As Karzai weighs the prospect of talks with Taliban officials in Qatar, Afghanistan’s government has invited Zaeef and others with long-standing ties to the Taliban to offer guidance and help mediate.
Afghan leaders have been disappointed by their lack of access to Taliban negotiators who have been speaking directly to the United States. But they have found an alternative in former insurgents — many of them imprisoned and later reintegrated — who live only a few miles from the palace gates.
And so Zaeef — a broad-shouldered, bearded man who was once the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan — has seen an unlikely resurgence in his diplomatic career. This time, he’s trying to convince the government, and anyone else who will listen, that the Taliban is serious about peace if its preconditions can be met.
“They are ready to discuss peace,” he said in an interview. “They have received the message from their leadership, and they are ready.”
Attempting to bridge divide
Thousands of former Taliban members have put down their weapons in recent years. Most are low-level fighters whose peace deals with the government were unceremonious and of little political consequence. But a few, like Zaeef, were offered early release from prison if they agreed to work with the government rather than against it.
Members of this small group have been having occasional conversations with Karzai for several years. But with peace talks drawing closer, they are meeting with top Afghan officials much more often, according to the president’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
The meetings have been mostly informal, and officials are quick to point out that they are no substitute for negotiations with Taliban diplomats in Qatar. But given the obliqueness of the Taliban’s public demands, and concerns here that the United States is not adequately including the Afghan government, the former insurgents have come to play an important role.
“We’ve had ongoing talks . . . and we do consider some of these men, like Zaeef, to be speaking for some segment of the movement,” said Shaida M. Abdali, the deputy national security adviser. “But we're still waiting for officially appointed representatives.”
On Sunday, during a visit to Kabul, Marc Grossman, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Taliban must sever its connections to terrorists before opening a diplomatic office in Qatar.
Arsala Rahmani, a former education minister for the Taliban, said he has met with Karzai four times this month, attempting to bridge the divide between his “old colleagues” and the government that promised him refuge.
Mohammad Akhbar Agha, the former leader of the Taliban-affiliated Jaish al-Muslimeen group, said he talks to the Taliban as much as he does to the government, fielding 20 calls a day from both sides in recent weeks. He said he communicates the Taliban’s demands: a true Islamic government, the prompt removal of foreign troops and the release of key prisoners.