Taliban increasingly eyeing its role in politics

In the once-peaceful north, Taliban forces have infiltrated Afghan villages and seized control, making the task of peacekeeping and reform even more difficult for NATO and U.S. troops.
By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 1:59 PM

KABUL - Although Taliban leaders have denounced Afghanistan's parliamentary election and threatened violence at the polls on Saturday, some are discreetly making overtures to candidates, apparently in hopes of building political clout in Kabul, according to the top United Nations envoy here and some Afghan politicians.

"Any indication that they're moving from bullets to ballots, as imperfect as it might be, is a good indicator," said Staffan de Mistura, who previously served as the top U.N. representative in Iraq and took over here in March.

Speaking in an interview at his Kabul office, de Misturasaid insurgent leaders in Afghanistan could be trying to bolster their political standing in anticipation of a reconciliation process Afghan President Hamid Karzai is hoping to jump-start this fall.

"That's exactly the type of thing that happened in Iraq at a certain point," de Mistura said, referring to the period after the 2007 U.S. troop surge, when political factions with armed wings started putting more stock in deal-making than in fighting. "People started discussing, arguing, compromising, negotiating, making deals on a political level, using the political game plan rather than bombs and explosions. In that sense, these elections could be helpful."

Not everyone has such an optimistic interpretation.

Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said there is little evidence that the Taliban's leadership is interested in playing a formal role in the political system at this point in time.

"They've come out strongly against the election," she said. "They didn't have to. They could have been more ambiguous."

She said any overtures might speak to the evolution of local politics, rather than a softening of the Taliban's position on Afghanistan's U.S.-backed democratic system.

"It probably points in the other direction, with people on the government's side trying to strengthen their ties with the Taliban," she said. "If you want to travel in your area and have someone look after your land, you need to have those links, particularly as the Taliban's influence is on the rise."

Saturday's parliamentary election is seen as a crucial milestone that could restore - or dash - Afghans' faith in the democratic system that was established after the Taliban was driven from power nine years ago. Many Afghans have come to see the government as a corrupt oligarchy with little reach outside the capital - a view reinforced by last year's fraud-tainted presidential election.

More than 2,500 candidates - 406 of them female - are running for 249 seats. Campaigning has unfolded amid rising violence. Three candidates and several campaign workers have been killed, and prospective lawmakers running in Taliban-controlled districts say they have been unable to campaign effectively.

Against this backdrop, de Mistura would not elaborate on the type of political deals Taliban leaders appear to be making or say which candidates have had contact with the Taliban.

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