Dateline Doha: At last it’s time for America to talk to the men from the Taliban

Discussions over an Afghan peace deal look set to begin

No more long dinners in Qatari restaurants, or idle afternoons in the capital’s many shopping centres. Since they were first secretly delivered by US plane to Doha in 2010, the senior Taliban emissaries whom Washington hoped would eventually agree a peace deal with Kabul have not been rushed off their feet; efforts to kick-start a formal negotiating process to end the war repeatedly faltered. The last informal contacts with the Americans fizzled out in early 2012.

Accompanied by their wives and growing numbers of children, the estimated eight top Taliban officials had been in a form of luxury limbo, their hosts allegedly bankrolling a lavish lifestyle far from the killing fields of their homeland.

“They have been just living here enjoying the air-conditioning, driving luxury cars, eating and making babies,” one Afghan diplomat in Qatar told The New York Times. “It’s all they can do; they have no work to do.”

Now, finally, it is showtime; or so it seems. The men from the Taliban are being called to begin talks to discuss a long-term peace plan for Afghanistan with the Americans, and, it is hoped, with representatives from the Afghan government soon after.

In co-ordinated statements issued on the fringes of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland – as well as in Kabul and Doha – all parties said a decision had finally been reached to officially open the Taliban negotiators’ Qatar office. Talks would begin within days, first with representatives from the US State Department and the White House, and soon thereafter with a delegation from the High Peace Council, the official Afghan negotiating body established by President Hamid Karzai.

Pressure had been growing on all sides to get the talks started. Today also marked the moment that the US-led Nato forces handed over all responsibility for internal security in Afghanistan to Afghan forces as a precursor to a final withdrawal of nearly all troops by the end of next year. To ensure a politically graceful exit, the US had for months hoped to orchestrate a parallel path of peace talks.

The men whose days of languor in Doha are coming to an end do, at least, carry seniority within the Taliban. They are believed to include Tayeb Agha, the chief of staff to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, as well as Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the former Taliban health minister, and Qari din Mohammed Hanafi, the Taliban’s former minister of planning. 

Not that anyone believes the negotiations will progress quickly. Although the Obama administration was keen to describe the talks as a “milestone”, such initiatives have been attempted before and failed. Face to face talks between Washington and the Taliban that were due to be held last year collapsed over the issue of the release of Afghan prisoners from the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.

As one senior US official put it: “This is an important first step towards reconciliation – a process that, after 30 years of armed conflict in Afghanistan, will certainly promise to be complex, long and messy, but nonetheless, this is an important first step.”

US officials maintained that a pledge made by Taliban spokesman Muhammed Naim – that the group’s political and military aims are “ limited to Afghanistan” and the movement did not wish to “harm other countries” – fulfilled key conditions for Washington and Kabul, which stipulate that al-Qa’ida should not be given shelter to carry out attacks elsewhere, and that the insurgency is seeking a peaceful end to the conflict.

However, the Karzai government also insists that for meaningful talks to take place the Taliban must also renounce violence, accept all aspects of the country’s constitution, including the rights of women and minority communities, and sever all ties with al-Qa’i da.

Afghan officials point out that the Taliban show no sign of agreeing to these rules and are currently engaged in a declared spring offensive with shootings and bombings virtually every day.

President Karzai and his advisers have also claimed that the Taliban will not be able to take part in negotiations without the permission of their Pakistani “controllers” in the country’s military and secret police, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

They point to how the ISI engineered the arrest in Karachi of Mullah Baradar, one of Mullah Omar’s deputies, who had held talks with the Afghan government without the authorisation of the Pakistanis.

Nevertheless, the Karzai government will send members of the High Peace Council – who had already held talks with insurgent representatives in Qatar – to Doha for the latest round of talks, though added that the venue should move to Afghanistan shortly. “ Afghanistan shouldn’t be centre of the discussions [when they are] outside of the country,” he noted.

The news of the talks in Qatar came as details emerged of how much of what would be left of the West’s military efforts in Afghanistan would be privatised once combat operations cease next year. The British will pull out of Camp Bastion, the heart of its military operation in Helmand, a part of which would be taken over by the Americans as a training mission for Afghan forces in October 2014.

However, the US presence would consist of more than 1,500 private contractors and fewer than a thousand troops. The vast US base next to Bastion, Camp Leatherneck, would be pulled down as, it is expected, will be another massive military centre at Kandahar Air Field. A small US presence is due to be maintained at Kandahar but it will be overwhelmingly staffed by private security guards.

Three killed in bomb blast on handover day

In a demonstration of Afghanistan’s precarious security situation, at least three people were killed today by a bomb blast in Kabul.

The city’s deputy police chief, Mohammad Daoud Amin, said  the explosion happened in the Pul-e-Surkh area of the western part of the city, some miles away from the site of the handover ceremony that was attended  by the Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

A police source claimed the target was the convoy of Mohammed Mohaqiq, a prominent ethnic Hazara politician who is a former Cabinet member. Mr Mohaqiq, who survived the blast, is a member of the National Front, which represents members of the former Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban before the United States invasion in 2001. The predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban persecuted  the Hazara minority during their five-year rule. AP

Video: David Cameron backs Taliban talks

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