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To talk or not to talk with the Taliban?

March 17, 2010

In a video conference this week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his US counterpart Barack Obama spoke about the possibility of talks with the Taliban. Karzai has been reaching out to the Taliban in recent months.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai in London in January
Afghan President Hamid Karzai in London in JanuaryImage: AP

When Karzai was re-elected late last year, he spoke about seeking unity in the war-torn country and said that his government would be "for all the Afghan people".

"I don’t have any opposition, and I don’t have any personality or any group as my opposition and I don’t want to be opposed to anybody. All Afghans who want to work and who are willing to work and who are in obedience of the Afghan laws and constitution are welcome."

At the London conference on the country this January, Karzai unveiled his peace plan, which involves attempts to persuade the Taliban to put down their weapons and to reintegrate them back into society by providing them with jobs and other incentives.

Some countries including UK support talks with Taliban

Ever since, Britain and certain other countries have openly supported the idea of holding talks with the Taliban, but only under particular circumstances.

Mark Sedwill, NATO's Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan, lists the conditions that have been set out by Karzai. "They must respect the Afghan constitution and that of course includes protection for women's rights and the rights of all ethnic groups. Secondly, they have to renounce violence and terrorism and any association with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. If they are willing to do that then there is an honorable and respectful way back to the mainstream."

The US is not yet ready to negotiate with top Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar
The US is not yet ready to negotiate with top Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed OmarImage: AP

The US, however, another of Afghanistan's major allies, has been cautious about negotiating with the Taliban. It has expressed support for talks with lower and mid-level Taliban members but it is skeptical about reaching out to senior commanders.

"Negotiations can only achieve short-term solutions"

Kai Hirschmann of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Germany explained why the US has its doubts: "How can you negotiate with someone whose aim is to eliminate the opponent’s regime, in this case that of the government of Afghanistan and the Afghan people’s, and wants to replace it with a dictatorship of religious leaders?

"The Americans know this. To a certain extent, we might be able to have short-term negotiations and solutions. But a lasting solution, or a lasting peace, which allows Afghanistan to develop is not possible with the Taliban in this form."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly opposed the idea of holding talks with the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. She says there is no reason to believe that the Taliban would agree to a demand for an end to all ties with al Qaeda.

Talks possible only with a weakened Taliban

A military base in Kandahar, where the US plans to launch an offensive later this year
A military base in Kandahar, where the US plans to launch an offensive later this yearImage: DW

Other US officials also believe that any attempts to hold talks with Taliban leaders can only be effective if once their grip on the country is weakened.

Some recent media reports in the US have suggested that Washington wants to wait until after its planned offensive in Kandahar before it makes a decision on whether to hold talks with the Taliban at all. The offensive is expected to start this summer.

However, President Karzai does not seem deterred by the US hesitation. He has already expressed his desire to invite Taliban leaders to attend the Loya Jirga or "Grand Council" next month, which is aimed at paving a concrete path towards peace in Afghanistan.

Author: Disha Uppal
Editor: Anne Thomas