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KABUL, Afghanistan — Suddenly, negotiations with the Taliban are all the rage. In American newspapers, on Afghan television, in high-level political circles in Washington and in back-alley tearooms in Kabul, it seems that all the talk is about “The Talks.”
What is much less certain is whether or not there is any substance behind the buzz.
On Monday, the Afghan National Army was put on standby alert because of a “peace jirga” taking place in Kabul, said a U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. No official report of any such meeting was released.
The U.S. military leaked information that it had “facilitated” the passage of a high-level Taliban leader to Kabul, meaning, mostly, that they agreed not to try to kill or capture him while he was in Afghanistan. But the U.S. side was careful to exclude Mullah Mohammad Omar, supreme Taliban leader, from any putative negotiations. Mullah Omar, they said, was not “eligible” for reconciliation.
Speculation was rife that no less a light than Mullah Baradar was in town.
The Taliban official, who was reported to be Mullah Omar’s No. 2, was captured in Karachi in February, in what many saw as a deliberate ploy by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to scupper any possible outreach to the Afghan government. Baradar had been the driving force in negotiations, and, according to sources close to the Taliban, his arrest put a halt to even tentative overtures for quite awhile.
Recent, unconfirmed reports that Baradar had been freed have fueled rumors that Baradar has been brought on board and may be ushered into negotiations with the Afghan government in a bid to split the top ranks of the Taliban.
But rumors, hypotheses and speculation seem to be the sum total of what the media has been fed.
Alex Strick van Linschoten, an expert on the Taliban and co-editor of a recent autobiography of a top Taliban official, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, is skeptical about all the hype. He calls it a “blunt force PR campaign” released by the U.S. military and certain government officials, hoping to prop up flagging enthusiasm at home for what more and more Americans see as a losing battle.
“Certainly, what's going on is nowhere near as exciting or progress-filled as the media are making it out to be,” he said. “If you dig down deep into the sourcing on a lot of these stories, it's all still rumors and shadow-play.”
Nevertheless, the media blitz has been almost unprecedented: Everyone from The New York Times to U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus has been making mysterious references to promising signs that are evident only to those in the know.
It has all the earmarks of a carefully orchestrated play aimed at creating the illusion of success, something that longtime Afghan watchers have been quick to point out.
“The case is being intentionally overstated,” said Martine van Blijert, a senior researcher with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based independent think tank, writing in her blog. “[Officials are] suggesting more fire than the smoke warrants, and … feeding the press information about events that are likely to have taken place in the past.”
No one denies that there are meetings between Afghan government officials and the Taliban. They have been taking place for years, with very little result.
Presidential spokesman Wahid Omar told the media a week ago that there had been no direct talks with the Taliban; he has not amended that statement as yet. In recent meetings with journalists, Omar insisted that talks are the way forward, and emphasized that the process is “Afghan-led.”
Bu even some of the Afghan initiatives are raising eyebrows.
The recent announcement of the composition of the Afghan government's High Peace Council generated several positive comments from the international media, while most Afghan observers were aghast.
“The Council’s composition does not bode well,” said Janan Mosazai, a political analyst based in Kabul. “Most of the people on it are associated with the tragedy of Afghanistan’s three decades of war.”
The Council’s chairman, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, has impeccable anti-Taliban credentials, and many doubt that the Taliban will sit down at the table with their long-time enemies.
“Most people in the south say it’s just a talk-shop and a vehicle for Karzai to show that things are moving on,” said van Linschoten. “And of course Petraeus can use it to say that he is supportive of negotiations.”
Even less convincing, in the minds of many, is the argument that the punishing U.S. offensive against Taliban leaders will push them into making concessions. According to specialists who map the Taliban in remote regions, recent campaigns targeting Taliban leaders have all but decimated the movement. Still, more and more fighters stream in to take their place.
“There is not much hope for the moment that talks will yield positive results while the U.S. military is trying to bludgeon the mid-level and senior leadership of the Taliban,” said van Linschoten. “They are removing the people to talk to, fragmenting the insurgency more than it already is, and creating the space for a newer generation of people to move into leadership positions who are much less interested in political compromise.”
Indeed, the insurgency shows little sign of slowing down, according to a recent report by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), which tracks incidents of violence in the country and provides information to other NGOs working in Afghanistan.
Claims by Petraeus, among others, that the U.S. surge has reversed the Taliban momentum simply do not correspond to reality, insisted ANSO.
“The International Emirate of Afghanistan’s (the name by which the Taliban call themselves) counter-offensive is increasingly mature, complex and effective,” the report stated. “Country-wide attacks have grown by 59 percent, while sophisticated recruitment techniques have helped activate networks of fighters in the North … In the South, despite more robust efforts from the U.S. and NATO contingents, counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar and Helmand have … failed to degrade the IEA’s ability to fight.”
That is the view of many Afghan observers as well.
“There is a growing consensus that the U.S. surge is not going to break the back of the Taliban,” said Mosazai. “[The U.S. strategy] is based on a faulty analysis of the dynamics of this war. Ramping up the U.S. military presence while setting a timetable for withdrawal will never convince the Taliban that they have to negotiate from a position of weakness.”
But then why all the buildup, and why now?
Many point to the U.S. timetable for withdrawal, according to which the first U.S. troops will begin to leave in a scant eight months. The U.S. military is under severe pressure to demonstrate progress in Afghanistan ahead of a review scheduled for this December.
The announcement of a possible withdrawal has also put the Afghan government in a bind. With his protectors talking about heading for the doors, President Hamid Karzai has to start looking for another way to manage his fractious and fractured country.
“Karzai has come to the conclusion that unless there is a settlement to this war, things will get substantially worse when the Americans leave,” Mosazai said. “It will threaten the survival, not only of the president himself, but of everything that has been achieved over the past nine years.”
So Karzai is desperately seeking some sort of negotiated settlement with the Taliban. For the first time, the U.S. administration has backed down from its implacable opposition to any type of accommodation. Still, the shift in positions has been more a matter of perception than reality, analysts said.
The U.S. administration has been careful to point out that it will not back down on its essential condition for talks: that the Taliban lay down their arms and accept the constitution. But, as former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil pointed out in an earlier interview, “Once the Taliban abandon their weapons and agree to the constitution, what is there to talk about?”
As long as “reconciliation” is a euphemism for “surrender,” the Taliban will not retract their own pre-condition: that all foreign troops leave the country before the insurgents sit down with the Afghan government.
Sources close to the Taliban maintain that the leadership would be willing to soften its position if there were answering signs of accommodation from the Americans. But so far that has been politically unpalatable.
“The U.S. military are still opposed to the idea of serious talks with the insurgency,” said van Linschoten. “The Taliban … are playing along but they still feel the same way they did a year ago.”
The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the current state of affairs cannot continue.
“There is no way forward except for a settlement,” said Mosazai. “There can be no military solution.”
But the prospects for negotiations are also dim, he added.
“The Afghan government does not have the legitimacy to engage in a comprehensive solution with the opposition,” he said.
But if the Afghan government can’t make peace and the U.S. military won’t, and the Taliban are able to continue holding their own against a far superior force, the future could be very bleak.
“That old cliche about the U.S. military having the watches, and the Taliban having the time,” said Mosazai, “it’s true.”