In Afghanistan, Karzai's invitation to Taliban creates discord and confusion

By Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; A01

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's public invitation to the Taliban to attend a peace conference this spring has sparked disagreement and confusion among the many players in Afghanistan over the shape and speed of negotiations and what they should ultimately accomplish.

As U.S., NATO and Afghan forces continue a major operation in Helmand province in the south and prepare for another in neighboring Kandahar, the Obama administration has argued that substantive talks should wait until the military balance has shifted more sharply in favor of the coalition.

But the administration's British allies, facing strong domestic disapproval over the long-running war, appear eager to see negotiations begin sooner rather than later. That position is shared by a number of senior U.S. military officials, who predicted that negotiations with insurgents could gain traction as early as this year.

"I would not be surprised if we see Taliban from the south ending up in the parliament, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," said one military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Such remarks could be aimed at sowing suspicion and discord within enemy ranks, a priority on both sides of the war. There are few visible signs that senior Taliban members are open to negotiation, or that they might break from the head of the group, Mohammad Omar. The insurgents have publicly disclaimed any interest in discussions until the departure of "infidel" foreign troops.

But Karzai's effusive invitation, made in late January at an international conference on Afghanistan held in London, has unleashed widespread speculation that discussion of reconciliation -- previously seen as psychological warfare and political gamesmanship -- could lead to substantive talks, or perhaps already has. Kabul has been awash with rumors, with Afghan human rights organizations warning that Karzai plans to forgive countless Taliban atrocities and place insurgent leaders in high-level government positions.

"I think it's just legalizing impunity," said Sima Samar, who chairs the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. "Nobody is accountable, not for the past crimes and not for future ones. Anybody can come and join the government and they will be protected."

Some senior Pakistani officials have suggested that U.S. or Afghan officials were in touch with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's No. 2 commander, before he was captured last month during a Pakistani-U.S. intelligence operation in the port city of Karachi. U.S. officials have denied any contact with the Taliban. If anyone had been talking to the group, the Americans say, it was the Pakistanis, who have been known to play both sides of the war.

These officials and others spoke on the condition of anonymity, to avoid the appearance that they were interfering in what the coalition has described as an internal Afghan issue.

London conference

Some coalition members, fearing that a rush to dialogue could critically destabilize Afghanistan's fragile government, said Britain pushed Karzai to move further than he had intended at the London conference, a charge a British official "categorically" denied.

"What we wanted was to use that [conference] to create political space for the conversation on reconciliation. That's true," the official said. The midwife role is easier for Britain to play than the United States, he said, because the British public is more eager to leave Afghanistan and is less concerned about "things like women's rights."

But the British, he said, were trying to hold the Afghan president from going too far with reconciliation.

"It's nonsense if Karzai says, 'Right, give me Omar's cell number and I'll call him up and invite him next week,' " the official said.

Just a week after the London conference, Karzai appeared to be heading in that direction. Asked in an interview with Germany's Spiegel magazine whether he could envision receiving the Taliban chief at the presidential palace, Karzai replied: "Mullah Omar is first and foremost an Afghan, and we want all Afghans to return. . . . We welcome all Afghans back to their country, with this little bracket of not being part of al-Qaeda or the terrorist networks."

Only a "small fraction" of the Taliban is in contact with al-Qaeda, Karzai said. "Even at the higher levels of their command structure, there are people . . . who have never seen Osama bin Laden and who don't even understand what al-Qaeda is up to."

A tangled web of ties

Like most guerrilla wars, the Afghanistan conflict is being fought among compatriots with ethnic and familial ties. Those ties inevitably mean that the sides have contact with one another.

"Every Pashtun family in the south has friends or relatives in the Taliban . . . including the leadership of this country," Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said during a visit to Kabul last month. "It's not a secret. And they're always in contact."

Holbrooke emphasized, however, that the communication doesn't mean substantive dialogue is taking place.

It's "like, you know, 'How's your cousin's brother-in-law doing? I wish I could kill him,' " he said.

A senior NATO official in Kabul agreed that Afghans "are on the horn every day talking across that border," but he suggested that recent conversations have taken a new tenor "because the notion of reintegration and reconciliation is on the table in a big way." Even the coalition military has channels of communication, he said.

"I can call up an individual who can call someone in Pakistan. And ask him a question. And get a truthful answer," the official said.

The Afghan government has begun laying the groundwork for more significant accommodation with at least some Taliban members. At Kabul's urging in January, Russia lifted its opposition to removing five former Taliban members from the U.N. Security Council sanctions list, ending restrictions on their assets and travel. "In terms of reconciliation, these five people will be useful," said Zahir Faqiri, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

The government has also put into force a law granting amnesty to all those involved in fighting before and after the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, provided they respect the Afghan constitution. The legislation, passed by parliament in 2007, had receded into the background after Karzai refused to sign it, only to suddenly emerge as law this year when it was printed in the official gazette without explanation.

Saudi involvement

Saudi Arabia has provided a venue for several rounds of talks between Karzai representatives and Taliban figures since late 2008, and Karzai has urged the Saudi king to become more directly involved. The meetings have been shepherded by Qayum Karzai, the president's brother and a Baltimore restaurateur, and have included former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Abdul Salam Zaeef, whose standing with Omar and other members of the Taliban leadership council, based in Quetta, Pakistan, is uncertain.

Although the Saudis have said they will not take an official role in the dialogue until the Taliban publicly severs all ties with al-Qaeda, they sit in on the informal discussions, held in Mecca, and brief interested parties, including the United States.

Although eager for the discussions to continue, the participants are concerned that interference from Afghanistan's foreign patrons may undercut the potential of the talks. "We need to be quiet about these things for a while," said a senior Afghan figure who has participated in the discussions. "That's probably the best way out of the situation."

"There are so many paranoid people," and all of them want a "major piece of the [Afghanistan] pie," he said, mentioning Pakistan, India, Iran and the United States. "The only way peace can come is for them to have hands off until the Afghans figure out what kind of peace is feasible and then work on it."

Partlow reported from Kabul.

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