Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government Wednesday denied reports that secret high-level talks with the Taliban had begun, although signals from various quarters suggested that back-channel contacts with the insurgency were gathering momentum.
Renewed attention to the prospect of engaging the Taliban leadership in negotiations comes against a backdrop of growing violence, particularly in Afghanistan’s south, where NATO forces are stepping up operations against Islamist insurgents.
Over a period of less than 48 hours on Monday and Tuesday, a series of bombings in and near Kandahar killed 13 people, as many as nine of them said to be children, and the city’s deputy mayor and a former district leader were assassinated, all in attacks blamed on the Taliban.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Wednesday that its forces had killed the Taliban “shadow governor” of Faryab, a northern province where the insurgency had become pronouncedly more active in recent months.
Karzai denounced the Kandahar bombings as the work of “enemies of Afghanistan” who had abandoned Islamic principles.
But such condemnations often go hand in hand with pleas for insurgents to come to the bargaining table.
In an emotional speech last week, shortly after a deadly attack on a provincial deputy governor, the Afghan leader referred to Taliban fighters as “compatriots,” urging them to renounce violence.
With the war entering its 10th year on Thursday, reports this week by the pan-Arab satellite network Al Jazeera and the Washington Post cited Afghan and Arab sources as saying that Taliban representatives — with the apparent blessing of the movement’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar — had begun talks with the Karzai government.
However, Karzai’s deputy spokesman, Hamed Elmi, said Wednesday that there were “no contacts on the high levels” between the government and the Taliban but acknowledged that indirect lower-level talks had been taking place. The president last week named a 70-member “peace council” to oversee any formal negotiations.
Waheed Mojdeh, who was a member of the Taliban government during the movement’s five-year rule, expressed doubts that Omar had authorized anyone to speak for him directly.
“As far as I know, there is nobody who can represent” Omar, he said. “For a long time now, there have been these kinds of talks and contacts.”
Mojdeh, who is generally seen as familiar with the thinking of the Taliban leadership, says any substantive talks would be covert and that Karzai’s peace council probably is “for show.”
Senior Western officials have spoken openly in recent days about preliminary overtures to the insurgents by Karzai’s government and vice versa.
Mark Sedwill, the senior civilian NATO representative, said last week at a news conference in Washington that efforts to bring the Taliban into the political mainstream were at an “embryonic stage.” Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, told reporters last week that “very high-level Taliban leaders … have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government.”