Rebranding the Taliban

Afghanistan’s government may want to bring the Taliban back into the fold, but not all Afghans support this strategy.

rebranding the taliban
The Afghan government is trying to bring the Taliban back into the political fold [GALLO/GETTY]

On March 28, the Federal District Court in Washington, DC, will hear a case on behalf of Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former high-ranking Taliban official who has been held at Guantanamo Bay for the past eight years.

Frank Goldsmith, the lawyer representing Khairkhwa, a governor and minister under the Taliban, said: “The purpose of the case is to convince the judge that our client’s detention is unlawful and that he should order his release.”

The case has received media attention because the commission set up by Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, to facilitate talks with the Taliban has requested Khairkhwa’s release. The 68-member High Council for Peace has prioritised the release of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo as a confidence-building measure.

“His release will be influential to the peace process,” said Hekmat Karzai, the director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based research and advocacy organisation, who will be testifying as an expert witness in favour of Khairkhwa’s release during the hearing.

Karzai’s organisation provides Taliban prisoners across Afghanistan with legal counsel and subscribes to the view that fair treatment of the prisoners prevents further radicalisation and aids reconciliation.

“Mr Khairkhwa is well respected amongst the Taliban and was considered a moderate by those who knew him,” Karzai says. “We believe he can help in creating the address for the Taliban that is needed in this peace process.”

“Address” refers to the High Council’s demand that a political office for the Taliban be established. Turkey, Tajikistan and the United Arab Emirates have been suggested as possible locations for the office.

But as efforts to reach out to the Taliban intensify, some question the nature of the peace efforts being undertaken by the government. Those opposed to the process have found a voice in Amrullah Saleh and Hanif Atmar, well-respected former members of the government who are warning against what they see as desperate attempts to reach a deal.

Pushing for a political settlement

Since the beginning of his second term in office, President Karzai has increasingly favoured a political settlement to the war. Sources close to the president say that he had begun to lose hope in a military solution before his re-election campaign and that the behaviour of Western diplomats during the election saga further strained already rocky relations with the White House. Feeling isolated by his allies, the president immediately went in search of a political solution.

His first step was to bring local leaders together for a Consultative Peace Jirga. Considered a choreographed event by many opposition leaders, the Jirga echoed the president’s agenda and called for the reintegration of Taliban members who denounce violence and ties to al-Qaeda. It also led calls for the creation of the High Council for Peace as the body that would lead negotiations with the Taliban.

“We need to reverse the uneven distribution of power and make those who feel angered welcome again,” says Fazel Karim Fazel, a member of the High Council who argues that earlier missteps by the government fuelled the Taliban resurgence.

Fazel believes that while other elements that played a role in destroying Afghanistan during the country’s civil war were given a share in the government, the Taliban were persecuted. “Power was shared unevenly with those who held previous grudges with the Taliban, and they acted on those grudges,” he says.

By any other name …

To ease the reintegration of the Taliban, the government has sought to emphasise the ideological differences between the group and al-Qaeda, insisting that a large portion can be persuaded to join the democratic process. Some, including Farouq Wardak, the minister of education and a member of the High Council for Peace, argue that the Taliban has changed.

Publicly, the government has stopped referring to the Taliban in association with violence against civilians. Last month, more than 100 people were killed in attacks in Jalalabad and Kunduz, which were strongly condemned by the president. Not once, however, was the word ‘Taliban’ mentioned in his statements.

Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, sees this shift as necessary if Karzai is to build space between himself and the US. “Karzai wants to be in the position of managing the government’s reconciliation with the Taliban while disassociating himself from the political baggage of drone strikes and HVT raids,” he says.

But many in Afghanistan argue that the Taliban has not done enough to show that it has changed and that its oppressive regime and continued violence against civilians remains fresh in the public memory.

“I have not seen a difference in the Taliban of the 1990s and the Taliban today,” says Nader Nadery, a commissioner at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission who argues that the group employs similar tactics to al-Qaeda. Nadery believes the government’s deliberate creation of a more palatable identity for the Taliban is dangerous.

Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief under Karzai and current opponent of the president’s policy, agrees. He told prominent Kabul-based television channel Tolo News: “They are the same Taliban who used scorched-earth tactics against not only humans but also trees and animals. Nothing has changed about their cruelty.”

Saleh and his former government colleague Hanif Atmar have been vocal in their opposition to government attempts to forge a deal, with Atmar, the interior minister until he resigned in the autumn, calling the talks “political insanity”.

The two men, well respected as effective administrators during their years in Karzai’s national security team, are leading a vociferous opposition. Their insight into the Taliban, appeal to young people and undeniable eloquence has put the government’s political agenda in an awkward position.

A marriage of convenience?

Those critical of the efforts also question whether the Taliban’s links to al-Qaeda are really as superficial as the government claims. Nadery points to the example of the stoning of a young couple in Kunduz three months ago. “The video tapes of the incident I reviewed shows Arab and Uzbek fighters are not only publicly present at the scene but also serving as organisers of the murder event,” he says.

Others, however, insist that the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda has always been a strained marriage of convenience.

Hekmat Karzai says there have been indications that the relationship is growing more strained and points to the fact that Mullah Omar has not shown any interest in al-Qaeda’s globalist jihad in his recent addresses.

“But not enough has been done to build confidence for the Taliban to disassociate themselves from al-Qaeda,” Karzai adds. “What do they leave all that for?”

Some analysts, however, believe that the strategy of talking to the Taliban might not achieve the peace and stability Afghans are looking for and argue that the insurgents are too fragmented to be dealt with through negotiations.

“In my view, the whole idea of negotiations with [the] Taliban is a fruitless endeavour,” says Hassan Abbas, a professor of South Asian politics and security at Columbia University and a former Pakistani government official.

Abbas points to the multiplicity of groups involved in the insurgency and their varying interests. He argues that making peace with figureheads might not solve Afghanistan’s problems. “Mullah Omar and Co. are no more in effective control of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan – they are becoming irrelevant in fact,” he says.

Uncertain peace process

It is also unclear whether NATO and the US are fully on board with the Afghan government’s attempts to reach a political settlement. The Obama administration’s support for Karzai’s agenda has been minimal at best and, at a time when NATO is focusing on a military transition out of the country, a cohesive strategy towards an end-game in Afghanistan is lacking. 

Karzai’s mistrust of US officials further undermines a unified approach.

“I think the terrible relationship between Karzai and both senior US officials – [General David] Petraeus and [Karl] Eikenberry – is absolute poison to the war effort,” says Foust.

At the regional level, too, Pakistan’s ambiguous policy towards the Taliban complicates the peace process, with many believing that unless a decisive understanding is reached with Islamabad, any internal peace with the Taliban will be superficial and temporary.

But Abbas says that the Pakistani army is deeply suspicious of long-term US interests in Afghanistan and “believes that US-India interests are aligned” in the country.

The lack of clarity in the mandate of the High Council for Peace is also a source of worry for Afghans, who are not sure whether the organisation, whose members were appointed by the president, is simply a facilitating body or one that has the authority to make concessions to the Taliban.

“The High Council has an advisory role and it has no executive powers,” explains Fazel, a member of the Council, in response to those queries. “It has a mediator role to facilitate the environment of peace with the Taliban and help the integration process now and post peace.”

But many remain concerned that the ambiguity of the council’s role could compromise Afghanistan’s hard-won achievements.

“The current peace process lacks a mechanism to guarantee the rights and freedoms Afghans gained in the last nine years,” Nadery says, explaining that he is concerned that some members of the council have a history of being soft on human rights. “Some of the people on this council advocated limited constitutional safeguards when the constitution was being drafted in 2004, and that is a worry.”

Source: Al Jazeera