Friday, June 10, 2011

Afghanistan: As insurgents pick off officials in targeted attacks, negotiators face mounting pressure to explain lack of visible progress towards peac

Arms handed in by a group of 13 insurgents who renounced violence and surrendered in Pasaband, Ghor province. February 2011. (Photo: Isafmedia/Flickr)
This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Taleban Onslaught Undermines Afghan Peace Effort

A recent spate of insurgent attacks has intensified the criticism of official attempts to engage the Taleban in peace talks.

The High Peace Council set up by President Hamed Karzai last autumn is beset on all sides. Some accuse it of being too ready to make concessions to terrorists, while others say the unrelenting wave of Taleban attacks indicates it must be talking to the wrong terrorists.

“We are living in a situation with no clear enemy,” member of parliament Mohammad Saleh Saljuki said on June 1, in a speech quoted by the Tolo News agency. “Our president is lost, and the peace council is failing to find those it should hold peace talks with.”

Saljuki was speaking after a series of Taleban actions across Afghanistan, the most recent being twin attacks carried out on May 30 in the western city of Herat – one of them on a NATO facility – leaving at least four dead and over 50 injured.

Two days before that, a suicide bombing in Takhar province killed General Daud Daud, commander of police in northern Afghanistan, and provincial police chief Shah Jahan Nuri, and injured provincial governor Abdul Jabbar Taqwa Taqwa as well as Major-General Marcus Kneip, the German commander of NATO forces in the north.

In April, Khan Mohammad Mujahid, police chief in the southern Kandahar province was killed in a suicide attack on his headquarters, and Abdul Rahman Sayedkhili, police chief in Kunduz in the north died in the same manner in March.

This week, the remains of the provincial assembly chief in the central Bamian province, Jawad Zehak, were found. The Afghan intelligence agency blamed insurgents for his abduction and murder, and said this was part of a campaign to destabilise parts of Afghanistan due to be handed from NATO to Afghan military control.

President Karzai set up the High Peace Council last autumn following a national congress or “jirga” in June which approved the principle of seeking a deal with the insurgent groups, which include Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami faction and the “Haqqani network” as well as the Taleban.

From the outset, the council has faced simultaneous accusations that it is failing to make headway, and also that it is too willing to compromise, for example by securing the release of captive insurgents for little return.

The upper house of parliament, the Meshrano Jerga, recently deemed the government’s strategy of engagement a failure, arguing that the security situation had deteriorated rather than improved since the peace council came into being.

Political analyst Jawid Kohistani says negotiations to date have failed to reel in any of senior Taleban figures, and any engagement has been with inconsequential groups.

“Massive amounts of money have been spent on this process, yet no significant gains have been made,” he added.

Many of the voices speaking out against engagement with the Taleban belong to northern politicians, often associated with the armed factions that fought the Taleban as the group won control of Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Among them is Hajji Mohammad Mohaqeq, leader of the Hizb-e Wahdat party, who has spoken out against the peace council even though he is a member of it.

“The High Peace Council issues orders for the release of Taleban prisoners. The security forces arrest terrorists and the High Peace Council and [its predecessor] the peace commission set them free,” he told parliament in early May. “Negotiations with the opposition are unilateral, and conducted from a position of weakness. This has further emboldened the opposition to pursue bloodshed.”

Other members of the council rejected his accusations.

“What Mohaqeq said is not true,” said Fazel Karim Aimaq, another council member. “The High Peace Council has released nobody so far.”

Aimaq defended the council’s record, saying much of the progress it had made could not be made public as the issues were so sensitive.

Government claims that more than 1,000 Taleban have laid down their arms since the creation of the High Peace Council have been denied by the insurgents themselves. Some officials and commentators agree that that many of those surrendering were never insurgents and were just trying to take advantage of the package, financial and otherwise, offered to militants who come over to the government side. (See “Taleban Surrenders” Not All They Seem for more on these claims.)

A different accusation often made against the council concerns its 68 members, all appointed by President Karzai, some of whom formerly led militia factions that engaged in a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, while other are ex-members of the Taleban and Hezb-i Islami. Critics say former warlords are hardly the best people to task with a peace effort.

“Some members of the peace council are accused of crimes themselves,” Kohistani said. “Implementing the peace process will be impossible as long as such individuals are present on the peace council.”

For others, the council includes too many conservatives who would be quite comfortable with Taleban demands for a more rigorous Islamic system as part of a peace settlement. (These concerns are covered in Afghan Women Fear Sell-Out in Taleban Talks.)

Finally, there is a view that peace talks are ultimately pointless since the government cannot make the Taleban an offer they are likely to accept. Kabul’s preconditions for reconciliation require the insurgents to lay down their weapons unconditionally, accept the current Afghan constitution and renounce ties with al-Qaeda.

The Taleban show no sign of moving on these issues, and insist that all NATO troops must leave Afghanistan before talks with Kabul can go ahead.

Zabihullah Mojahed, a spokesman for the Taleban, dismissed the peace council’s claims that it is in negotiations.

“Talks will not take place until foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan, because the Taleban will not talk to the government in the presence of foreigners,” he said.

Despite the many criticisms of the peace council and its activities, some Afghans argue that a purely military solution to the conflict is impossible, so some kind of negotiated deal is necessary. Their view appears to be shared by western officials, who have shown signs of seeking contacts with various insurgents groups.

Although Zahir Saadat is a member of parliament from Panjshir province, an area renowned for its hostilily to the Taleban, he says the High Peace Council needs to continue its efforts.

“The council may have some shortcomings, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t worked at all, that it’s achieved nothing or that it should be abolished. A number of opposition members have joined the government as a result of the council’s work, and we need to support that process,” he said.

Kabul resident Mortaza agreed that the council was essential as a point of contact for insurgents who were seeking ways to negotiate an end to conflict. “Who can they contact if this council or something like it doesn’t exist?" he asked.

Presidential spokesman Wahid Omar said the work to build a peace deal would continue and there was no chance of the council being dissolved.

“No one has the authority to abolish the council because it was established on the basis of recommendations made by the Consultative Peace Jirga,” he said.

Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan. Her work as a journalist was recently the subject of an article in the LA Times.