By Syed Saleem Shahzad
Islamabad - With an international conference starting in London on Thursday expected to lay down a framework for the Afghan government to begin taking charge of its own security, in line with a timetable set by United States President Barack Obama to start drawing down US troops in 2011, efforts for reconciliation with the Taliban are also being stepped up.
However, sources directly involved in backchannel negotiations with the Taliban tell Asia Times Online they are skeptical of the Taliban being reconciled as the militants scent victory in Afghanistan and hence are not prepared to show any flexibility in their demands, the key one of which is that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
At the conference in London, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will unveil a British- and United States-backed plan for "reintegration" of segments of the Taliban. He is also expected to seek international funding to offer jobs and inducements to bring insurgents into the mainstream political process - the amount of US$1 billion has been mentioned. To this end, parliamentary elections in Afghanistan have been postponed from May to September, although ostensibly because the Independent Election Commission said it needed more funds.
Karzai is also pushing for Taliban names to be removed from a United Nations blacklist that imposes travel restrictions and asset freezes. "[They should be] welcome to come back to their country, lay down arms and resume life as citizens of Afghanistan, enjoying the privileges and the rights and the guarantees given by the Afghan constitution," Karzai said.
He is also reported as saying that his Western allies fully back his plans for reconciliation with the Taliban - provided they are not "key members" of the movement, that they are not allied with al-Qaeda and that they renounce violence.
"The red line is links to al-Qaeda," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband was quoted in the media this week as saying.
Herein lies the rub - A December briefing prepared by the top US intelligence official in Afghanistan, Major General Michael Flynn, concludes that "the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is increasingly effective". With regard to al-Qaeda, the 23-page briefing quotes Taliban detainees as saying that the Taliban see al-Qaeda as a "handicap"; however, it adds that al-Qaeda "provides facilitation, training and some funding" to the Taliban and predicts that "perceived insurgent success will draw foreign fighters" into Afghanistan.
A former Arab mujahid who fought in Afghanistan and who claims to have been in direct communication with senior al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, has told Asia Times Online that the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is much deeper.
He said that following the leaking last year of a report by the US's top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, that tens of thousands more US troops would be sent into Afghanistan, bin Laden met with Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the Afghan province of Helmand in October - apparently their first meeting in a long time.
According to the Arab fighter, the meeting marked a watershed in relations between the Taliban and al-Qaeda as the leaders agreed on closer relations and better coordination in the war against the Western coalition in Afghanistan. Further, they agreed that any invitation for dialogue was a ploy to lure the Taliban into a trap.
While there was apparently some disagreement on the issue of carrying out attacks in Pakistan, the leaders agreed on a joint macro strategy until the "complete defeat" of the foreign forces in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar, the fighter claims, was particularly impressed that bin Laden made the risky journey over the Hindu Kush mountains into southwestern Afghanistan.
Preparing to talk - The Pakistan military is at the forefront of efforts to set up talks with the Taliban, and Peshawar, capital of North-West Frontier Province, Quetta, capital of Balochistan province, and the national capital, Islamabad, have been scheduled as venues.
A next level of dialogue could then take place in the United Arab Emirates, where a former UAE ambassador is attempting to get Taliban representatives to meet with US, British and Saudi Arabian officials.
The Muslim Brotherhood is also expected to be involved in getting people to the dialogue table, as are various individuals. These include Arabs who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s. One of them is Iraqi Mehmood al-Samarrai, alias Abul Judh, who was previously wanted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for supporting the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. He currently lives in Pakistan and is working to get some Taliban commanders to talk to Saudi officials.
However, a senior Arab diplomat who has been directly involved in some backchannel negotiations with the Taliban told Asia Times Online that one of the problems any talks faced was that neither side had changed its basic position: the Taliban want an unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops, while Western leaders want the Taliban to immediately stop all hostilities.
The diplomat also said he believed the Barack Obama administration was desperate to slow down the advances of the Taliban, given that the US Democrats had recently suffered a crucial setback in a senate election. Ahead of mid-term elections in the US in November, the party could not afford any more major embarrassments in Afghanistan, such as the suicide attack on a US spy base last year and the recent attacks in the heart of Kabul, the capital.
The dialogue initiative, whether or not motivated in part by the US's desire to buy time, could, however, turn out to be another embarrassment.
If, as the Arab fighter claims, the links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda now run deeper than is generally reported, it would rule out any chance of senior Taliban commanders being reconciled: firstly, they would not want to switch, given their newfound loyalty to Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda. And secondly, if some did conceivably seek reconciliation, they would presumably be "barred" anyway for having links to al-Qaeda.
Lower-level Taliban could well be lured from the movement, but it is doubtful they would leave in sufficient numbers, and the leadership would still be intact to drive the resistance.
Previous reconciliation attempts have also done little to affect the Taliban's leadership.
Within the Taliban, the institution of the ameerul momineen (commander of the faithful) plays a vital role. Any defiance towards ameerul momineen (Mullah Omar) means to become an outcast from the Taliban's ranks and the person immediately loses his following.
An example is former Taliban commander Abdul Salam Rocketi, who was powerful in the southern province of Zabul. Several years ago, he switched sides and he is now a member of parliament. He was quickly replaced by little-known youths, to whom the rank-and file immediately gave their full support. The same would happen now should any commander defy Mullah Omar: he will have to leave his region and move to Kabul.
The dialogue initiative has been started, though, and efforts in this direction can be expected to intensify following this week's meeting in London.
For the Afghan war theater, the claimed new coordination agreement between al-Qaeda and Taliban will see the Taliban stick to their guns, literally.
In the broader context, al-Qaeda says in the coming months it will concentrate on Saudi Arabia to put Riyadh under immense pressure to pull back from its support of the US-led "war on terror".
In Pakistan, meanwhile, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban), which has reorganized in Orakzai Agency after the military operations in the Waziristan tribal areas, will re-engage the army in an effort to force the political leadership not to become involved in the reconciliation efforts between Washington and the Afghan Taliban.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief.