Afghanistan mulls talks with Taliban

Anand Gopal

Western officials are increasingly turning to new strategies in an effort to stabilise Afghanistan

and defeat the insurgency here, according to US and Afghan officials. The various initiatives —from negotiating with the Taliban to arming tribal militias — have differing degrees of support

from Afghans. Violence has reached record levels this year and Afghanistan is now considered

a deadlier battlefield than Iraq. Insurgents are able to operate openly in areas close to the capital and the central government’s popularity is at the lowest point in its history. The situation is prompting a number of strategy reviews in Washington as the US prepares for possible strategic shifts after the next president takes office.

Some officials are quietly considering a plan to arm tribal groups, in a move reminiscent to the American strategy in Iraq that is credited with decreasing violence there. “We are seriously looking into using tribes and local communities to provide security,” says an American intelligence officer with the international forces. “It will not work in the same way as Anbar” — the province in Iraq where the US first tried the strategy of arming tribal militias

— “but instead will be part of a general community-based approach,” he says. He adds that this will include an effort to strengthen local governance as well as entrusting tribes to manage the security in their areas.

The idea is winning support in some sections of the Afghan government. A senatorial commission recently announced that it is developing a proposal for the increased role of arbakais, traditional Pashtun tribal self-defense forces, under government command.

However, in other parts of the country, such as Kandahar and Helmand, war, Taliban influence and opium cultivation have eroded tribal independence. “My information, from studying Afghan history, is that arbakai works only in Paktia, Khost and the southern portion of Paktika, and it’s not likely to work beyond those geographic locations,” Gen. Dan McNeil, head of the NATO forces in the country, told reporters earlier this year.A bigger concern is the arming of non-government entities in a country rife with warlords and with a violent history of armed militias.

While the US mulls such options, policy makers in Washington and sections of the Afghan government are also considering negotiations with the Taliban. Last month, Kabul invited former Taliban figures to Saudi Arabia to explore future peace talks with the insurgency. Although the talks cannot be construed as peace negotiations since the former Taliban members were not representatives of the insurgency, some Afghan and Western officials hope that this will be the start of a negotiated settlement between the warring factions.

“If talks with the Taliban can bring peace, I’ll support it,” says Shaferazeen, a painter who lost his leg to a rocket attack during the warlord civil war of the nineties. Current policy in Washington is opposed to negotiations with the most senior leadership of the insurgency, whom they have blacklisted. The Afghan government, on the other hand, has said that it is willing to negotiate with all insurgents, including Mullah Omar. “Those Afghans that are blacklisted must be removed,” says Bakhtar Aminzai, Afghan senator and a leading advocate of negotiations.