WASHINGTON – Peace talks with the Taliban will lead to disaster unless the insurgent group is disarmed first, Afghanistan's former intelligence chief said Thursday.
Amrullah Saleh, who headed Afghanistan's spy agency from 2004 until earlier this year, said the key to peace with the Taliban is cutting off their support from Pakistan and disarming and dismantling the group before allowing them to operate as a normal political party.
"Demobilize them, disarm them, take their headquarters out of the Pakistani intelligence's basements," Saleh said. "Force the Taliban to play according to the script of democracy," he added, predicting the party would ultimately fail, "in a country where law rules, not the gun ... not the law of intimidation."
Saleh said the United States should give Pakistan a deadline of July 2011 to pursue top insurgents inside their borders or threaten to send in U.S. troops to do the job.
Saleh, who headed the Afghan National Directorate of Security until he resigned last June from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, warned an audience at the National Press Club that failure to cut off Pakistani support would allow the Taliban to only pretend to make peace, then sweep back to power after NATO troops leave.
The former spy chief's comments display the dissension at the highest levels of Afghan political society over whether to engage the Taliban in talks, or keep fighting them. His criticism of Pakistan also highlights the widespread suspicion among Afghanistan's elites that the neighboring power continues to allow militants to flourish inside Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have said that such a deal is key to drawing down U.S. and NATO troops, starting in July 2011, with eventual handover to Afghan forces in 2014.
Saleh said this year's surge of U.S. troops had accomplished a "temporary effect" of securing some territory, but failed to change the "fundamentals."
"The Taliban leadership has not been captured or killed," he said. "Al-Qaida has not been defeated."
He added: "The current strategy still believes Pakistan is honest, or at least 50 percent honest." Still, he predicted Pakistan would continue to support the Taliban and other proxies to try to maintain influence in Afghanistan.
Saleh ran Afghanistan's intelligence service after serving in the mostly ethnic Tajik Afghan Northern Alliance, which battled the Taliban before the U.S. invasion. Many members of Tajik regions together with other Afghan minorities have warned of another Afghan civil war if Karzai makes a deal with Taliban.
Saleh criticized his former administration, without naming Karzai, claiming that "political Kabul" was out of touch with the rest of the country, and too often publicly at odds with NATO.
Several Pakistani officials listening to Saleh's speech at the Jamestown Foundation's annual Terrorism Conference grimaced at his remarks.
One Pakistani official approached Saleh afterward and asked privately whether Saleh respected the fact that the Pakistani intelligence service had lost 550 officers since the war on terror began in 2001.
The official said Saleh acknowledged this was true, but insisted more cooperation between the two countries was needed and stood by his claims that Pakistan supports the Taliban.
The Pakistani said he ended the chat saying he was glad Saleh had at least backed talks with the Taliban, with conditions. The official related his comments on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
One of Pakistan's former spy chiefs, who also spoke at the conference, predicted the only way to drive a wage between the Taliban and al-Qaida is peace talks offering the insurgents a way to leave fighting and join the governing process in Afghanistan.
Retired Pakistani Gen. Ehsan ul Haq said peace talks with the Taliban were the only way to drive the group apart from Al-Qaida. Haq said as long as the two groups were comrades at arms, they would continue to cooperate despite their differences.
Haq, former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, said neither Pakistan nor the west had managed to defeat the Taliban with what he called a militarized counterinsurgency strategy. Within Pakistan, he said, the civilian government had failed to backfill the areas the army had won back from the militants.
He said western policies of hunting al Qaida on the ground in Afghanistan, and by drone in Pakistan, has simply fueled their recruitment.