Pakistan on the Brink
Chapter Six - Afghanistan: Talking to the Taliban
Author: Ahmed Rashid
On November 28, 2010, a cold Bavarian day, in a well-to-do residential village close to Munich, German diplomat Michael Steiner was celebrating his sixty-first birthday. But this was no party. Steiner and two American officials were meeting face-to-face, for the first time in ten years, with a senior Taliban envoy—the result of intensive German diplomacy and a personal triumph for Steiner. President Obama himself had cleared the first U.S. contact with the Taliban a few weeks earlier. History might well judge that day as a turning point in the ten-year-long war in Afghanistan, no less momentous than the day the United States began talks with the Vietnamese half a century earlier, or when Britain began secret talks with the Irish Republican Army in 1972.
A flamboyant, intellectually aggressive troubleshooter for the German foreign ministry, Steiner had earned his negotiating spurs in the Balkan conflict and in May 2010 had been appointed as Berlin's special envoy for AfPak—the German counterpart to Richard Holbrooke, whom Steiner knew well from the Balkans. After many months of shuttling between capitals and meetings with the Taliban, Steiner and his knowledgeable assistant, Arend Wulff, had brought two U.S. officials—Frank Ruggiero (from the State Department and a deputy to Holbrooke) and Jeff Hayes (from the National Security Council staff)—together with the Taliban's Syed Tayyab Agha, in his late thirties, a secretary and long-term aide to Mullah Muhammad Omar. Also present was a prince from Qatar's ruling family, whom the Taliban had asked to be present.
The four-way meeting took place in a safe house belonging to the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the German intelligence service, in the village where Steiner was born. The BND had cordoned off the area, but there were still spies in the village from various countries that had caught a whiff of the meeting. "If this meeting leaks out, it's dead," Steiner reportedly told the participants. Agha, who spoke English, had flown from Pakistan to Qatar on a Pakistani passport, and from there he had been whisked to Germany in a BND plane. He had worked in Mullah Omar's office in Kandahar in the late 1990s, followed by stints in the Taliban's foreign ministry and its embassy in Pakistan. Since 2001, he had been in exile in Iran and Pakistan, and he had been part of a Taliban delegation that had opened informal talks with the Karzai government in Saudi Arabia in 2008.
The need for secrecy was intense because any disclosure could endanger Agha's life—Al Qaeda or some other spoiler might try to kill him. Even a close ally like Britain's MI6 was not told about the meeting. Nor was Pakistan's ISI informed of it: the Americans did not trust it to keep a secret, and Taliban leaders had become highly critical of it as well, saying that the ISI constantly threatened them and their families in Pakistan, even though it supported the Taliban war effort against the Americans. The Pakistanis would not take kindly to being bypassed. In 2009, when the Taliban had tried to talk to Karzai's brother in Kandahar without telling the Pakistanis, the ISI had arrested the Taliban interlocutor—the second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar—and accused him of being a spy for the Americans. (Baradar was arrested in Karachi on February 8, 2010, and disappeared into an ISI safe house jail.)
The small group spent a total of eleven hours together—six of them in concentrated talks. They made no preconditions, assurances, or com¬mitments, and both sides avoided actual negotiations. This was a getting-to-know-you session. At the end, Agha brought up the issue of the prisoners that the Taliban wanted freed, whom the United States was holding in Bagram, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, Cuba. The Taliban were obsessed with getting their commanders out of jail. Steiner took the visitors on a local sightseeing trip. They were intrigued to see a typical German castle and the village church. When the meeting broke up and Agha left, the adrenaline-pumped participants horsed around. Steiner joked that the meeting should be titled "The Birthday Party"—a spoof on Harold Pinter's famous play. They were euphoric that the ice with the Taliban had finally been broken.
"Talking to the Taliban" had become the most controversial issue for all sides in the war. Hamid Karzai had promoted the idea as early as 2004, because he understood that a military victory in the conventional sense was not possible, as long as the United States continued to underfund the war effort and economic development and allowed Taliban safe havens in Pakistan to go unquestioned. Later Pakistan wanted talks because it hoped to broker the final deal that would bring the Taliban into a power-sharing agreement and keep India out of a reconstituted Afghanistan. European states with troops in Afghanistan supported the idea as a way to exit Afghanistan faster. But for years, the United States had adamantly opposed talks and continued to equate the Taliban with Al Qaeda, making no distinction between them.
By 2009-10, many Afghans and Western diplomats realized that the U.S. military surge was not working, and that the Taliban were growing stronger and spreading into every corner of the country. With the 2008 economic recession, the Europeans could not or would not maintain their troops for long. For the Americans, the cost of the war in Afghanistan—$109 billion in 2010 and $120 billion in 2011—was also becoming unsustainable, especially as it was being funded entirely with borrowed money. For some time, the Obama administration was divided between civilian advisers, who wanted talks with the Taliban and a quick military exit, and the military, which demanded another year or two of surge. Gen. David Petraeus in particular would consider talks only after the Taliban had been decimated. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was more open to the idea of talks but took no steps to encourage Obama to pursue that course. I argued repeatedly—both with Petraeus and with Mullen—that by the time the military got what it wanted with its degrading program, the top Taliban leaders who could lead a negotiation would be dead.
Richard Holbrooke was convinced of the need to talk, but he lacked support from anyone in the cabinet. As Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars makes plain, Obama's civilian advisers kept getting outmaneuvered by the generals, who demanded ever more troops for Afghanistan rather than talks with the Taliban. Only after the 2010 Lisbon NATO summit set a time limit for Western troops to be out did the idea of talks became more urgent. Naturally, many Western officials doubted that the Taliban were sincere about talks. The most common belief—and the most pessimistic—was that the Taliban had only to wait for American forces to leave, and then they could seize power in Kabul, so why should they want to talk?
But the Taliban leaders had matured considerably since the 1990s. They remained firm that all foreign troops had to leave Afghanistan and that an Islamic system had to be restored to their country, but on both counts they were more flexible than before. Even though they had received extensive training, funding, and other support from Al Qaeda, both before and after 2001, they had now distanced themselves from it. Unlike other groups, the Afghan Taliban leadership had never sworn an oath of loyalty to Al Qaeda or to Osama bin Laden; nor had they adopted Al Qaeda's global jihad agenda or helped train foreigners to become suicide bombers, as the Pakistani Taliban and their Afghan allies, the network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, had done. Most senior Taliban I spoke to over the years blamed Bin Laden and the Arabs for their defeat by the Americans in 2001. The Taliban stressed that they considered themselves Afghan nationalists not global jihadists. At the death of Bin Laden, the Taliban statements remained circumspect, refusing to eulogize him or call for revenge attacks.
The Taliban had mellowed on the issues of girls' education, the media, and health services for women, compared with the policies they pursued in the 1990s. In March 2010, Mullah Omar issued a decree banning attacks on all schools, including girls' schools, which did not stop them completely but much reduced them. The Taliban no longer opposed girls' schools, as long as they were separate from boys' schools, and Taliban shadow governors across the country reassured NGOs that they could build schools. Even though 400 government schools remained closed in the southern war zones, 100 new schools opened in Helmand and Kandahar in 2010-11. In 2011, 8.3 million children started the new school year in Afghanistan, 40 percent of them girls—up from 7.6 million in the previous year.
The Taliban had partially adhered to a UN Peace Day on September 23, 2008, when Taliban attacks dropped by 70 percent. They had allowed the UN to conduct a medical campaign to immunize children against polio in many war-torn areas, and midlevel Taliban commanders had held meetings with UN officials in Kabul and other cities where they talked of the need for local confidence-building measures such as cease-fires. The UN special representative Kai Eide encouraged all these efforts, in particular efforts to get some Taliban leaders off the UN Resolution 1267 list, which was a list of terrorist suspects maintained by the UN Security Council since 1999.
The Taliban have also tried to reassure Afghanistan's neighboring countries that they will not host groups that are hostile to them. In an Eid message on November 15, 2010, Mullah Omar said his group has a comprehensive policy "for the efficiency of the future government of Afghanistan; about true security, Islamic justice, education, economic progress, national unity and a foreign policy . . . [to] convince the world that the future Afghanistan will not harm them."4 In his Eid message a year later, in August 2011, after secret talks had begun with the Americans, Mullah Omar admitted for the first time that talks were going on. He said that in the interest of a peaceful Afghanistan, "every legitimate option can be considered in order to reach this goal," and he accepted that "all" ethnic groups "will have participation" in governing Afghanistan—a clear message to non-Pashtuns.
The Taliban are exhausted by the long war. They have suffered terrible casualties, and they want to return home from the refugee camps in Pakistan. Moreover, they want to break free from Pakistan and the control exercised by the ISI, which they now intensely dislike. (I will deal with this complex relationship in chapter 8.) The older generation of Taliban realize that since they could not run the country in the 1990s, they will not be able to do so in the future. Rather than trying to grab power and then face international isolation and forfeit funds and aid, they now see the benefits of a coalition government with Karzai that would retain Western aid, legitimacy, and support.
The second round of talks with the Taliban took place in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on February 15, 2011. It was delayed due to the tragic death of Richard Holbrooke on December 13, 2010. The American officials, still highly mistrustful, asked Agha to prove that he had access to Mullah Omar and other leaders by getting the Taliban to deliver on a confidence-building measure that they proposed. The Americans asked Agha to see that the Taliban officially put out a certain public statement in language that had been agreed upon. A few weeks later the participants received the long-awaited confirmation: a Taliban statement containing the agreed language. Agha had delivered, confirming that he spoke on behalf of the Taliban leadership.
Three days after the Doha meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in the most significant U.S. public statement to date, told New York's Asia Society that "we are launching a diplomatic surge to move this conflict toward a political outcome that shatters the alliance between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, ends the insurgency and helps to produce not only a more stable Afghanistan but a more stable region." It was the first tantalizing public hint that the United States was talking to the Taliban. She went on to eulogize Holbrooke, saying, "We had always envisioned Richard Holbrooke leading this effort. He was an architect of our integrated military-civilian-diplomatic strategy."
A third round with the same participants took place in the same Bavarian village on May 7, 2011. Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan, and Agha expressed no regret at his death. The Americans agreed to talk about the possibility of opening a Taliban office in Doha, so that more frequent talks could take place. The Taliban had been lobbying for an office outside Pakistan for more than a year. Turkey had been mooted, but the Taliban preferred Qatar. But the four parties still had to agree on the legal modalities that the office would have, while Pakistan had to be persuaded to allow the Taliban to travel freely to Qatar. This was particularly difficult because the Pakistanis, who were informed late about the dialogue, resented being neither the host nor an invited guest.
As a confidence-building measure, the Americans agreed to remove a large number of Taliban from the UN sanctions list that designated them as global terrorists. The list—called UN Security Council Resolution 1267—was first drawn up in 1999 and had 433 names on it, including 140 Taliban. The sanctions included a travel ban and an assets freeze. The entire UN Security Council had to give its agreement for any changes, which took considerable time. Some 45 Taliban names were removed in December 2010, and another 50 were requested to be removed in 2011. On June 17, 2011, in an important step, the UN Security Council decided to treat Al Qaeda and the Taliban separately and to create two separate lists. It was now much easer to scrub Taliban names from the list.
President Karzai, for his part, freed several Taliban prisoners from detention in Kabul. The Taliban then asked the Americans to free several of their leaders held at Guantanamo, including three top military commanders who had been held since 2002—Noorullah Noori, Mullah Fazel, and former interior minister Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa. But they could not be released because a new U.S. law prevented terrorism prisoners being removed from Guantanamo. The Taliban also demanded an end to night raids by American special forces that had killed hundreds of low-level commanders, fighters, and civilians, but the U.S. military refused to make any military concessions as yet.
In Kabul in late 2010, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, spelled out the short-term Taliban objectives to me: "The fundamental problem is between the United States and the Taliban. The Afghan government is the secondary problem. The talks we want must involve the international community and end with international guarantees. The Taliban want to discuss the system of government that will prevail after peace comes. They are not interested in sharing of power or to be in the government. It is best for our own safety to open an office in a third country so we can have a single address to meet with anyone we choose."
Clearly the Taliban were serious about negotiating at least a reduction in the violence, if not an end to the fighting. The German-led peace process had begun with Steiner's predecessor, the diplomat Bernd Miitzelburg, who was the German AfPak envoy until May 2010. An Afghan-born German citizen who knew Syed Tayyab Agha had contacted Miitzelburg and told him that if the Germans were interested in talking to the Taliban, he could arrange it. Miitzelburg and Tayyab Agha had their first secret meeting in Dubai in September 2009. Miitzelburg's first task was to confirm Agha's identity and that he had access to the Taliban leadership. He had a number of meetings with Agha, building trust and an understanding of what the Taliban wanted. In February 2010, after being sure about Agha's identity, Miitzelburg conferred with Holbrooke. After that, the results of each meeting were reported to the Americans and to Karzai. Steiner held two more meetings with Agha in the gulf before the Americans were ready to come to the table. Steiner was convinced of the Taliban's sincerity, in part because Agha never asked for money, and beyond a few travel expenses, the Germans did not pay him a penny.
Steiner had asked the United States to guarantee that Agha would not be harassed while traveling from Pakistan to the gulf. He got this guarantee, demonstrating early White House support for the talks. Although only a few U.S. officials knew about the talks, the power play in Washington among senior officials who supported or rejected them remained a major problem. The Germans could move no faster than the Americans were able to, and the Americans moved very slowly. The Germans frequently asked the Americans to speed up the process, especially as Chancellor Angela Merkel was following it closely. When she invited me to dinner in Berlin, she peppered me with questions about the prospects for peace in Afghanistan.
The Taliban's first demand was the release of their prisoners held by the Americans. When the United States was unable to deliver prisoners held in Guantanamo, Steiner went to Karzai: if they could not deliver on the first confidence-building measure that the Taliban asked for, the talks might collapse. Karzai said he would free some Taliban prisoners as a unilateral gesture, a step that generated enormous goodwill from the Taliban. The International Committee of the Red Cross was brought in to facilitate the prisoners' release.
When the time came to talk to the Americans, the Taliban set down two conditions on a single sheet of paper. The first was that the talks remain top secret: no leaks or revelations would take place, or the dialogue would be broken off. The second condition was that no Taliban members who took part in the talks would be arrested or harassed. Ultimately all the participants knew that the talks would be later transformed into an Afghan-led process. The Taliban, from their side, also asked that a representative from the Qatari royal family be present at all meetings. The Taliban considered Qatar to be neutral because it had never interfered in Afghanistan's affairs. Both the American and the German leaders had excellent relations with the emir of Qatar, as the world was to see later when Qatar joined NATO to help Libyans free themselves from the Muammar Gaddafi regime. The United States agreed to these conditions, and the stage was set for the first meeting outside Munich.
In May 2011, after the third round of talks, a series of leaks about the talks appeared in the U.S. and German press. This posed an immediate problem for Agha, as he was named as the Taliban interlocutor. & The leaks came from some of Karzai's ministers who were opposed to the talks and from American officials in both the State Department and the Pentagon who were opposed to the talks. The leaks disturbed the talks, and the fourth round was not held until August. There was an agreement that a Taliban office could open soon in Doha, but its legal position had yet to be worked out.
The leaks prompted the Germans and the Americans to level with the Pakistanis and the ISI for the first time, in May and June 2011. U.S. officials met with General Kayani in Rawalpindi, telling him about the contacts with the Taliban and asking him to protect Agha. Kayani promised to do so, but he knew about the talks already. He and ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha were angry that their Western allies had gone behind their backs to make contact with the Taliban. This was the role that the ISI had always wanted to play—offer the Americans talks with the Taliban, thereby demonstrating Pakistan's importance in any future settlement. The Pakistanis were doubly angry with the Taliban, who had shown that they were not fully under their control. The ISI became convinced that the United States wanted to undermine it by cutting the one hand it had to play—bringing the Taliban to the table. Paradoxically, the Pakistan Army's relations with the Americans and the Taliban worsened at the same time. But more of this later.
Talking to the Taliban was far from a new idea. Lakhdar Brahimi and Francesc Vendrell, the UN mediators who had negotiated the Bonn Agreement (establishing a provisional government in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion) a decade earlier, in 2001, had soon afterward admitted that their biggest mistake had been omitting the Taliban from the table at Bonn. Including them might well have achieved a peace that avoided the revival of the Taliban insurgency in 2003, but at the time the Americans were not interested.
The first peace offer came in 2002, just after the Taliban's defeat, from a group of senior Taliban, including Agha and the movement's number two, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The group wrote a letter to Karzai accepting his nomination as president and expressing a willingness to surrender if they received immunity from arrest. Both Karzai and Baradar came from the same Popalzai tribe of the Durrani Pashtuns in Kandahar. The United States and the Northern Alliance, which dominated his cabinet, told Karzai to ignore the offer. 9 Subsequent attempts by other Taliban groups to talk to Kabul were also squashed, either by infighting within the Taliban or by the ISI, which wanted to exercise control over any talks that the United States might decide to hold with Taliban dissidents.
Karzai continued to hanker after an accord with the Taliban, as he quickly understood that a military victory against the Taliban was not possible—as long as their safe havens remained in Pakistan. The United States was unwilling to put pressure on Pakistan but continued to discourage Karzai from pursuing any dialogue with the Taliban. He also did not have the full support of his cabinet colleagues. Nevertheless he persisted, and in 2005 he set up a Peace and Reconciliation Commission, headed by the aged former prime minister and mujahedeen leader Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. Its aim was to lure moderate or disgruntled Taliban out of the movement and help them resettle as peaceful citizens by offering them jobs; but the committee had neither funds, nor a plan, nor sufficiently talented staff to make the project successful.
Holding more direct contacts with the Taliban became the domain of two of the president's brothers, Qayum Karzai, a member of parliament and a businessman, and Ahmed Wall Karzai, the powerful head of the provincial council in Kandahar and a key interlocutor with the U.S. military and the CIA. Both brothers had been quietly talking to local Taliban field commanders and, through them, to Mullah Baradar. With Mullah Omar rarely making an appearance, the all-powerful deputy emir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—as Baradar was now titled—was virtually commander in chief, head of treasury, and political leader of the Taliban movement. He had been a founding member of the Taliban in 1994 and had fought under Omar's command against the Soviets in the late 1980s, so Omar and Baradar trusted each other implicitly.
Baradar's main rival for the deputy slot, the bloodthirsty Mullah Dadullah Akhund, who had restarted the insurgency in 2003 from Pakistan, had been killed in a U.S. raid in May 2007, leaving Baradar as the unquestioned leader. But serious talks could not take place inside Afghanistan, which was a constant battlefield and where the Americans gave no guarantees of safety. Nor could they occur in Pakistan, where the Taliban leaders were afraid of being harassed or arrested by the ISI; they did not want to engage in a dialogue where they appeared to be under the ISI's control.
In 2008, Karzai reached out to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the notorious head of Hezb-i-Islami and a Taliban ally, who was based in Pakistan. Hezb's influence in Afghanistan was in no way comparable to that of the Taliban or the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani among the eastern Pashtuns. Hezb had some influence among Pashtun intellectual circles, although many Hezb figures had abandoned the party and joined the Kabul regime. In the 2005 elections, thirty-five Hezb figures were elected to the Afghan parliament—the largest single group in parliament—and some two hundred officials in the Afghan bureaucracy were also former Hezb. All these people would benefit if Hekmatyar came to an understanding with Karzai. The ISI considered Hekmatyar more pliable and dependent on Pakistani support than the Taliban. Karzai exchanged letters with Hekmatyar in 2008 and released his son-in-law Ghairat Bahir from a Kabul jail in May. Bahir then met with Karzai, UN officials in Kabul, and other diplomats, but the Americans stayed well away from these contacts.
Karzai fully understood that without the Taliban, peace with Hekmatyar was next to useless. In 2008, he wrote to Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, asking him to use his influence with the Taliban and provide a venue for talks. The task was given to Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, the head of Saudi intelligence, while an important initiative was also taken by Abdullah Anas, an Algerian Islamist who had once worked with Bin Laden, had fought in the Afghan war against the Soviets, was married to the daughter of Abdullah Azam, the mentor of Bin Laden, and was eventually given political asylum in Britain. Anas used his former Saudi, Al Qaeda, and Afghan contacts to approach the Taliban. The Saudis at first insisted that the Taliban denounce Al Qaeda before they came to the table, but this demand was seen as an end condition to talks rather than a precondition. At the request of the Taliban, the Saudis had also kept Pakistan out of the process, much to the chagrin of the ISI. Saudi intelligence—a close ally of the ISI—had itself become mistrustful of the ISI for continuing to tolerate on Pakistani soil militants and Al Qaeda, whom the Saudis were battling.
A series of meetings took place in Jeddah during the fasting month of Ramadan and the festival of Eid in September and October 2008. Those present included Afghan officials from Kabul, Afghan legislators including Qayum Karzai, and former Taliban—retired figures rather than those active in the Taliban's leadership council. Nevertheless the Saudis had secret contacts with senior active Taliban, including Baradar. Ultimately this initiative fizzled out because the Saudis did not know how to take it forward, they mistrusted the Afghans, and having just defeated Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, their heart was not in this difficult task. Meetings between Karzai's brothers and some Taliban leaders, including Agha, continued in Dubai, which were supported by the United Arab Emirates, but they did not move the process forward.
By the spring of 2009, U.S. and NATO military commanders had finally accepted the need for a better-funded "reintegration" policy that would take willing Taliban off the battlefield by offering them money, jobs, and resettlement. In the process, the false idea emerged that there were so-called moderate Taliban as opposed to extremist Taliban, a distinction that disregarded the Taliban's basis of loyalty to its leaders and their fervent belief in the cause of expelling a foreign army of occupation. Taliban commanders would not surrender because it would require them to accept an Afghan government that they considered a stooge of the United States and, second, to break their oath of fealty to Mullah Omar, which they declined to do. Even those Taliban who were in prison or retired refused to break with or denounce Mullah Omar.
But the U.S. military's assessment was that 70 percent of the Taliban could be reintegrated because they were young, jobless men fighting for money or other practical—i.e., nonideological— reasons. According to this U.S. analysis, only about a thousand fighters, or 5 percent, were hard-line religious ideologues who would not settle for peace. But in the next three years, despite concerted attempts and lavish funds, only 2,700 Taliban availed themselves of the amnesty program. The American mistake at the time was to endorse reintegration but not reconciliation or talking to the Taliban. For the U.S. military, the template was still Iraq, where Sunni insurgents had been peeled away successfully from Al Qaeda, itself a Sunni organization that had committed terrible excesses. They believed that the Taliban could be peeled away from their leaders in the same way, but the conditions and the forms of tribal society in Afghanistan were very different from those in Iraq.
At another International Conference on Afghanistan—this time in London on January 28, 2010—the international community announced a new Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund of $140 million for reintegrating Taliban. A flurry of international activity around reintegration led nowhere. Reintegration could work only if it was part of reconciliation. Mullah Baradar issued a withering riposte to President Obama for trying to peel away Taliban rather than talk to them. "We remind Obama to avoid wasting your time on ways which are not pragmatic but focus on ways, which provide a down-to-earth and realistic solution to this issue [of talks]," Baradar said in November 2009. "Pull all your forces out of our honorable country and put an end to the game of colonization."
In Washington, the idea of talking to the Taliban became more acceptable, largely due to the efforts of Richard Holbrooke, his deputy Frank Ruggiero, his adviser on Afghanistan Barnett Rubin, and Douglas Lute at the National Security Council, who all battled to win over other parts of the U.S. government. Holbrooke's successor, Marc Grossman, also quickly became deeply involved in the talks process. In Europe, there was stronger public pressure on governments to talk to the Taliban and seek a political settlement to end the war. "Success will not be achieved by military means alone," British foreign secretary David Miliband told an American audience. He asked the Americans for "a workable reconciliation strategy" and urged the Afghan government "to pursue a political settlement with as much vigor and energy as we are pursuing the military and civilian effort." Such speeches showed that Europe was way ahead of the Americans in wanting a quick resolution to the war.
The British had repeatedly tried to get the Taliban to talk but had blundered badly in November 2010, when MI6, the British secret service, brought a supposed Taliban leader, Mullah Akthar Mohammed Mansour, to Kabul for talks, only to discover he was an impostor who charged the British $65,000 for every one of the three trips he made to Kabul. It is still not known whether the ISI or the Taliban perpetrated the fraud, but its discovery led to severe humiliation and embarrassment for Britain and NATO. Norway had established its own secret dialogue with a representative of the Taliban but did not ask the Americans to join. The UN's special representative for Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, had expected the Americans to empower him in a mediating role, but Washington decided to do without the UN, even though Mistura's predecessor, Kai Eide, had earlier met with Taliban representatives.
In June 2010, Karzai held a National Consultative Peace Jirga, which aimed to bring all ethnic groups together to establish a national consensus for peace talks with the Taliban. But there were significant absences among the non-Pashtuns: the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras did not believe in talking to the Taliban. In September, Karzai constituted a seventy-member High Peace Council, headed by the Tajik religious leader and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, which was tasked to negotiate with the Taliban. Once again the group was supposed to be representative of all ethnic groups and women, but many of its members were former warlords whom the Taliban and the public despised. Karzai never fulfilled his promise to expand the national dialogue to include members of civil society, women, and minorities. "Instead of expanding the national conversation about reconciliation, Karzai has narrowed the avenues of public participation," wrote one expert.
Once the Lisbon summit set a withdrawal date for 2014, all the neighboring countries set in motion what everyone had feared: a battle for influence in Afghanistan. Separately Pakistan and Iran wanted to ensure that when U.S. forces pulled out, they would shape the region's future. But the most dangerous source of instability was the escalation of the proxy war between India and Pakistan over future influence in Afghanistan. I will deal with the regional challenge in chapter 9. For the ISI, what was most important was to try to keep control of the peace process and any talks with the Taliban.
On February 8, 2010, the ISI infuriated Karzai by arresting Mullah Baradar in Karachi, along with a dozen senior Taliban figures who were loyal to him. It was a joint ISI-CIA operation, but senior Pakistani military officials told me later that the real reason for his arrest was not to please the Americans, but rather the ISI's conviction that Baradar had held secret talks with the Americans and had received a $5 million bribe from the CIA without informing the ISI. In fact, Baradar had only been talking to Karzai's brothers and would never have double-crossed Mullah Omar by talking to the Americans.!5- "With these measures, the Pakistani military de facto claimed a veto on all negotiations with the Taliban and therefore on Afghanistan's political future," wrote Thomas Ruttig. The UN representative Kai Eide later called his arrest "a devastating blow," saying "there was no doubt in my mind that the ISI . . . had taken action to prevent the continuation of such discussions."
Taliban leaders in Pakistan went underground, talks between Kabul and the Taliban stopped, and relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan worsened. In March, when Karzai visited Islamabad, he told me he had bluntly told the Pakistanis that they were "sabotaging and undermining my efforts to talk to the Taliban." The Pakistani military angrily told him that if he wanted Pakistani cooperation, he should reduce Indian influence in Afghanistan by shutting down the Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, which bordered Pakistan. Pakistan was making it clear that it wanted to direct any talks with the Taliban and that it wanted something in return for doing so. Within days, the Indians in Kabul were under attack. On February 26, a suicide attack on two Kabul guesthouses killed sixteen people, including seven Indian doctors and nurses and two army majors. Afghan and Indian officials accused Jalaluddin Haqqani's network and the Punjabi group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was now cooperating with Haqqani and Al Qaeda, of carrying out the attack. Later U.S. officials said that the attackers had been in direct contact with ISI officers in Pakistan. Despite ISI denials, the governments of neighboring countries read the attack as a clear signal that the Pakistani military would protect its interests.
Pakistan's obvious attempts to control any peace process among the United States, Kabul, and the Taliban were in fact reducing its influence and leading all the regional and Western powers to mistrust its intentions. The attempt to isolate India from Afghanistan, where it had spent over $1.5 billion in development aid, was shortsighted, as the United States, Europe, and Japan—the major aid donors to Afghanistan—rated India as a strategic ally and a major aid donor. Nevertheless, as I will describe in chapter 9, India's interests in Afghanistan were hardly benign but were intended to keep Pakistan under pressure. But for a long time, India, Iran, and Russia were averse to any U.S.- or Karzai-led talks with the Taliban because they saw such a process as only giving Pakistan greater leverage in the region.
Pakistan still holds many of the Taliban cards. Although Taliban leaders want to go home, after long years of exile, many of them have put down roots with their families in the border towns of Pakistan. They have bought property, set up businesses and shops, and run bus services—all of which makes them vulnerable to the ISI, which has not hesitated to arrest entire Taliban families and clans in order to put pressure on certain commanders. In Pakistan, the ISI allows the Taliban to have the supply and support network that they need to sustain their war effort, as well as a constant pool of Afghan and Pakistani recruits. Many of the suicide bombers used in Afghanistan are Pakistani, while the majority are trained in Pakistan. Moreover, the ISI allows a stream of Pashtun and Punjabi militants to fight for the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistan Army, in its operations in the tribal areas, has never attacked those Pakistani groups or militants who are prepared to fight the Americans in Afghanistan but who decline to fight the Pakistan Army—something that constantly irks the United States and NATO.
Pakistan also has another reliable card: the network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, which is based in Miranshah in North Waziristan. Haqqani, over sixty years old and now bedridden, comes from the Khost district of eastern Afghanistan and was an elder of his tribe, the Zadran. His family migrated to Pakistan in 1971, and he took part in the 1975 Islamic uprising against Afghan president Mohammed Daoud Khan. He fiercely resisted the Soviets and set up a Zadran-led battlefront, stretching across several eastern provinces, that the CIA and ISI armed and supplied with funds. In the civil war in the 1990s, at the behest of the ISI, he sided with the Taliban and became a minister in their government in 1996, but throughout he retained his independence and his close links to the ISI and to Al Qaeda. After 9/11, he refused to join the anti-Taliban alliance, although both the CIA and the ISI approached him to do so. Later he helped Al Qaeda militants escape from Afghanistan, gave them refuge in Miranshah, and set up a separate front to fight U.S. forces although remaining nominally loyal to Mullah Omar.
The Haqqanis became multimillionaires from their legitimate businesses in Pakistan and Afghanistan but also profited from kidnapping, extortion, and protection rackets for construction and transport firms that received U.S. aid money. Pakistan tried hard to promote Haqqani and his sons Sirajuddin and Badruddin as the Taliban leaders to hold talks with, but initially the Americans demurred because of his hand in many suicide attacks against U.S. targets and in particular his involvement in a suicide bombing that killed seven CIA officers at a U.S. base near Khost in December 2009. The ISI did succeed in persuading Karzai to hold talks with Haqqani representatives in 2010, which resulted in a pledge by them not to attack Kabul, although that cease-fire lasted only nine months.
It was a significant effort by Karzai and the ISI that did not involve the Americans, but the short-lived cease-fire did not produce any substantial talks between Karzai and the Haqqani clan. The ISI appeared reluctant to push Haqqani into talks with Karzai; rather, it waited for the Americans to come on board. Instead, in every meeting that Admiral Mullen had with General Kayani he urged the Pakistanis to break with the Haqqanis and go after them—which was highly unlikely given the commitment the Pakistanis and the Haqqanis had to each other. Jalaluddin Haqqani is also the only Taliban leader to publicly allude to the threat that Pakistan faces from India—something that has obviously endeared him to the Pakistanis. Just after September 11, 2001, Haqqani said, "On Pakistan's Eastern border is India—Pakistan's perennial enemy. With the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Pakistan has an unbeatable two-thousand-three-hundred-kilometer strategic depth. . . . Does Pakistan really want a new government, which will include pro-India people in it, thereby wiping out this strategic depth?"
The U.S. military, and especially Admiral Mullen, tried hard to persuade General Kayani to break links with Haqqani. But in 2011, the Haqqanis are working closely with Punjabi militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, that have been allowed to set up camps in North Waziristan. In 2009, when it became apparent that the Quetta Shura, or mainstream Taliban, were trying to start secret talks with the Americans and Karzai, bypassing Pakistan, the ISI came to depend more on the Haqqani network for its loyalty to Pakistan, its successful military operations, and its potential as a partner for talks with Karzai. The Quetta Shura is the name given to the council of Taliban leaders and elders, many of whom after 2001 settled in and around Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. From here they would enter and leave Afghanistan. The Haqqani network claims to be part of the Quetta Shura and operating under the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammud Omar, but the Americans assume that the Haqqani network is autonomous in deciding its targets for attacks on U.S. forces.
The U.S. military and the CIA have been decidedly less enthusiastic than the diplomatic side about talks with the Taliban. The military would prefer to stay on the offensive for as long as possible, or at least until 2014, which could entail another two years of intense conflict. Meanwhile Karzai sees his political survival as depending on ending the war as soon as possible through talks. In December 2010, I pointed out to General Petraeus that the more Taliban the Americans kill, the more he will radicalize the movement, bringing in younger and more militant commanders who owe nothing to the older leadership and who will be easier for Al Qaeda to manipulate. But he remained firm in his belief that the Taliban could be broken, fragmented, and split off one by one.
In the summer of 2011, the U.S. military saturation of the south prevented any major Taliban guerrilla attacks (except for another successful jailbreak in Kandahar in April, when 476 Taliban escaped after tunneling under the jail wall and a major highway). Instead the Taliban carried out high-profile assassinations of Afghan officials, a policy intended to terrify and paralyze the Afghan government. On May 28, 2011, a suicide bomber killed Gen. Daoud Daoud, the charismatic and popular police chief in northern Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. Markus Kneip, the head of German forces in the north, was wounded in the attack, and two German soldiers were killed. In August 2011, the ISI persuaded the CIA to meet with a representative of the Haqqani network in Dubai, but clearly nothing evolved, as a month later the U.S. embassy in Kabul was attacked by the Haqqanis.
But the most devastating murder was that of the Tajik religious leader and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, at his home in Kabul on September 20. Rabbani had headed the High Peace Council that was negotiating with the Taliban on behalf of Karzai. It was not clear which Taliban group carried out the killing, but it resulted in a suspension of talks, a massive loss of prestige for Karzai and his dialogue initiative, a rise in Tajik and other minority anger and activism against the Afghan Pashtuns and Pakistan, and thus a widening of the ethnic divide. There will always be spoilers who will try to derail the talks, but the death of Rabbani holds the direst implications.
Peace will have to be built layer upon layer, district by district, and group by group, in the Afghan way rather than through grand conferences. 24 Despite the violence, the faster all sides, including the U.S. military, can develop confidence-building measures and act on them, the faster the peace process will develop. Providing an office for the Taliban negotiators would be a major step. But ultimately, with Western forces leaving Afghanistan and the weak Kabul government clearly unable to carry out its responsibilities, only an end to the violence and a political deal with the Taliban can ensure the survival of the Afghan state. The future of Afghanistan and the region depends on whether that will be possible or renewed civil war will follow the Western withdrawal.
Published with permission from the author. This book is now available from Viking Press.