Tariq Sediq, 31
Political Affairs Expert
US SECRETARY of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that her government will not tolerate safe havens for terror is the kind of diplomatic speak that is almost customary and expected from every high-profile American visit to India. But another not so high-profile visit just a few days before Hillary’s had diplomatic significance in the war on terror that was equally crucial for India. The Afghan High Council for Peace, headed by former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, came to Delhi and briefed External Affairs Minister SM Krishna on how they are moving ahead in their peace talks with the Taliban.
At a time when India has suffered another terror attack in Mumbai and President Hamid Karzai has lost key allies, there’s more to these briefings than just photo ops and polite smiles. Perhaps, international support for the Peace Council could turn the outcome of a decade-long war from failure, more violence and a further descent into chaos, into a window of opportunity and hope. On this hope rides not just the future of millions of Afghans, but also the larger question of keeping the world safe from terror attacks.
To decode these developments, TEHELKA talked to London-based parliamentary consultant and political affairs expert Tariq Sediq, 31, who helped set up the Afghan Parliament, and has followed the talks.
Excerpts from telephonic interview
As someone who is witness to the government’s attempts to negotiate peace with the Taliban, how did you get your point of view across? Critics say that you can’t just take the rules of a western-style parliamentary democracy and transplant them to Afghanistan without adapting them first. Is that correct?
Yes, you are right. I was in the Afghan Parliament for a couple of years (as a trainer and consultant) and not just MPs, but the Taliban and also the ordinary Afghan feel that they don’t want ideas to just be imposed from the outside. But if an educated Afghan presents these ideas from an Afghan perspective, I hope they can and will respect that.
How important are talks with the Taliban and how much authority does President Karzai really have?
None of these talks have been taken seriously by the Taliban, whether it’s the creation of the Peace Council or the removing of Taliban leaders from the United Nations blacklist. Karzai’s half-brother and close aides have been killed instead.
Is the Taliban not taking him seriously because they see him as a puppet in the hands of the US?
One reason could be that. But who knows what the real intentions of the Taliban are. What the Taliban says and does are two different things. They say they want the international troops to withdraw from Afghanistan immediately and without any conditions. But on the other hand, they are targeting the Afghan police and army. So as long as they continue to increase the instability in the country, the presence of international forces will be required.
If the Taliban is serious about demanding a troop withdrawal then they should respect and strengthen Karzai’s hand. Karzai was also not dealing professionally with the Taliban and the peace initiatives. He’s been saying since he took over office that he’s been reaching out to the Taliban. But his office didn’t take realistic steps towards peace.
Until recently, the Taliban was expected to come to peace negotiations while their names were still on the UN Security Council’s blacklist. Or they were subject to trial or judicial custody the minute they appeared publicly. Now Karzai’s government is talking about prioritising talks with the Taliban, which is a good thing.
Is the High Council for Peace the most important body to negotiate with the Taliban?
There have been several peace initiatives. Initially there was a Peace and Reconciliation Commission headed by Prof Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, who was the Afghan president after the fall of the Communists (in 1992, but then he transferred power to Burhanuddin Rabbani in two months). He formed a peace council in 2005-06. Then there were some local councils. Then last year, Karzai’s government announced a High Council for Peace, presided by former president Rabbani. It consists of lots of senior parliamentarians, former members of (the warlord) Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e- Islami and former Taliban. They have had lots of serious discussions with the Taliban and also with countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and India. They are backed by UN agencies, US and UK. It’s at this stage, the council representing the government in its peace dialogue.
Hekmatyar’s group, Rabbani and the Taliban all fought each other bitterly. How are enemies who have spilled blood supposed to talk to each other?
The council is presided over by Rabbani, who was or is the main enemy of the Taliban. The ouster of the Taliban government in 2001 happened at the behest of the NATO forces supported by Rabbani and his Northern Alliance commanders like Ahmed Shah Masood. So it seems like it’s undermining the legitimacy of these talks to have Rabbani preside over the council. But Karzai’s intentions are probably precisely this, to show the Taliban that all Afghans, even those who fought them bitterly until yesterday, are willing to talk peace now.
But if you look at it from the Taliban’s perspective, then their main enemies have been the vice-presidents in the government. The UN banned list still has 123 Taliban leaders on it. All of this makes them not take these peace talks seriously.
‘This country has been suffering from war for more than 30 years. The people want peace by any means, any manner. They want the war to end’
Even though the government is taking some serious steps, from the Taliban’s point of view it’s not enough. That’s why they have been targeting people like General Daud Daud, who was the main Northern Alliance commander and deputy interior minister in Karzai’s government. He was assassinated a couple of months ago. Now Karzai’s half-brother. Then an MP. And his right-hand man. All these targeted killings are serving the interests of the Taliban.
If Karzai is to ask for names of the Taliban to be removed from the UN blacklist, won’t this jeopardise his life?
The Karzai government has requested the UN to take 50 more Taliban names off its banned list. In the past, former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil and spokesman Abdul Salam Zaeef’s names were removed from the list. The UN agency in Afghanistan is supporting this initiative. And for the Taliban, it’s a pre-condition to successful talks. But all of this is a real challenge for Karzai. His own survival is also at stake.
So you are saying these peace negotiations seem a little farcical since neither side takes it seriously? Now in a post-Osama phase when President Barack Obama has also announced a phased withdrawal of US troops, what do you think should be done to prevent the situation from becoming worse?
Osama’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri says bin Laden was a school of thought. By killing him, the al Qaeda’s ideology hasn’t been eliminated. Yes, they found Osama in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, but al Qaeda is still a strong force and much more international in its presence. At this point, a sudden withdrawal of international forces will undermine and jeopardise whatever they have done in the past 10 years.
The international community has done lots of good things. A Constitution has been adopted. A Parliament was set up. Parliamentary and presidential elections are held. All these institutional developments will be jeopardised.
Obama’s 2014 deadline for troop withdrawal is not far away. The Afghan army and police are not in a real position to take over. The withdrawal at this stage can create chaos and a power vacuum where other forces will want to step in and play a role. What needs to be done is to encourage intra-Afghan dialogue. War was never, is never and will never be the solution. It is negotiations that will be the way forward.
‘Afghanisation’ of the institutions, for which the process of training the Afghan army and police has begun, it needs to focus on quality, not so much as quantity. Obviously there can’t be international troops permanently stationed in Afghanistan. But the way forward has to factor in the real concerns of Afghans. Otherwise all the achievements so far will be destroyed and there will again be an Osama-like figure or many Osamas.
‘Even though the government is taking serious steps, from the Taliban’s point of view, it’s not enough. That’s why they have been targeting Karzai’s men’
With time ticking away and domestic support for the war in Afghanistan having almost completely disappeared in the US, what would you say is still achievable in real terms?
Afghans should call upon their traditional mechanism — the Loya Jirga or Grand Council, consulting the elders or representatives of all 360 district councils. The elimination of three district councils is another failure of the current government. It’s a traditional country and all the elders should be consulted in an open manner, where the Afghans come up with a solution. A gradual troop withdrawal alongside these talks, may be a real step forward. This country has been suffering from war for more than three decades. It wants peace by any means, any manner. They want the war to end.
What role is India playing or can play constructively? It’s crucial for India to balance its geopolitical interests by keeping Afghanistan as a friend and ally.
India has committed to help build the Afghan Parliament building, which is now a temporary structure. The historical ties between India and Afghanistan have been very close.
The Peace Council recently met External Affairs Minister SM Krishna. India has traditionally supported the Northern Alliance and this council is presided over by former president Rabbani. How will this help talks with the Taliban then?
The objective of the Peace Council in coming to India was obvious because India is a key donor in reconstructing Afghanistan, to make sure India is kept in the loop of this peace process. The idea of visiting neighbouring countries is to make the international community support this dialogue, to then take that back to the Taliban, saying there is international support for them to be in dialogue as well.
Has the Afghan situation stabilised after Osama’s death?
According to recent findings quoted by the International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson, the past six months have in fact been more violent for Afghanistan. In some areas, Osama’s killing has been avenged. In some others, knowing that American troops are withdrawing has led to more violence. And now, senior government officials are being targeted; it’s all to weaken the government and this entire process of peace talks.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.