It’s not only US-Iran talks that might advance now that President Obama has been re-elected but talks with the Taliban too.
Both the United States and the government of Afghanistan have welcomed Pakistan’s release of a passel of Taliban officials. Though details remain sketchy, it appears that Pakistan’s government and the ISI, the army intelligence service, agreed this week to set free a number of Taliban prisoners. According to Dawn, a Pakistani daily, ten members of the Taliban were released, though not Mullah Baradur, the number-two Taliban official and its military commander, who was seized in 2010. If it’s a first step, if more Taliban are released, and if it opens the way toward peace talks involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban, it could be a major development.
The release followed a high-level visit to Pakistan by an Afghan peace council delegation.
Citing the joint Afghan-Pakistan statement, Dawn reported that an Islamic peace conference might be arranged in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere:
Another important initiative that the two sides agreed during their parleys was about using the influence of clergy to persuade the Taliban to join the peace process. A meeting of clerics from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and some other Muslim countries would be arranged.
“The conference could either be held in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan or any other Islamic country. The Ulema Conference would address the issue of rising militancy and suicide attacks in the name of religion and the defamation of our glorious and peaceful religion Islam due to its unjustified linkage with terrorism,” the statement said.
The New York Times reports that at least seven and as many as fourteen Taliban were freed, including Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, who served as the Taliban’s justice minister until 2001, and the Times quoted a Pakistani analyst thus:
“Things are starting to move. This is definitely an attempt by Pakistan to change tack and show both sides that they are serious about a settlement and an endgame.”
And the Times adds:
For years, the ability of the Pakistani Army’s intelligence agency to limit the movement of Afghan Taliban leaders has been seen as a political trump card—an insurance policy that any deal between the insurgents and the Americans or Afghan government would have to go through Pakistan first. Both countries have lobbied the Pakistanis to at least agree in principle to allow more freedom for Taliban leaders to travel in order to make any attempt at peace talks possible.
That’s a crucial point, since any deal in Afghanistan will require Pakistani support, and in turn the Pakistanis will want some degree of control over what the next government of Afghanistan will look like, including some role for the Taliban and its allies.
As The Wall Street Journal correctly points out:
Pakistan’s conciliatory gestures come after relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan hit a low late last year, when former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed in a suicide attack. Members of Afghanistan’s government at the time accused Pakistan’s spy agency of being behind the assassination of Mr. Rabbani, who led efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.
And it adds:
While Pakistani officials have publicly encouraged talks between the Taliban and Kabul, U.S. and Afghan officials say Islamabad also made sure no such negotiations occurred outside Pakistani control. They point to Mullah Baradar’s arrest in 2010 as a case in point. The Afghan government has long demanded the release of Mullah Baradar and other senior commanders. They weren’t among those eight or nine Taliban officials slated for release at this stage, officials said.
Because it’s almost certain that the ragtag Afghan government security forces can’t hold the line after the United States leaves Afghanistan in 2014, a deal with the Taliban is urgently needed, or the country will once again collapse into unbridled civil war. So making that deal ought to be a top priority for President Obama. Stay tuned.
Phyllis Bennis reports on the latest attacks in the Gaza.