ENIGMATIC AFGHAN PEACE
For months, Burhanhuddin Rabbani, the elderly statesman charged by the Afghan president to explore peace talks with the Taliban, communicated with a man he thought was an emissary for Taliban’s senior leadership.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid (pic), a former Taliban ambassador to the UN, Rabbanifs deputy, and the highest ranking “former member of Taliban” in the peace council, perceived as an important interlocutor in the talks, had not been consulted about the commutations. The emissary turned out to be a suicide bomber, detonating the explosives in his Turban, on 09/20/2011, when Rabbani opened his embrace for a customary hug, killing the former president, and derailing the peace process (see – Rabbani’s Assassination). As the first deputy of the peace council, I only became aware that they were pursuing dialogue with him after Rabbanifs deathh Abdul Hakim Mujahid said to Al-Jazeera T.V Network.
Whenever reports of peace talks with the Taliban or the possibility of opening a political office for them make the headlines, the names of four “former Taliban” – Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, his former boss and foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil (see – UN 01.27.10 ), former education minister Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani and Abdul Hakim Mujahid, who was removed from th UN sanctions list on 07/30/2010, inevitably come up (see – UN 07.30.10). They are considered possible mediators who can bring the three sides- the Afghan government, the international coalition, and the armed Taliban – closer together for a political settlement to end the decade-long conflict.
These four individuals have exposure to the outside world having respectively served as the Taliban regime’s foreign minister, their ambassador to Pakistan, ambassador to the UN, and their minister of education. Uninvolved in the military side of the group, they understand diplomacy, and are “relatively moderate” voices who can bridge the divide. But perhaps, most importantly, they maintain close relations with the leadership of the Taliban, a movement without a clear address. Surely, they must be at the heart of the existing peace process (see also – Legitimizing Taleban).
But in interviews conducted with these individuals, government officials, western diplomats, and analysts, a different picture emerges – that perhaps, the notion that these former Taliban are playing an instrumental role is misguided. In the past decade they were either arrested by coalition forces and then released, or they broke away from the Taliban in the early stages – many doubt their closeness to the current Taliban, which has changed significantly in its make up over the years, embracing younger, more autonomous factions.
Nevertheless, western analysts say the four individuals play an important consultative role, helping them understand what might be driving the armed opposition. “I maintained a regular dialogue with them throughout my time in Kabul and I have continued to see them after my return to Norway,” said Kai Eide, the former UN special envoy to Afghanistan, and the author of upcoming book Struggle over Afghanistan. “To me, their views were important inputs in order to understand the other side, what drives the Taliban and what were the opportunities and constraints of a possible peace process” (see also – Kai’s Talks)
Alex Strick van Linschoten
, a Kandahar-based researcher who has studied the Taliban extensively, said the media focuses on these individuals because they are well known faces – even if they might not carry as much influence.
The extent of the influence each one of the individuals carry varies, analysts say. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef is perhaps closest to the movement’s leadership, both because of the consistency of his views, and because immediately after the US invasion, he was arrested in Pakistan and sent to Guantanamo. His time in Guantanamo – described vividly in a book he wrote subsequent to his release – has helped him maintain his credibility as someone who did not capitulate, van Linschoten said.
The armed Taliban have made it clear that these individuals no longer represent them, yet they shy away from condemning their actions.
“Those people who are sitting in Kabul, they are no longer members of the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] and cannot represent our views. They are individuals, on their own capacity,” Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Al Jazeera.
Muttawakil and Zaeef, under government protection, have been running their own foundation for promoting Islamic education. On the side, they have also been monitoring the conditions of Taliban prisoners, and facilitating between the Afghan government and their families for better care, or even the release of some of the prisoners. Muttawakil and Zaeef are not part of the Afghan peace council, and have not participated in the two grand assemblies that President Hamid Karzai called to rally support for mechanisms of reaching out to the Taliban. Nevertheless, they have been consulted on the sidelines of a peace effort that seems to be purused on multiple tracks, rather than through a transparent, unified process.
Former UN envoy Mujahid, and their education minister, Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani – have been closer to president Karzaifs government from the outset, and therefore their influence with the Taliban might be much less, says Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst who was a senior official in the Taliban foreign ministry. Both men were also announced as members of the High Council for Peace in September 2010, with Mujahid being appointed as deputy head of the council.
“Rahmani and I re-established our own political party very early into the new government and we no longer speak under the Taliban name,” Abdul Hakim Mujahid told Al Jazeera. Zaeef and Muttawakil did not distance themselves from the movement’s identity, Mujahid said.
In his last trip abroad just before his death, Rabbani attended the Islamic Awakening Conference hosted by Iran’s Supreme Leader in Tehran. Among the guests, invited by the Iranian government, was an official Taliban delegation, including Tayeb Agha (pic), the man purportedly leading the Taliban side of talks (see – U.S VACUUM).
“Tayeb Agha was in the list of people invited to the Iran conference,” said analyst Muzhda, who attended the conference with Rabbani. But former Taliban leaders, some of whom also attended the conference, confirmed that an official Taliban delegation was there, but said Tayeb Agha was not part of that delegation.
“What is important is not the individual, but that they had invited them as official representatives of the movement,” Abdul Hakim Mujahid said. “Tayeb Agha might be alive today, and dead tomorrow. But the movement was represented, thatfs important.”
Muzhda claims that Tayeb Agha has been based in Iran for some time now, after escaping arrest in Pakistan when Mullah Baradar, the deputy head of the Taliban, was picked up by Pakistani authorities in February 2010.
He says both Tayeb Agha and Baradar were edging closer to Iran, which made Pakistani authorities uncomfortable. Tayeb Agha fled to Iran and has most likely been operating on an official basis there Waheed Muzhda said. A senior former Afghan official aware of the matter said it was unlikely that Tayeb Agha was based in Iran, or that Taliban had an office there, but confirmed that Iran has had relations with the Taliban. “There has always been a line of contact between [the] Taliban and Iran. Always,” he said.
Most recently, the British ambassador to Afghanistan claimed that they had evidence that Iran was sending weapons to the Taliban, which if true, would suggest some level of political presence in Iran to coordinate that effort.
“The weapons thing doesn’t seem to be happening in any large scale way. Otherwise they [western officials] would hold up these weapons, and we would have these accusations much more often,” van Linschoten. But he agrees that Iran is maintaining some level of relationship with the Taliban. “Iranians are hatching their bets in the events that anything happens inside Iran – let’s say America makes some attacks on nuclear installations. Iran wants to have some ability to project its influence inside Afghanistan, against the American forces.”
Once an interpreter at the ministry of foreign affairs, Tayeb Agha is from the younger generation of the Taliban who rose up to be a close confidant of the Mullah Omar. In the past couple of years, his name has come up repeatedly, as leading the Taliban side of talks for the possibility of opening a political office for the movement. He has reportedly met with western and Afghan officials in Qatar and Germany.
But whether Tayeb Agha is the person responsible for the talks – as reported by the media – is in doubt. Mujahid says the person leading the Taliban’s response has changed often, “from Tayeb Agha, to Mullah Mohamed Hassan, to Agha Jan. It keeps changing”.
A former senior government official aware of the talks also said Tayeb Agha might no longer be the designated representative of the Taliban because he was “compromised by ‘jealous and nervous’ elements in Kabul which felt left out from talks”.
Most recently, in reports that an office was being opened in Qatar – which was met with anger by the Afghan government – another name was thrown around. Some suggested that Mullah Jan Mohamed Madani, a former Taliban envoy to the UAE, might be poised to lead the office when it is set up. But Abdul Hakim Mujahid ruled out the reports. “Madani is a poor soul, both intellectually and diplomatically. I doubt he is playing an important role.”
** According to sources in Afghanistan, on Monday 04/09/2012, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef fled the country to the Gulf Emirates allegedlly after US troops attempted to raid his home in Kabul. A spokesman for the US-led NATO-ISAF said they were unaware of the alleged raids. “ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and US forces have no records of ever visiting Mr Zaeef or his residence,” Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan said to reporters, It is most likelly that Abdul Salam Zaeef actually fled the Taliban who are hunting down anyone they supected to be a colaborator with the Americans, Hamid Karzai’s regime and especially those who are involved in the virtual peace process (see – Mohammad H. Munib).
Other sources said Abdul Salam Zaeef’s migration to the UAE, in late 03/2012, was, supposedlly, aimed at playing his role to arrange peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government .
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