ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Secret contacts are again reported to be underway for an Afghanistan peace deal, but neither analysts nor the insurgents see hope they will succeed.
A Taliban official has told The Associated Press that least two ministers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government have met with Taliban representatives in the United Arab Emirates, at a time when Pakistan has been releasing dozens of Taliban prisoners in a bid to revive talks.
The talks in the UAE have gone nowhere, the official says, and Pakistan's national security adviser reports the releases have won no concessions from the Taliban.
A peace deal is critical to avoid a return to civil war when foreign troops leave at the end of this year. But there are many obstacles, some of which run in a circle.
The U.S. wants Karzai to accept a residual force of foreigners to stay on and back up the new Afghan security forces, but Karzai says before accepting the terms governing that force, he wants Washington to help resume peace talks. Yet at the same time he objects to negotiating with the Taliban as long as the latter continues to call itself "the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" — something he views as tantamount to running a rival government.
The Taliban official who spoke to the AP said the Taliban would be ready to accept indirect mediation by a broker shuttling between the parties, modeled on the process that led to the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan after their 10-year occupation. He requested anonymity, saying he did not have permission from Mullah Omar, the movement's leader, to speak to the media.
But the sincerity of both sides is questioned. Many wonder whether Karzai even wants a peace deal before the April election. He is ineligible for a third term, and stalling until he is out of office would punt the tough decisions to his successor. And the Taliban still needs to prove it can be trusted not to exact revenge for alleged atrocities by Afghan leaders.
The ill-feeling resonates in the case of Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who the Taliban, as well as Western human rights organizations, accuses of killing thousands of surrendering Taliban during the U.S.-led 2001 invasion. Dostum is running for vice president in the election.
Graeme Smith, senior Afghanistan analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says everyone is stalling.
"All sides have failed to bridge the political divide," he told said in an email exchange with the AP.
Pakistan, which is seen as key to bringing the Taliban to the table, says the militants aren't interested in talking to Karzai's government.
Sartaj Aziz, the national security adviser, said prisoner releases have not moved the Taliban, nor has Karzai's refusal to sign the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement allowing for an outside force to remain in Afghanistan, even though that should please the insurgents who want all foreign troops to be leave.
"They (the Taliban) think it is all a drama and he (Karzai) will sign," Aziz said in an interview.
The most significant release has been that of the Taliban's former No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. But Taliban officials say he remains under virtual house arrest in Pakistan because he won't open direct talks with Karzai's government unless authorized by Mullah Omar.
The Taliban official who spoke anonymously is known to the AP since the Taliban were in power before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He said both sides in the conflict — the Taliban and rival militias — are gearing up for a fight after international troops leave.
He said that while the Taliban leadership is willing to talk, most of its battlefield commanders are opposed, particularly the new generation which is confident it can recapture the entire country.
U.S.-Taliban peace contacts date back some seven years, most significantly around the time of the U.S. troop surge nearly three years ago. Those talks were set up with German and Norwegian help but were quickly scuttled by Karzai's opposition. When Karzai finally agreed to let the Taliban open an office in Qatar last summer as a prelude to renewed talks, that initiative quickly collapsed over the Taliban's choice of the name "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."
The Taliban argued that the name gained acceptance even before its 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan, but Karzai stood firm, and the sides were forced to keep their contacts secret. Negotiations have focused on the release of Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and of Sgt. Bowie Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier in Taliban hands.
Now the AP has learned that militias loyal to several senior Afghan government officials are resurrecting weapons caches that were supposed to have been handed over to a United Nations-sponsored disarmament program. Further indications of the trouble have come in the latest U.S. National Intelligence estimate, as reported by the Washington Post, which predicts Afghanistan will sink into chaos.
"The insurgents are watching tens of thousands of foreign troops leave the country and they assume this will shift the military balance in their favor, while the government assumes its forces will hold their ground," said Smith of the ICG. "This gap in both sides' understanding of the battlefield will probably fuel conflict in the short term."
Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kathygannon .