Negotiations with the Taliban are nothing new in Afghanistan. But admitting to them certainly is.
For several years, government officials, parliament members and prominent civilians have been meeting unofficially with Talibs in hotels in Kabul, mud huts in Kandahar and tents in Helmand province. Sometimes, a dozen people gather over black tea. Other times, hundreds line up in folding chairs in vast conference rooms — men in turbans with long, grey beards on one side of the room, women in head scarves, showing inches of hair, on the other.
For much of that time, these negotiations have been considered secret, even though it is hard to conceal a gathering of a few hundred armed men in a conference room. In theory, the talks are still secret, but what is different this time is that the negotiation process that was begun last spring seems to be making progress and that's making people more talkative.
The idea of negotiating with the Taliban seems objectionable to many Americans who wonder why the Afghan government would want a power-sharing agreement with the very people we kicked out of power shortly after 9/11. There's no less controversy about the negotiations here in Kabul, where people remember well how brutal and oppressive the Taliban rule was, and fear what might happen without a U.S. military presence. But nine years of war, with no clear end in sight, has compelled a spirit of compromise that didn't exist a few years ago.
Last week, results of polls carried out by BBC, ABC, the Washington Post and other news outlets showed that 73 percent of Afghans support negotiations with the Taliban.
Sheila Samimi is part of that 73 percent. She doesn't just support the negotiations, she's part of them. Manager of the 3,000-member Afghan Woman's Network, Samimi was chosen by President Hamid Karzai to be one of nine women on the 70-person high peace council whose job it is to make the final deal and close it.
In early November, she and other prominent Afghans talked to the St. Petersburg Times about the not-so-secret secret talks, offering an inside look at a very Afghan process that is largely opaque to outsiders.
As she talked about the prospect of laying down arms, Samimi was so animated that her scarf fell back, off her head.
"At last, we may have found the path to peace," she said, pressing her palms to her heart.
The high peace council, she said, is sifting through Taliban position papers to come up with counteroffers. This scrutiny has resulted in the belief that the council must get more leverage.
"To have the power necessary to negotiate, the international community must go to countries supporting the Taliban — Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia — and say you'll cut off all resources if they don't stop," she said.
Her assessment is supported by reports that show the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency of Pakistan has been duplicitous for years, supporting the Taliban on one hand and the Karzai government on the other. Iran has been double-dealing too, funding Taliban political and religious leaders and training Taliban militants, while giving money to the Karzai government. And millions of dollars for al-Qaida and the Taliban comes from Saudi sources, even though Saudi Arabia is a strong ally of the United States.
"The government of Afghanistan is not powerful," said Samimi. "We need America and the international community to help us make it more powerful by lessening outsider support of the Taliban."
Like the negotiations, these back-door financial ties have been an open secret in diplomatic circles, even before Wiki-Leaks released its documentary evidence. But the negotiations would seem to hang, at least in part, on this question:
Would it be easier for the United States to confront its double-dealing allies to change their ways, or to keep up the military pressure on a resilient and determined enemy?
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Seven years ago, another prominent Afghan, Tajwar Kakar, received information that she thinks could have brought this conflict to an end long ago.
Sitting on a polished wooden sofa in her Kabul living room in early November, Kakar recalled a mysterious letter she received in February 2003, when she was deputy minister of women's affairs.
An old man in a turban delivered it to the ministry office and asked that it be given to her. It was from a group of young Taliban fighters who, she believed, chose her as recipient because she ran dozens of refugee schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan from the mid 1980s on. She had known a number of boys who were recruited by the madrassas for Taliban training.
In 2003, they wrote in the letter that Taliban support was coming from ISI in Pakistan and from Iran. They said that they wanted to escape from the Taliban, but feared if they were caught they would be turned over to the Pakistani government for a $5,000 bounty and then given to the U.S. Army to be sent to Guantanamo.
Kakar recited the last lines of the letter from memory:
"Go to President Karzai. Tell him to let us come to Kabul with amnesty. We don't want to be al-Qaida terrorists. We don't want to be Taliban fighters. For God's sake, save us."
She immediately took the letter to the presidential palace, she said, to give it to Hamid Karzai. Guards turned her back. She then took it to the defense minister and the interior minister and the same thing happened. Finally, she left it at the office of the deputy minister of the interior, but heard nothing.
"I did my job," she said. "But no one paid attention, and the fighting continued."
In 2007, Kakar helped found the National Peace Jirga, which now has 4,000 members. While it is not part of the government hierarchy of appointed negotiators, "it is as a bridge between the Taliban and the government," she said.
"We meet with young Talibs like those who wrote the letter, hoping it's not too late to motivate them to desert," she said.
But, according to her, the obstacles have grown: Bitterness over civilian deaths, unscrupulous warlords supported by the Karzai administration, high unemployment and increased outside support for the Taliban.
"I still lie awake at night haunted that nothing was done in 2003," she said.
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For several years, members of the Afghan parliament have been meeting with Talibs, according to parliament member Shukria Barakzai.
Her meetings began in 2006 in Helmand, when she met with "18 reliable people who were part of the Taliban." Over the next few years, that number tripled and tripled again.
"It doesn't matter to them that I'm a woman," she said. "They are desperate for someone to listen."
In the spring, she said, she and former Taliban leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf began meeting with 70 Talib super-mullahs, supervisory religious leaders on the level of the Taliban's military leader, Mullah Omar.
Sayaff, former mentor to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, was elected to the Afghan parliament after renouncing Sheikh Mohammed and the 9/11 attacks. At the meetings with the super-mullahs, he spoke in favor of blanket amnesty for Talibs still in Afghanistan and said he was not opposed to women in leadership roles, according to Barakzai.
Most of the religious leaders agreed with him on amnesty, but disagreed with him on women's rights, saying women shouldn't work for money, Barakzai said.
"At my urging, the super-mullahs agreed to delay their insistence on restricting women," said Barakzai.
Since the exit of the Taliban from Kabul in November, 2001, women have made striking progress — many tossing the body-covering burqa, getting jobs and going to school. While most bristle at the suggestion that they might have to give up any of these freedoms if the Taliban gains more control, some say they are willing to make concessions to stop the fighting and killing.
On the super-mullah wish list for the Taliban: Getting off the United Nations blacklist, release from jail if not convicted of crimes, representation in government on the peace council and prosecution of government corruption.
"They don't want a star from the sky," she said. "They just want to live and be left alone."
Some might say that it would be easier to get a star from the sky than to prosecute government corruption, which has reached legendary proportions under Hamid Karzai.
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Like Barakzai, President Hamid Karzai's cousin, Jamil Karzai, is also a member of parliament who has participated in talks with the Taliban.
In his posh office of embroidered velvet chairs and Turkish rugs, he pointed to his smart phone and said, "With one telephone call, I can bring in 120 Taliban fighters and get them to stop fighting. With a second call, I'll bring in 30 more."
As soon as certain concessions to these fighters are guaranteed by the government, he plans to act.
Those concessions, according to Karzai: An end to searches of their homes in the middle of the night. An end to guns held to their heads by U.S. and coalition troops. An end to incarceration without legal charges. And, the right to keep their women private.
Searches are unlikely to end as long as foreign troops are in the country and they will be there for three more years, during which time resentments of the occupying forces are only likely to build. But there are tensions and resentments, as well, between ordinary Afghans and the Taliban, whose leadership in the past has sought to impose its religious strictures on all Afghans, often by force.
Jamil Karzai says the success of the negotiations depends on understanding the nuances of Taliban allegiance.
There is not a bright line, he said, between most members of the Taliban and ordinary Afghans: "You hear the enemy is the enemy. But that's overly simplistic. There are categories of Taliban and they are not all the same."
He lists four groups: "The first is those with al-Qaida ties. We cannot negotiate with them. They will kill you and they will kill you. The second is ISI Taliban in Pakistan," referring to the Taliban supported by the Pakistani intelligence service. "We should not negotiate with them either but have the leverage to make Pakistan control them. The third group is the Taliban controlled by Iran, who are open to talks, and, finally, there's the ordinary tribal Talibs in Afghanistan who are the most open to negotiating."
About 80 percent of the ordinary tribal Talibs in Afghanistan — called "the $10 Taliban" because of their weekly salary — are willing to come to the table, Barakzai estimates, and it is this category of Talibs that Jamil Karzai says he will call.
"The B-52s and killing didn't stop the fighting," he said. "It's time we tried something else."
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Every Friday, Labib Rayed, a general in the Afghan army and its director of cultural affairs, goes to mosques in Kabul and listens to the sermons of the mullahs and imams.
"It's scary how many of them are openly supportive of the Taliban," he said.
What they want, he explained, is control of Afghanistan by Afghans, which means they want Afghan Taliban fighters in control, if it means outside influences leave.
Rayed recalls that in November 2001, when the United States and Northern Alliance took control of Kabul, the Taliban sheepishly headed south into hiding. But now, he says, a combination of outside support and collaboration with the Afghan government has made the group "brazen" again.
"Negotiating with the Taliban is not the right choice," he said. "But it appears to be the only choice and it's moving forward."
Meg Laughlin can be reached at [email protected] or (727)893-8068.