As Western military officials question the chances of winning the war in Afghanistan, Kabul is informally seeking political compromise with Taliban insurgents. Officially, there have been no secret talks.
Former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil was "won over" by the Kabul government
The Afghan government is not shy to acknowledge that it tries to win over members of the armed opposition. Insurgents who accept the government’s proposals to cooperate politically are granted amnesty and integrated into civilian life.
One example of such a won-over insurgent is Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil -- a former Taliban foreign minister who, in 2005, even ran for parliament -- albeit without success.
So when rumours started circulating that a government delegation had met members of the Taliban in Saudi Arabia, nobody was surprised. But the government quickly denied the rumours.
“There were no talks and no talks have been arranged,” said government spokesman Homayoun Hamidzadeh. “But President Karzai has always said that he is involved in talks with the Saudi king to clarify whether he could play a mediating role in the peace process in Afghanistan. The Afghan side would warmly welcome any progress in this matter and then take part in talks.”
Informal meeting of enormous import
However, independent observers tell a different story. It would seem that, at a recent festive supper held by Saudi King Abdullah in Mecca, a group of Afghan MPs and government officials met a Taliban representative and also envoys of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of the Afghanistan Islamic Party.
Although the Afghan delegation did not have an official mandate, the informal meeting still has enormous political import.
It means that if talks were to become possible in the future thanks to Saudi mediation, a Taliban spokesman, who has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks, would become an acceptable political partner in Kabul.
Citha Maass, from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, was not surprised to hear about the talks: “There have been suggestions of secret negotiations for some time now. It is increasingly clear that the insurgency cannot be fought only with military means.”
Maass also thought that President Karzai was thinking strategically, ahead of next year’s elections. He needs to secure votes in the volatile eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan.
Although he was elected with about 55 percent of the votes four years ago, his popularity ratings have sunk to 17 percent.
“If there are secret negotiations and the Taliban agree not to disrupt the election process, then a political price will have to be paid. This would likely entail that Afghanistan’s political process stray even further away from democracy,” said Maass.
Democratic freedoms within sharia law
Although the country’s constitution enshrines democratic freedoms, these are practised within the framework of Islamic sharia law.
Critics fear that if the Taliban become once again part of the political sphere in Kabul, they will misuse the constitution in favour of their own interpretation of Islam.
Officially, the Taliban spokesmen have refused to take part in talks with what they call the puppet government in Kabul until foreign forces leave the country.
However, some observers think that, with time, the older cadres -- Mullah Mohammed Omar and his supporters -- might, as the Taliban’s radical young cadres start questioning their authority more and more, seek their own salvation in a political compromise with the government.