Why direct US negotiations with the Taliban would be a grievous mistake
THE United States is still planning to hold peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar,despite the fact that the group attacked the presidential palace and a CIA office in Kabul,Afghanistan earlier this week. As was the case in the 1990s,negotiating with the Taliban now would be a grievous mistake. Unlike most states or political groups,the Taliban arent amenable to a pragmatic deal.
The planned talks have been arranged through the good offices of Pakistans army chief,General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. At the urging of Pakistans military,the US agreed to the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar. Taliban officials immediately portrayed the American concession as a victory. They flew the Taliban flag,played the Taliban anthem and called their new workplace the office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan the name of the state they ran in the 1990s before being dislodged from power after 9/11. This was intentional. It reflected the Talibans view of the talks as the beginning of the restoration of their emirate.
There is no reason to believe and no evidence that the Taliban are now ready for political accommodation. Pakistans rationale for the talks differs little from the last two times it tried to save the Taliban from Americas wrath,after the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998,and immediately after 9/11.
Declassified State Department documents and secret cables made public by WikiLeaks show that in the 1990s,as now,Pakistan claimed it had contact with the Taliban but no control over them. As the Taliban advanced in eastern Afghanistan in 1996,they took over several terrorist training camps run by various Pakistan-supported mujahideen factions and Arab groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. The Talibans deputy foreign affairs adviser at the time,Abdul Jalil,told American officials that the Arab occupants of the camps had fled,and that Osama bin Ladens precise location was unknown. Taliban interlocutors assured the US that the Taliban did not support terrorism in any form and would not provide refuge to Osama bin Laden. That was,of course,an outright lie. The CIA concluded that the Taliban had closed down training camps run by their Afghan rivals but not the ones run by bin Laden and Pakistani terrorist groups.
Ironically,while American diplomats were interacting with Taliban officials,Western journalists travelling in Afghanistan often found evidence of largescale terrorist training. An American embassy cable in November 1996 spoke of an unnamed British journalists seeing assorted foreigners,including Chechens,Bosnians,Sudanese as well as various Arabs training for global jihad in Afghan provinces adjacent to Pakistan.
Mullah Ehsanullah Ehsan,a Taliban representative,told American officials in 1997 that bin Ladens expulsion was not a solution and urged them to recognise the legitimacy of Taliban rule if the US did not want every Afghan to become a bin Laden. By then,the Taliban had changed their story on bin Laden.
On August 20,1998,American missiles struck Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on the embassies in Africa. Two days later,Mullah Omar called the State Department and demanded President Bill Clintons resignation,asserting that the missile attack would spread bin Ladens anti-American message by uniting the fundamentalist Islamic world and would cause further terrorist attacks.
Fifteen years later,the Taliban and their Pakistani mentors have hardly changed their arguments or their tendency to fudge facts. Americans may believe that talks offer an opportunity to end an expensive war that is no longer popular among Americans,but they shouldnt forget the Talibans history of deception. For the Taliban,direct dialogue with the US is a source of international legitimacy and an opportunity to regroup. They are most likely playing for time while waiting for American troops to withdraw in 2014. Everything about the talks in Qatar hints at déjà vu. America must enter these talks with a healthy does of scepticism,or not participate at all.
Haqqani was Pakistans ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2011
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