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Why making friends with the Taliban might be a good idea!

Interesting Article: "Taliban to Open Qatar Office in Step to Formal Talks" by Matthew Rosenberg / Kabul published Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

An interesting article in the New York Times mentioned that the Taliban, giving its first major public sign that it may be ready for formal talks with the American-led coalition in Afghanistan, announced Tuesday that it had struck a deal to open a political office in Qatar that could allow for direct negotiations over the endgame in the Afghan war. It was unclear, however, whether the Taliban was interested in working toward a comprehensive peace settlement or mainly in ensuring that NATO ends its operations in Afghanistan as scheduled in 2014, which would remove a major obstacle to the Taliban’s return to power in all or part of the country.  So what is the U.S’s strategy in allowing this?

In a statement, Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said that along with a preliminary deal to set up the office in Qatar, the group was asking that Taliban detainees held at the American prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, be released. Mujahid did not say when the Qatar office would be opened, or give specifics about the prisoners the Taliban wanted freed. American officials have said in recent months that the opening of a Taliban mission would be the single biggest step forward for peace efforts that have been plagued by false starts. The most embarrassing came in November 2010, when it emerged that an impostor had fooled Western officials into thinking he represented the Taliban and then had disappeared with hundreds of thousands of dollars used to woo him. The official killed in September, Burhanuddi Rabbani, had been greeting a supposed Taliban negotiator when the man detonated a bomb in his turban. The Taliban governed Afghanistan from 1996 until the fall of 2001, a period during which al-Qaeda used the country as a staging ground for attacks on the United States. The Taliban regime was toppled by a U.S.-led NATO military campaign months after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it regrouped as an insurgency that straddles the border with Pakistan. The opening of an office in Qatar (See map on right) is meant to give Afghan and Western peace negotiators an “address” where they can openly contact legitimate Taliban intermediaries. That would open the way for confidence-building measures that Washington hopes to push forward in the coming months. Chief among them, American officials said, is the possibility of transferring a number of “high-risk” detainees — including some with ties to Al Qaeda — to Afghan custody from Guantánamo Bay. The prisoners would then presumably be freed sometime in the future. American officials said they would consider transferring only those prisoners the Afghan authorities request. Among the names being discussed are Muhammad Fazl, the former Taliban deputy defense minister; two former provincial governors, Khairullah Khairkhwa of Herat and Noorullah Nori of Balkh; Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former top Taliban intelligence official; and one of the Taliban’s top financiers, Muhammad Nabi. Fazl is accused of having commanded forces that killed thousands of Shiite Muslims, who are a minority in Afghanistan, while the Taliban ruled the country. A key goal of the US-led peace talks with the Taliban is for Mullah Omar's organization to break with al Qaeda and renounce its terrorist violence. However, as a precondition for the talks, the Taliban seeks the release of five commanders who were all deeply in bed with al Qaeda prior to their detention. In terms of the host country, Qatar, as diplomats say, likes to "punch above its weight." This arid peninsula in the Persian Gulf is smaller than Connecticut but played a leading role in helping Libyan rebels oust Moammar Gadhafi and has been at the heart of Arab League sanctions against Syria. It's now facilitating talks on the Afghan conflict by allowing the Taliban to open a liaison office in its capital, Doha. Qatar is also home to the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera, a thorn in the side of many Arab regimes past and present. It is a major player in the energy industry, with vast reserves of natural gas, and -- perhaps in an effort to outflank Dubai as the playground of the Gulf -- is due to host the soccer World Cup in 2022. As far back as 2001, before the group was ousted in Afghanistan, the Qataris hosted Taliban delegations. And in the past year, thanks to its hyperactive diplomacy under Prime Minister (and Foreign Minister) Hamid bin Jassim Al-Thani, the emirate has emerged as a regional power broker -- to the consternation of its larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Qatar's growing dynamism within the Arab League has been most evident amid the unrest in Libya and Syria. It was one of two Arab states to play a role in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya. And according to journalists in western Libya last spring, Qatari advisers were working with Libyan rebels in the Nafusa Mountains as well as supplying anti-tank missiles and other weaponry to rebel forces in the east. As part of intensive efforts to build a relationship with the U.S., Qatar has allowed U.S. forces to use the al-Udeid air base for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. It also hosts the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command. But Qatar's activism generates plenty of resentment. The populism of Al Jazeera has infuriated Arab regimes. The emir (King) of Qatar fends off complaints about Al Jazeera's reporting, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer last year: "Of course it's not necessary I will agree with what Al Jazeera say. Actually, Jazeera caused for me a lot of problems." Similarly, the Saudis are suspicious of Qatar's open channel with Iran. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen put an end to Qatari efforts to mediate between his government and Huthi rebels. And President Hamid Karzai recalled the Afghan envoy in Doha in December because he'd been kept in the dark about contacts with the Taliban. So, is Biden right that the Taliban is not our enemy? Well, what Vice President Biden said, in a Newsweek interview is, “Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.” The underlying thing is this, under one theory; it’s easier to negotiate with “moderate” Taliban elements than to try to win a shooting war with the Taliban. To put a finer point on it, the hope is that negotiating with moderates will empower moderates, whereas shooting at militants creates more militants – particularly when so many non-combatants are being killed in coalition attacks on Taliban strongholds. On Sunday, France’s defense minister backed U.S. efforts to open peace talks with the Taliban, saying a proposed Taliban liaison office outside Afghanistan would provide a venue for those within the radical Islamic movement who are willing to explain their positions. U.S. officials declined to provide a detailed response to the Taliban’s statement, but reiterated the Obama administration’s position that the Afghan government must take a lead role in any peace talks. Personally, no matter what the Chinese may say about 2012 being the year of the dragon, this is going to be the year of the Taliban so far as the United States is concerned. For example, one of the persons mentioned above that will be released from Guantanamo Bay is Mullah Mohammed Fazl. Fazl's possible release from Guantanamo comes as a masterstroke by Washington aimed at scattering the growing regional bonhomie over the Afghan situation. The Obama administration hopes to release a fox into the chicken pen. Fazl is one of the most experienced Taliban commanders who has been with Taliban leader Mullah Omar almost from day one and he held key positions commanding the Taliban army. He would have been a favorite of both Mullah Omar and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and his "homecoming" ought to bring joy to both. On the other hand, he was also culpable for the massacre of thousands of Hazara Shi'ites during 1998-2001 and was possibly accountable for the execution of eight Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.  Fazl inspires visceral hatred in the Iranian mind and could create misunderstandings in Pakistan-Iran relations (which have been on an upswing in recent years) and put Islamabad on the horns of a dilemma vis-a-vis Mullah Omar.  Fazl is also a notorious personality from the Central Asian and Russian viewpoint insofar as he used to be the Taliban's point person for al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Chechen rebels. He was also in charge of the strategic Kunduz region bordering the "soft underbelly" of Central Asia where he was based with IMU chief Juma Namangani at the time of the US intervention in October 2011.  Fazl belongs to the "pre-Haqqani clan" era. Will the Haqqani network - a key component of the Taliban-led insurgency from its base in Pakistan's tribal areas - accept Fazl's "seniority" and give way to him? Pakistan may have to prioritize its "strategic assets"; it is a veritable minefield. The Obama administration feels impressed by the skill Qatar displayed in theaters as diverse as Libya, Egypt and Syria in finessing the Muslim Brotherhood and other seemingly intractable Islamist groups. The Obama administration is optimistic that if Fazl could be left to able Qatari hands, he could be recycled as an Islamist politician for a democratic era. Fazl does have the credentials to bring Mullah Omar on board for launching formal peace talks. Fazl enjoys credibility among the Taliban militia and they would be inclined to emulate his reincarnation. His bonding with Islamist forces in Pakistan and the ISI could be useful channels of communication with Islamabad, which will come under pressure to cooperate with the US-led peace talks, or at the very least refrain from undercutting them. The problem is the tension between the Karzai administration and the United States over engaging the Taliban underscores the challenges of seeking a political settlement as the West prepares to withdraw most combat troops from the country by 2014. As part of some behind the scenes efforts, Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha visited Doha this week where he was believed to have met senior US military and intelligence officials. The US military has a strong presence in Qatar as Centcom maintains its regional headquarters in what is known as the Arab world’s financial capital. Obama will likely face criticism, including from Republican presidential candidates, for dealing with an insurgent group that has killed U.S. soldiers and advocates a strict Islamic form of government. But U.S. officials say that the Afghan war, like others before it, will ultimately end in a negotiated settlement. Ten years after the repressive Taliban government was toppled, a hoped-for political resolution has become central to U.S. strategy to end a war that has killed nearly 3,000 foreign troops and cost the Pentagon alone $330 billion. While Obama's decision to deploy an extra 30,000 troops in 2009-10 helped push the Taliban out of much of its southern heartland, the war is far from over. Militants remain able to slip in and out of lawless areas of Pakistan, where the Taliban's senior leadership is located. U.S. officials have met with Tayeb Agha, who was a secretary to Mullah Omar, and they have held one meeting arranged by Pakistan with Ibrahim Haqqani, a brother of the Haqqani network's founder. They have not shut the door to further meetings with the Haqqani group, which is blamed for a brazen attack this fall on the U.S. embassy in Kabul and which U.S. officials link closely to Pakistan's intelligence agency. U.S. officials stress that the 'end conditions' they want the Taliban to embrace - renouncing violence, breaking with al Qaeda, and respecting the Afghan constitution - are not preconditions to starting talks. U.S. officials also say that the Taliban no longer wants to be the global pariah it was in the 1990s. Some elements have suggested flexibility on issues of priority for the West, such as protecting rights for women and girls. Still, with Obama committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan, as the United States did last week from Iraq, the administration has few alternatives but to pursue what may well prove to be a quixotic quest for a deal.



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