A track II initiative was organized on 20-21 December 2012 by the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) at the Chateau de la Tour Hotel in Gouvieux, Chantilly fifty kilometers north of Paris. The meeting was the third such event arranged by the FRS. About twenty Afghans from the quasi-governmental High Peace Council (HPC), the main political opposition parties in Afghanistan, the Taliban, as well as and the Hezb-e-Islami militant group met at Chantilly to lay grounds for more meaningful talks in the future between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Afghan president had expressed support for the meeting, saying he backed any forum for discussion with the insurgents.
The talks were held against a background of frantic efforts to draw the Taliban and other opponents of President Karzai into negotiations on the future political arrangements in Afghanistan as the NATO and ISAF pull out by the end of 2014. Last peace talks between the US and the Taliban had broken down in March 2012 mainly because the Taliban had refused to agree to a deal under which detainees released from Guantánamo Bay would remain under Qatari government supervision at Doha.
Shahabuddin Delawar and Naeem Wardak represented the Taliban in Paris. Dilawar is a former deputy head of the Taliban’s Supreme Court. The Taliban negotiators were a part of what U.S views as a “pragmatist” faction within the Taliban headed by Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. A Taliban spokesman had been reported saying prior to the Paris meeting that “We are not going to discuss peace," he said. "This gathering is not about peace.”
At the meeting Delawar and Wardak read a prepared statement and the five-point outline of their agenda called, amongst other things, for amendments to the Constitution. They said the current “constitution is illegitimate because it is written under the shadows of B-52 aircrafts” (referring to the US invasion). They demanded a new constitution be written by Afghans in “free atmosphere”, implying after the withdrawal of NATO/ISAF troops. And the new constitution should be based on “principles of noble Islam, national interest and historical achievements.” They also asked for the withdrawal of the NATO/ISAF troops prior to peace talks and the upcoming elections.
The FRS had presented an agenda for discussion during the meeting. A key demand was to study the possibility of moving the country towards a parliamentary system, with less concentration of power in the hands of the President. This view is also held by several western analysts who consider it as a drawback of the Afghan constitution. Other issues raised at the meeting covered human and gender rights, and amnesty from prosecution. The unanimous opinion regarding the Taliban at the meeting was that they should lay down their arms, stop the violence, leave their Pakistani sanctuaries and enter the Afghan political process starting with the participation in the upcoming provincial and presidential elections.
The Afghan government initially expressed optimism after the Paris talks, “We welcome the Paris negotiations as well as the participation of Taliban at the meeting. We hope such negotiations continue,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Janan Mosazai said at a press conference. He added that the government’s preconditions for the talks with the Taliban have not changed: a cease-fire, recognition of the Afghan constitution, cutting ties with international terrorists and agreeing to respect the rights of Afghan citizens including women and children. The Afghan government did not comment on the demands of the Taliban raised during the meeting.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan before the US invasion of Afghanistan was also present at the Paris meeting, not part of the Taliban team but in individual capacity. He suggested establishment of a commission comprising of all Afghan stakeholders to discuss proposed changes in the constitution in 2013. A suggestion the Taliban team did not oppose. This was possibly one of the positives of the meeting which otherwise was merely restating of positions by various stakeholders. Mohammad Hanif Atmar, former minister of interior and representative of the Rights and Justice Party at the talks said that another meeting, similar to the present one, will be held in Paris in a month.
The Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai in particular, are wary of peace efforts not led by Kabul and more so by the Taliban’s refusal to hold direct talks with it. After the Paris meeting, Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Zalmai Rassoul was called to the Afghan Senate to address the body's concerns over the Paris meeting. He reportedly told the Senate, surprisingly, that there was insufficient information about the backgrounds of the two Taliban representatives at the Paris meeting, and that the Taliban faction Delawar and Wardak represented could not be identified. He went on to add that there is no need of holding such meetings outside the country and such talks should be held in Afghanistan. Senator Rafiullah Haidari said the Paris meeting was not representative enough and did not represent those who fought in the Afghan jihad. 1
The second twist to the affair was provided by the Afghan government’s comments on the establishment of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar. Afghan Foreign Minister insisted that the Afghan government will not allow the Taliban group to open a liaison office in Qatar unless the group is prepared for direct peace talks. He said, “The office for the Taliban group will not be opened unless the Taliban group or its representatives do not announce to start talks with the Afghan government. It will be highly risky if the office is opened and secret talks are held.” 2 However during the 11 January 2013 meeting in Washington, President Obama and Karzai endorsed the opening of a "Taliban office" in a third-party country to "facilitate" reconciliation talks3.
Taliban too firmed up its position after the Paris meeting and early this year a statement was released on ‘Voice of Jihad’, the official website of the Afghan Taliban, signed by "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" which rejected any security agreement between the US and the Afghan government as "a personal deal between Karzai and America," and said "it shall hold no legal credibility. The Islamic Emirate shall continue its sacred Jihad against it just as it has for the past eleven years, if even a single American soldier" remains in country, the Taliban stated. The Taliban made the statement as the Afghan government is freeing hundreds of Taliban prisoners and the US government is debating the size of residual force for post-2014 period.
Release of Taliban Detainees
Afghan officials believe that freeing Taliban members could be a positive step towards persuading the Taliban fighters to accept peace negotiations, hold direct talks with the government and eventually transform the Taliban into a political movement. The Afghan government has freed more than 250 Taliban prisoners formerly held by the U.S. and plans on releasing an additional 150 soon. 4
Prisoners were released on January 4, 2013 from the Bagram military prison, north of Kabul, and other jails across the country. Their release was secured through a special complaints committee, amid hopes that it might help peace and reconciliation efforts. An Afghan Defense Ministry official, Jalaluddin Dehati said a total of 1,200 prisoners will be set free in the coming weeks. According to the official, Bagram prison at present holds about 3,000 Taliban fighters and suspected terrorists. 5
In neighboring Pakistan, 26 Taliban have been freed in recent months and there are reports that Kabul had presented a 40-man list of detainees to Islamabad. The list includes Mullah Noorudin Turabi, a former Taliban justice minister, Anwar ul-Haq Mujahid, a military commander who headed Taliban operations in Tora Bora. Others on the list include top advisers to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Pakistan has said recently that it plans to release all Afghan Taliban prisoners still in its custody. Jalil Jilani, Pakistan's foreign secretary said at a news conference in Abu Dhabi that Islamabad was coordinating the release of all prisoners and those released will include Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the militants group's former second-in-command. Kabul has long called on Islamabad to free Baradar, whom it sees as key to moving forward the peace negotiations with the Taliban. 6
Analysts say the move to free Taliban detainees is fraught with risk. The Afghan government has not been able to track the freed detainees, and some are thought to be returning to the battlefield. Under a "safe passage" agreement between Kabul and Islamabad, prisoners have been released with no conditions and many have simply disappeared. The Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, which offered resettlement opportunities including security to Taliban foot soldiers and received some $140 million from international donors, has persuaded only about 1,000 militants to join the mainstream. 7
The French Foreign Ministry had said that the Paris meeting -- called the “third inter-Afghan closed academic seminar” -- will bring together “participants from the various components of Afghan society for discussions on 'Afghanistan -- Toward 2020.'8 France, which hosted similar meetings in 2011 and December, 2012, says it has no direct involvement in the event other than hosting it. The Paris meeting had been preceded by similar talks on 28 June 2012 in Japan, between Qari Din Mohammad, a member of the Taliban’s former Afghan minister of planning, and Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, head of the Afghan HPC, which had been facilitated by the Doshisha University, Kyoto.
The meeting came on the heels of France ending its combat mission in Afghanistan as it withdrew its remaining 500 combat troops from the Nijrab base in the Kapisa region, a province northeast of Kabul. France was once one of the largest contributors to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, with a peak deployment of 4,000 troops. The Taliban did not fail to highlight the fact that their decision to attend the meeting in Paris was influenced by the French decision of withdrawing all their troops from Afghanistan which met their primary precondition for holding any talks. Hizb-e-Islami representative Ghairat Baheer, son-in-law of Gulbuldin Hekmatyar, too said that his militant group was attending the meeting in France because they admire the French government's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Analysts believe that the French interest in Afghan reconciliation comes from the fact that France had in the past backed Jamiat-e Islami, a northern, Tajik-dominated faction and the broader Shura-e Nazar, sometimes known as the Northern Alliance."The French now realise that the Taliban will be have a stronger role in Afghanistan in days to come”. They would like the interests of the Jamiat-e Islami and Shura-e Nazar, secured in the future power equations. The only progress in this direction has been Taliban’s public admission of the need to talk to the opposition groups from the former Northern Alliance.
The US was observing the Paris meeting and would like to see this interaction take the next step toward reconciliation in terms of the resumption of what was known as the “Doha process”. This would involve an exchange of detainees and the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar. US analysts strongly believe Taliban can be persuaded to “cut a deal’, which might lead to an eventual cease-fire in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders on the other hand are said to resist any compromise that might not show them as victors. Significantly, the US ambassador to Afghanistan James B. Cunninghum has said that Washington will never attend any peace talks with the Taliban group where Afghan government representative is not involved. He said in the context of the recent meeting between Obama and Karzai that , “The two leaders made clear that peace negotiations and reconciliation are vital for the two nations and they encourage the establishment of Taliban liaison office in Qatar so that the Afghan government and Taliban group can hold peace talks. The decision will finally depend on the Taliban group.”9
Some observers feel Taliban leadership is changing its stance on the Afghan war and peace negotiations.10 Prior to the Paris meeting it was said that the Taliban leadership were considering a change of strategy on a wide array of issues. Zabihullah, a senior Taliban leader in the Quetta Shura informed that they are reconsidering the peace talks, the hostility towards the former Northern Alliance, their rejection of the Afghan Constitution and even participating in the next presidential and National Assembly elections. The Taliban affinity for the predominantly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara Northern Alliance was attributed to the fact that it is opposed to the Karzai government and in favour of an Islamic state. Zabihullah also said that the Taliban is willing to accept the Afghan Constitution and democratic elections with some changes to the electoral law; a view that was debunked at the Paris meeting.
One political analyst in Kabul, believes that the conflicting signals are because the Taliban leadership is in a real quandary about how to proceed and where it can make compromises acceptable to its own followers.“For the last 11 years, Taliban leaders have motivated their forces to carry on the fight by saying the country is under attack, its government is not Islamic, and God's religion is under threat,” he said. “While the war is framed in terms of religion, it also highly personalised because the Taliban ranks include people who have lost family members. “If foreign forces are still based in Afghanistan, the constitution remains unchanged and the movement has no substantial guarantees inside or outside the country, how can its leaders convince the rank-and-file? This will split the Taliban."11
Others take a more cynical view of the insurgents’ ability to make peace, regarding them as merely an instrument of Pakistan’s intelligence service. Afghan HPC saw the release on 31 December 2012 by Pakistan of eight Taliban members imprisoned by them as supportive of the peace negotiations and promoting stability in Afghanistan. However, many observers feel the Taliban are tired of fighting and want to end the war, but have been prevented from proceeding with peace talks by Pakistan which is pushing for a larger role in the region. The softer stance of Taliban is also viewed as a manipulation by Pakistan to influence the upcoming elections in Afghanistan.
The Paris meeting was meant to "pave the way for formal talks in the future." But some analysts believe that “the incentives for the Taliban to negotiate a deal just aren't there". The Afghan government’s plan to draw the Taliban to the table through the release of detainees seems more like a shot in the dark as there are no assurances that the freed detainees will help bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table. For that matter these released detainees might reorient the power structure within the Taliban and give ‘jihad’ a new purpose and direction.
- Rafi Sediqi. ‘Bona Fides of Taliban Representatives At Paris Meeting Unclear: MoFA’, Tolonews, 25 December 2012. http://www.tolonews.com/en/afghanistan/8852-bona-fides-of-taliban-repres...
- Sajad. ‘ Afghanistan sets conditions for Taliban office in Qatar’, Khaama Press, January0 2, 2013.
- Obama, Karzai endorse 'Taliban office,' agree to speed military transition’, January 11, 2013.
- ‘ Afghan Militants Freed by Government’, Associated Press, January 04, 2013.
- Afghan Government Releases Dozens Of Taliban Fighters, RFE/RL, January 04, 2013. http://www.rferl.org/content/afghan-government-releases-dozens-of-fighte...
- Pakistan Pledges To Free All Afghan Taliban, RFE/RL, January 18, 2013.
- Frud Bezhan. ‘Taliban Prisoner Releases Are High-Risk, Low-Reward’, RFE/RL, January 13, 2013.
- ‘Afghan Factions Meeting In France’, RFE/RL, December 19, 2012.
- Meena Haseeb . ‘Afghan peace talks pending Taliban agreement with Kabul’, Khaama Press, January 13, 2013.
- Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai. ‘Afghanistan: Drastic Changes for the Taliban’, December 15, 2012. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/15/afghanistan-drastic-cha...
- Mina Habib, Hafizullah Gardesh . ‘Kabul Officials in Face-to-Face Meeting with Taleban’, Afghanistan ARR Issue 446, 01 January 2013. http://iwpr.net/report-news/kabul-officials-face-face-meeting-taleban