzai’s last constitutional term ends. That was met with the approval of one of the insurgent groups — the Hizb-e-Islami. Karzai’s national-security team reacted harshly to the statements. Even before opposition members landed back in Kabul, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the national-security adviser, speaking at a security council meeting had called for trying the opposition members for national treason, according to members of the opposition as well as an independent source privy to details of the meeting. Spanta did not respond to requests for comment.

(MORE: The Loneliness of the Afghan President: Karzai on His Own)

“The government has talked a lot about the peace process so far, but in Paris the Taliban clearly said they neither want to talk to the government nor that they recognize them formally,” opposition leader Massoud says. “We got the impression that there had been no contact whatsoever between the government and the Taliban before the conference.”

One of the ideas put forward by Mullah Sallam Zaeef, a former Taliban official who has played a facilitating role, was for abandoning the Karzai-appointed High Peace Council for a neutral commission. The political opposition, as well as the Hizb-e-Islami, was in favor of the idea. The Taliban envoys said they would take the idea to their central leadership.

Rabbani downplays the relevance of Chantilly and says the main track for talks is bringing optimism. His trip to Pakistan in November resulted in getting the Pakistani government and military onboard with the Peace Council’s road map. The Pakistanis promised safe passage for the Taliban leaders willing to engage in talks, help in delisting members of the Taliban who are in favor of peace from a U.N. blacklist and the release of high-profile prisoners. Two of the four prisoners whose release Rabbani demanded from Pakistan were let go last month, coinciding with freeing of hundreds of other, low-ranking Taliban, from detentions inside Afghanistan. Anwar ul Haq Mujahid, one of the two released by Pakistan, will be based out of Saudi Arbia, but will join the Peace Council in its efforts of reaching out to the Taliban. But media reports suggest Mujahid is already “pledging renewed violence against the Kabul government,” furthering the fear that some of the released might return to the frontlines.

“We are in touch with the families of those released, and before their release we made sure they will not join the Taliban and go to the frontline again,” Rabbani says.

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