Amid escalating violence in Afghanistan and growing debate in Germany about negotiating with parts of the Taliban, a news magazine reported that the German secret service held talks with the radical Islamists in 2005.
Experts say the Taliban has a highly fragmented structure
Even as news of the release of a kidnapped German aid worker in Kabul filled Berlin with relief on Monday, the heated political debate over the mounting violence in Afghanistan appeared to take a new twist.
In its latest issue, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, held secret talks with Taliban representatives for several months in 2005 on neutral Swiss territory.
Germany's secret service in 2005 promised the Taliban help with reconstruction
The magazine said the BND wanted to find out whether the Taliban were prepared to distance themselves from the al-Qaeda terrorist network. In exchange for cooperation, the BND offered the Taliban help with rebuilding the country's crumbling infrastructure such as hospitals and mosques, the magazine said without citing its sources.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's office was aware of the talks as were France and US secret services, the magazine said. The talks between the BND and the Taliban apparently ended in late summer 2005 because the Germans were unable to prove that the Taliban representatives spoke on behalf of leader Mullah Omar.
Politicians split over talking to the enemy
The magazine report comes at a time when politicians in Merkel's joint coalition made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are sharply divided over negotiating with moderate Taliban elements to stem the spiraling violence in Afghanistan. Last week, three German police officers were killed in Kabul, fuelling concerns in Germany about the safety of its 3,200 soldiers stationed there as part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force, ISAF.
While some SPD politicians are in favor of reaching out to moderate elements of the Taliban in order to secure peace in volatile Afghanistan, members of Chancellor Merkel's CDU party are vehemently opposed to the proposal.
Ruprecht Polenz, a CDU foreign policy expert has warned that speaking to the Taliban would "undermine the moral fundament for the German and international involvement in Afghanistan."
Gert Weisskirchen said he was surprised by the report's directness
Gert Weisskirchen, SPD foreign policy expert told DW-WORLD.DE he was "surprised by the concreteness and directness of the (Spiegel) magazine report," but not that the talks had taken place.
"The fact that there have been efforts to speak with moderate, pragmatic elements of the Taliban is nothing new," he said.
Complex Taliban structure
The belief that lasting peace in Afghanistan can only be achieved by integrating moderate Taliban elements in a reconciliation process was given added currency by a study by Afghanistan experts at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
One of the experts, Thomas Ruttig, told DW-WORLD.DE last week it was important to recognize the fragmented structure of the Taliban as it becomes increasingly difficult to establish with any certainty who is behind some of the violence in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban is by no means a homogeneous group," Ruttig said.
Ruttig said the core of the Taliban was made up of hardline ideologically and religiously motivated mujahedeen leaders. But in addition, there were several other groups that loosely fell under the Taliban banner.
Even Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, is considered unsafe for Western workers
He pointed out that a general collapse of law and order in Afghanistan, rampant corruption, an explosion in the drugs trade and lack of food and money had led to widespread dissatisfaction among the Afghan population. That in turn had created fertile ground for criminal networks to flourish.
In the absence of a strong, national authority, the networks remain loyal to local clans like the Pashtun tribe, an ethnic group that forms the majority of Afghanistan's diverse population and also inhabits the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan in neighboring Pakistan, and have taken up arms against US forces. These criminal groups are also increasingly blamed for a rise in kidnappings of foreigners in recent months.
Experts urge caution
Given the complexity of the Taliban structure, experts warn that Kabul and Western governments in Afghanistan need to be careful about engaging with the terrorist group.
Weisskirchen said it had to be made clear what "moderate Taliban" are.
"They must recognize basic principles of international law and give up violence," he said. "And they have to give Afghanistan's civil government priority."