KABUL — Moderate leaders of the Taliban say they have quietly and steadily made progress in third-party talks between the active Taliban insurgency and representatives of the Afghan and U.S. governments.
Two Taliban leaders — who held high-ranking positions in the now-deposed Taliban government and who are directly involved in the talks — say they've recently established a framework of an agreement through the shuttle negotiations. They say the process has included contact with the spiritual leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The talks began last year under the auspices of Saudi Arabia and have involved a series of secret meetings in Mecca, including a gathering several months ago. Observers have for months maintained that the Saudi talks have produced more rumors than real progress.
But now, in extensive interviews with GlobalPost two former Taliban officials directly involved — Abdul Hakim Muhajid and Arsalla Rahmani — said negotiations have gained momentum and laid the groundwork for real movement.
Rahmani went so far as to say a deal could be reached before Afghanistan's August presidential elections. (Click here to listen to an interview on "The World" regarding this topic.)
Within the Taliban government that was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Rahmani held several cabinet postings as head of the Ministry of Higher Education and as minister of the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Muhajid and Rahmani said they have provided a "third party channel" to the Afghan government and had "limited" and "unofficial" contact with U.S. representatives.
The talks are built primarily around contacts within the Taliban's still-underground leadership, including Mullah Omar, who is believed to be hiding in Quetta, Pakistan along with other clerical leaders of active insurgent wings. These other Taliban clerical leaders involved in the talks include Mullah Bradar, Mullah Mamsur and Mullah Abdul Jalil.
Also included in the negotiations is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the notorious renegade Afghan warlord whose active insurgency continues to fight against U.S. and coalition forces.
Two former Pakistani intelligence officials say a deal was underway in which Hekmatyar would call for an end to his insurgency and be allowed to live above ground in Saudi Arabia with a budget of $85 million. At least one Afghan government official confirmed that a deal with Hekmatyar was being assembled.
It is widely considered unlikely that the U.S. would accept any deal in which Mullah Omar or Hekmatyar is granted immunity from prosecution.
Both former Taliban leaders — Muhajid and Rahmani — met with GlobalPost in a heavily guarded residence in the western end of Kabul. Over several meetings, they said that a core of basic issues had been agreed upon by the Taliban leadership and the Afghan government.
The Taliban insurgents would end attacks on reconstruction teams and stop shutting down and burning schools. The Afghan government and U.S. and coalition forces would agree to release a list of 100 prisoners who are being held on charges that the Taliban say are baseless. Assurances would be sought by the international community that the U.S. will stop random searches of homes and attacks that kill civilians.
U.S. officials in the region said they were aware of the talks and are following them, but are not aware of any significant movement. U.S. officials would not comment on whether the U.S. has had contact with former Taliban officials in the now-deposed Taliban government who represent the more moderate wing of the Taliban.
Afghan government officials confirm that the government of Hamid Karzai is constructing a framework for reconciliation with Taliban insurgents and Hekmatyar aimed at ending cross-border attacks from hideouts in Pakistan on U.S.-led coalition and Afghan government positions inside Afghanistan.
Deputy minister of parliamentary affairs, Mohammad Karim Baz, said the government was still working toward constructing a process for reconciliation that can build on the talks already underway.
He said the greatest opportunity in these talks was with the large grouping of rural Taliban supporters who provide assistance to the insurgency largely in the south and east of Afghanistan. He sees this Taliban group as separate from the smaller number of perhaps 15,000 active, hard-line Taliban insurgents.
"We are hoping all of these things will fall into place before the election [in August]. We are confident this will happen. There is a good feeling of movement," said Karim Baz.
But other Afghan government officials and insiders close to the government who spoke with GlobalPost on background are divided on how productive these talks can be and whether there is substantive movement on key issues.
August presidential elections have created an urgency within the talks for both the Afghan government, which wants a peaceful election, and the moderate elements of the Taliban, who have a stake in its outcome. Observers here say the Taliban, and the Pashtuns as an ethnic group, have historically only negotiated from strength. An argument is made by some here that they have that strength now and may not be in as good a position once the U.S. military offensive kicks into gear over the next few months.
All sides seem to agree a new diplomatic tone and military strategy set by Washington has contributed to the momentum. President Barack Obama earlier this year called for negotiations with moderate elements of the Taliban. CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus has discussed the need for a more complex approach to dealing with what he calls "reconcilables" within the insurgency.
Muhajid, who was the Taliban's U.N. representative in New York for four years until the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, has long played a diplomatic role between the U.S. and the Taliban.
He was living in Flushing, Queens at the time of the attacks and for several weeks afterwards he met with State Department officials before he requested U.S. government permission to return to Pakistan to join his government leaders. The request was granted, he said, and he lived in Pakistan for several years until returning to Afghanistan four years ago and agreeing to try to fulfill a conciliatory role between the Afghan government and the active Taliban insurgents.
He has also had what he described as "limited" contact with U.S. officials, but said that he believed under the Obama administration there was a noticeable change in tone by U.S. diplomats.
"They declare mutual respect and mutual understanding. This is very important between the U.S. and Islamic countries, but in practice we do not see much change on the ground," he said.
He said he was encouraged that the U.S. was supporting a policy of reconciliation and added that he believed Washington "will achieve many more advantages and many more objectives in the dialogue than if they were fighting with the opposition."
Not all of the Taliban leadership are as optimistic about these talks. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former ambassador to Pakistan for the Taliban who spent the better part of four years in Guantanamo and now lives under a form of house arrest in Kabul, was skeptical that the talks would produce real results. He said a "deep mistrust" of the U.S. government would prevent the true Taliban leadership from going forward with an agreement that they do not believe the U.S. would honor.
"There are talks and talking is good, but there is a long way to go," said Zaeef, who attended one of the meetings in Saudi Arabia that launched the process.
Still others more directly involved in the talks are optimistic.
Rahmani, who was appointed by President Karzai to the lower house of parliament in the current Afghan government, said the talks are progressing steadily but that regional players, such as Pakistan, India, China and Iran all have stakes in their outcome and can directly affect the outcome.
"We cannot say with 100 percent certainty that these talks will succeed, but there is a very good chance that we will have something in place very soon," he said.
"What's important is trust and that is being built," Rahmani said.