Afghanistan Tests Waters for Overture to Taliban
KABUL, Afghanistan— The Afghan government and its allies in the region have begun approaching the Taliban and other insurgent groups with new intensity to test the possibilities for eventual peace talks, Western diplomats and Afghan officials here say.
The diplomatic approaches have been stepped up over the last several months by the Afghan government, as well as by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the officials said. They are part of a broad political effort to stem the downward spiral of violence in Afghanistan and the steep decline of public support for the government during a year that has proved to be the bloodiest of the past seven.
Security has deteriorated to the point that a growing chorus of Western diplomats, NATO commanders and Afghans has begun to argue that the insurgency cannot be defeated solely by military means. Some officials in Kabul contend that the war against the insurgents cannot be won and are calling for negotiations.
The readiness of Saudi Arabia to sponsor talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government was especially important, Western diplomats said. “It is part of a political effort that needs to be made inside and outside the country to ensure that the military effort is complemented in the right ways,” one diplomat said.
Important parts of the strategy would be to exploit what diplomats here say are fissures in the Taliban, to separate what amounts to day-wage fighters from the movement’s hard-core elements, whom many officials consider to be “irreconcilable,” and to divide the Taliban from Al Qaeda.
But some officials fear that without a turnaround in the security situation, the Afghan government and the international forces here will not be in a strong bargaining position. The next six to seven months, when fighting traditionally slows in the winter, will be critical, they said.
Many of the diplomats, military officials and Afghan officials interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.
The United States military is preparing to take the fight to the insurgents throughout the winter, and it has requested an extra 20,000 American troops in addition to the extra American brigade arriving in January, a senior military commander said. The hope is to break the stalemate that has been building with the insurgents in the south.
At the same time, the Afghan government must improve its policing and its performance in outlying districts and provinces in order to build trust in those communities before the next fighting season starts, another senior Western diplomat said.
One of the important lessons of fighting a counterinsurgency in Iraq “is that you need a comprehensive approach,” said Gen. David H. Petraeus in an interview in September in London.
The general, who formerly led American forces in Iraq, takes over command of all United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan at Central Command on Friday. He has already been outspoken about the need for a regional approach to resolving the Afghan conflict.
“Where Central Command can help is in looking at this overall challenge as a region, and helping regionally by looking not just at Afghanistan, but also of course Pakistan, at the Stans, Iran and even some of the other countries in the greater region that have been long involved, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and some of the gulf States, and even leaders in Lebanon,” he said.
Diplomacy and regional cooperation in the Afghan conflict have been at best faltering in recent years. But some of that is now changing.
On Tuesday, for instance, Afghan and Pakistani officials completed a two-day jirga, or leadership gathering, of 50 officials and elders from both countries to work on developing peace and security in the region.
The jirga, an initiative of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was largely ignored by the former Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, and its convening in Islamabad, Pakistan, was seen as an indication that cooperation between the countries had improved since the election of the Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistan’s president in September.
One of the main decisions of the jirga was for a smaller committee to open a dialogue with the Taliban and other opposition groups on both sides of the border, Abdullah, the former Afghan foreign minister who uses one name, said Wednesday on his return here from the gathering.
But he stressed that talking to insurgent groups was only one element of a much wider effort to bring security to the region, including closing off sanctuaries for terrorists and prosecuting those who have committed crimes against humanity.
Behind the scenes, there has also been quiet work by people like Abdullah Anas, an Algerian who fought in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
For the last two years, in an effort supported by Mr. Karzai, Mr. Anas has been lobbying influential Muslim clerics and international leaders of jihads in an attempt to draw the Taliban away from Al Qaeda and to bring peace to Afghanistan, according to an Afghan military attaché working on the plan.