After nearly two years of increased bloodshed, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is reaching out to Taliban militants, who have been waging battle against his government, in a renewed push for a political settlement to a conflict that increasingly seems unwinnable militarily, analysts and diplomats say.
Speaking of the need for national reconciliation, Karzai has invited insurgents to lay down their arms and talk, and even join his administration. His overtures have met with responses that range from contempt to cautious consideration by various elements within the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement that U.S.-led forces ousted from power in 2001.
But observers say that those differences can be exploited and that the signs of flexibility, however tentative or fleeting, are encouraging.
“There’s more space than there’s ever been for a solution to this other than endless conflict,” said Adrian Edwards, a United Nations spokesman here in the Afghan capital.
The push for dialogue comes after a summer of deadly militant attacks. The country was hit Tuesday by its most devastating suicide bombing yet, which killed as many as 73 people, including more than a dozen children and six lawmakers. The Taliban has denied responsibility.
Such incidents have deepened public unease and anger with Karzai’s government, which many Afghans blame for the lack of improvement in their lives and the deterioration in security.
An estimated 5,700 people, a large number of them civilians, have been killed this year in clashes between insurgents and allied troops working in conjunction with Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces. Taliban attacks and kidnappings have spread beyond the group’s traditional stronghold in the south and east to northern provinces around Kabul and in the capital itself, leaving residents fearful.
Amid a marked increase in suicide and roadside bombings, 206 coalition soldiers, about half of them Americans, have died in Afghanistan so far this year, according to icasualties.org. The combined coalition toll for all of 2006 was 198.
As winter approaches, battle fatigue may be setting in for the Afghan government, and possibly the Taliban as well, prompting the search for some sort of political accommodation to curb the violence.
The question is what kind of deals can be struck, and with whom.
The Taliban is not a monolithic organization, making it impossible to reach an overarching agreement but possible to exploit factional divisions. Critics warn against any deals offering amnesty or political favors that would, in effect, reward extremists.
Many people here were alarmed when Karzai, just hours after a suicide bomber killed at least 30 people aboard an army bus in Kabul on Sept. 29, appeared to offer to meet with two notorious anti-government figures, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and factional warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
“If I find their address, there is no need for them to come to me. I’ll personally go there and get in touch with them,” Karzai said. “If a group of Taliban or a number of Taliban come to me and say, ‘President, we want a department in this or in that ministry, or we want a position as deputy minister . . . and we don’t want to fight anymore,’ . . . I will accept it because I want conflicts and fighting to end in Afghanistan.”
The president’s spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said that Karzai’s comments were taken out of context and that no offers to negotiate had been extended to Omar, Hekmatyar or any “hard-core elements” of the Taliban with links to Al Qaeda.
“This offer is for others -- people who are stuck in the middle,” Hamidzada said. Many of the Taliban’s rank and file are believed to be alienated Afghans who have joined the insurgency less out of Islamist fervor than out of anger with the government over lost homes, unremitting poverty and a feeling of disenfranchisement.
Hamidzada dismissed as a nonstarter the demand by some Taliban leaders that foreign troops must leave before any negotiations can take place. He underscored that any talks with militants would require them to give up their weapons and abide by the constitution.
“At this stage we are talking about the principle of talking,” Hamidzada said. “Everything will be within the framework of the constitution. We’re not going back on human rights; we’re not going back on women’s rights. We’re not returning to the days of the Taliban.”
Reports recently have surfaced of an impending deal with Mullah Abdul Salaam, a prominent Taliban and tribal leader in the south who commands hundreds of armed followers.
Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper said the deal would see Salaam and his fighters pledge support to the Afghan government and British troops stationed in the south. Hamidzada would not confirm the report but said, “Some figures are working on switching sides, and we are working closely to make it happen.”
What Karzai offers in return will be under close scrutiny. Human rights and other groups already have decried the involvement in government of former warlords and other leaders accused of wartime atrocities, and the lack of progress in holding such men to account.
“All along, reconciliation in Afghanistan has been taken to mean pure amnesty,” said Joanna Nathan, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “What a political solution has got to mean, rather than rewarding violent extremists at the top, is actually community-level reconciliation, reaching out to the disillusioned and disenchanted before they join such movements.”
The new buzz about possible negotiations with insurgents could actually undermine the government’s efforts to prevent more Afghans from linking up with the Taliban, analysts say.
“This public talk of talks is incredibly damaging,” Nathan said. “If you have a community right now in the deep south or the borderlands on the east thinking, ‘Do I stand up to the Taliban?’ why will they, if they think the international community or the government are going to negotiate with them anyway?”
The government’s calculations are influenced by domestic pressures. In a recent nationwide poll by the nonprofit Asia Foundation, Afghans ranked public security as the No. 1 problem facing the country, leapfrogging unemployment, which topped the survey last year.
“When I leave the house, I pray to God that it won’t happen to me,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, 21, who runs a clothing stall in one of Kabul’s busiest markets. “Those aren’t the actions of human beings.”
External pressures probably play a part as well in the Afghan government’s decision to engage with the insurgents. Meeting last month in the Netherlands, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization declined to significantly boost its commitment of 41,000 troops in Afghanistan, more than a third of whom are American. The decision elicited a harsh response from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Britain and Canada, whose soldiers patrol the volatile, Taliban-ridden south, are under pressure at home to cut back or withdraw their troops. British officials, diplomats and military commanders have begun emphasizing the need for Afghanistan’s problems to be “resolved politically” -- through talks with some insurgents.
The U.S. has reacted more cautiously, but has left the door open to selective negotiations.
“It’s very important to be precise about this,” U.S. Ambassador William B. Wood said last month in an interview on Afghan television. “The United States is not opposing the invitation of the government of Afghanistan to talk to elements of the Taliban who are willing to come in and respect the constitution and respect the authority of the democratically elected government. . . .
“We also, of course, agree with [Karzai] that this can have no effect on military operations, that this cannot include people who were associated with Al Qaeda.”
Hamidzada, Karzai’s spokesman, said there was credible intelligence of a “serious debate” and “considerable friction” among Taliban members over engaging politically with the Afghan government. He said Karzai’s doors were open as part of the president’s search for a “comprehensive solution.”
“Any war ends in negotiation,” Hamidzada said, “even if it’s surrender.”
Chu, The Times’ New Delhi Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Kabul.