As I wrote in my column today, there has been a frenzy of meetings in Europe, the Mideast, the Maldives and Kabul, seeking a way to jump start talks with the Afghan Taliban. I think this is worth trying, but without any illusions about its chances of success. Indeed a heedless pursuit of such talks could produce a new Afghan civil war.
I spoke about this risk with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister of Afghanistan who got thirty per cent of the vote when he ran against Hamid Karzai in 2010 presidential elections. Abdullah was an aide to Ahmed Shah Masoud, the legendary leader of the Northern Alliance, a predominantly Tajik movement that succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban with U.S. assistance. He is now leading an opposition movement that has spoken out against the dangers of talking with the Taliban.
“Everyone is talking about peace talks without a plan which is very disturbing,” he said, sitting in the lovely home, furnished with Afghan carpets and antique furniture, from which he fled when the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. “Would such talks lead to peace, and what is the cost?” he asked. “Where would be be if we made peace with 15,000 Taliban? What about the wider population of thirty millions?
“I say yes to peace talks, but under clear conditions that won’t jeopardize the majority of the population who are against the Taliban. Anything that strengthens the Taliban as a fighting force should be avoided.
“The Taliban’s ideal is not to participate in a democratic process but to break down that current process and replace it with one of its own,”
Prominent members of the Northern Alliance are mobilizing public opposition to talks with the Pashtun Taliban they fear may lead to concessions that permit an ultimate Taliban takeover of the country. They are skeptical that Mullah Omar’s inner circle would ever be willing to seek, or give up, power via elections.
Abdullah recalled that in 1998-2001, the United States held dozens of rounds of talks with the Taliban, urging them to give up Osama bin Laden, but got nowhere. Even after OBL’s death, he doubts the Taliban have split with Al Qaeda, and doesn’t think it will change its ideology. “I don’t want anything to happen,” he says, “that the Taliban can take advantage of, given the history and nature of the movement.”
The objections of this urbane Afghan leader to any carelessly conceived talks should be taken seriously. The anti-Taliban Afghan majority needs reassurance that peace talks with that group won’t produce a return of the dark past. Otherwise, such talks could lead to disaster rather than peace.