Thursday, January 10, 2008

Afghanistan: Turning the Taliban

For years, Afghan officials including President Hamid Karzai have extended an olive branch to moderate Taliban to lay down their arms and back the government.

But their overtures have been largely rejected -- until now.

On January 7, the Afghan government announced that a former Taliban commander who switched sides before a battle last month to secure Musa Qala, a Taliban-held southern town, had been named the government's top official there.

By making a deal with Mullah Abdul Salaam, the new district chief of Musa Qala, the government appears to have taken a key step toward changing the face of Afghan politics. And Kabul is hoping the move will encourage more defections by moderate Taliban.

From his headquarters in Musa Qala today, Mullah Abdul Salaam told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that his appointment is already fostering reconciliation between the government and moderate Taliban.

"There were many problems before. There was no trust before. There was no one you could trust," he said. "People didn't know whom to contact. Now they are talking with me. They give me assurance and I give them assurances. There were many problems before. There was no trust before."

Mullah Abdul Salaam was once the Taliban's governor in the southern Afghan province of Oruzgan -- the birthplace of the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, as well as Karzai.

Militia Fighters

Now, the powerful local commander brings some 300 militia fighters to the side of the Afghan government in a strategic part of Helmand Province. More importantly, his allegiance to Kabul helps extend the central government's authority into an area seen as a bastion of popular support for the Taliban.

Christopher Langton, who studies Afghanistan at London's International Institute For Strategic Studies, says it is a particularly important area for President Karzai to stabilize.

"If it is stabilized, all sorts of follow-on could occur in other parts of the country when people see a successful outcome [in Helmand Province]," Langton says.

Langton says the stabilization of Musa Qala and the fertile farmland of the nearby Sangin Valley would allow repairs and upgrades to the nearby Kajaki hydroelectric dam. That, in turn, would allow the government to provide more irrigation, water, and electricity to as many as 2 million people in southern Afghanistan.

That would signal to Afghans elsewhere that their living conditions can be improved if they cooperate with the Afghan government. Langton says it also would allow the international community to be seen as an agent of positive change in Afghanistan rather than as an invader and occupier.

Taliban fighters captured Musa Qala in February 2007 after the collapse of a British-backed peace deal with militants in the area. Just before last month's NATO-led offensive to recapture the town, delegates from Kabul met with Mullah Abdul Salaam and won promises for the allegiance of his Alizai tribe. Since then, other tribal leaders in Helmand Province have supported Salaam's appointment as Musa Qala district chief.

Deal-Making, Not Nation-Building

Still, Langton warns there could be limits to the deal. He warns that Salaam's willingness to support the Kabul government doesn't necessarily reflect a strong desire on his part to strengthen Afghanistan as a whole.

"It's a very localized thing because Abdul Salaam fits into the requirements of the Kabul government in that locality. In Afghanistan, typically, deals are struck in the interest of individuals principally," Langton says. "We shouldn't come away from this with a notion that this is a good thing across the board and there is a massive interest in building the nation by Abdul Salaam. He is obviously getting something out of it. And that is how things work."

Afghan presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada says Mullah Abdul Salaam's appointment reflects Kabul's policy of seeking to engage in dialogue with moderate Taliban who recognize the country's Islamic constitution and agree not to fight the authority of the central government.

"The president has said before that all those former Taliban who come and accept the constitution and who want to participate in the political process through non-violent means, they are all welcome. And Musa Qala is one example," Hamidzada says.

"Mullah Salam had a role in liberating Musa Qala from the terrorist elements. And he had a role in bringing unity among the different tribes and also among the larger community there. And he is now at the service of his people. And he enjoys the support of the government as well as the support of the people."

Heated Debates

Yet the issue of government negotiations with the Taliban has been a subject of heated debates in the Afghan media and in the parliament.

On the one hand, such deals could weaken Taliban hard-liners by creating divisions between local commanders in different parts of the country.

But steps toward a political dialogue with former Taliban officials also could anger politicians from the former Northern Alliance who fought on the side of U.S.-led coalition forces to help drive the Taliban from Kabul in late 2001.

Some members of Afghanistan's upper house of parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, have accepted the principle of negotiating with the Taliban. They argue that improving security in Afghanistan is directly linked to the Taliban's participation in national politics.

The appointment of Mullah Abdul Salaam as the Musa Qala district chief demonstrates that Kabul aims to win over disaffected Taliban commanders who are unhappy about ties between Taliban hard-liners and foreign Al-Qaeda fighters.

Hamidzada stresses that hard-liners still trying to reestablish Taliban rule through militancy have no right to participate in Afghanistan's evolving political dialogue. "As far as other Taliban are concerned, whoever is accepting the [Afghan] constitution and wants to do what they can through the political process, the doors are open to them," Hamidzada says.

But the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, the moderate Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaif, says Kabul will have to talk to Taliban hard-liners too, if it wants real peace in Afghanistan. "The Afghan government wants to reach members of the Taliban individually. And Mr. Karzai himself is trying to contact the Taliban individually," Zaif says.

"But they are fighting for a specific purpose. So until they start trying to resolve the problem in a broader way, I think [the Taliban] will continue to fight."

(Contributors to this story include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Saleh Mohammad Saleh in Helmand Province as well as Radio Free Afghanistan's Ajmal Siddique, Mohmand Hashem, and Asmattullah Sarwan)

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.