The Australian

By Anatol Lieven

Questions remain over Afghan peace plan

Sad to say, most of the US and Western hopes for Afghanistan have had to be abandoned.

After the withdrawal of Western ground forces in 2014, there is a real possibility of the disintegration of the Kabul administration and political order, followed by the fragmentation of the Afghan National Army.

This danger is intensified by the fact that under the constitution, President Hamid Karzai has to step down in 2014, and there is little chance of the Afghan political elite agreeing on a successor.

In these depressing and disturbing circumstances, it is natural that new attention is being paid to the possibility of a peace settlement with the Taliban, since it does not seem possible either to destroy them militarily or to persuade Pakistan to eliminate their bases in that country.

Colleagues from King's College London and I held meetings in the Persian Gulf last month, with a range of figures considered close to the Taliban: former Taliban ministers and deputy ministers from before their overthrow by US-led forces in 2001, Afghans who have engaged in mediation with the Taliban, and one early mentor of the movement.

To judge by what they told us, there may be greater chances of such a settlement than hitherto thought, even though many qualifications and questions remain.

Some of what we were told was truly striking. Firstly, all the people we talked to said the Taliban leadership was prepared to break with al-Qa'ida and exclude it from areas of Afghanistan under Taliban control. They all stressed the anger of Taliban members at the way in which al-Qa'ida had brought disaster on them in 2001, and they all said the hopes and plans of the Taliban was confined to Afghanistan and did not include an international jihad.

They all said the Taliban were prepared to accept the main points of the Afghan constitution, although only if endorsed by a new national assembly. And they all said the Taliban leaders recognise they will not be able to exercise the same autocratic power as before 9/11, and will not only have to share power with other groups, but will have to recognise the necessary role of modern, educated technocrats in government.

Partly in consequence, they said the Taliban would not seek to overturn the elements of a modern education system created in Afghanistan since 2001, and would accept higher education for women, although only if this were separate from education for men.

Finally — and astonishingly — most, although not all, said the Taliban would even accept the continued presence of US military bases and advisers, at least until the present agreement with the Afghan government on this issue runs out in 2024.

But they added a number of serious qualifications. First of all, they all said the Taliban would concede nothing in advance, and nothing that looked like surrender. Everything would have to be agreed as part of a comprehensive settlement. And while they would enter into power-sharing agreements with other political and ethnic groups, there were a number of former warlords in the present administration with whom they categorically refuse to deal.

The Taliban were prepared to take part in a new constitutional convention leading to future elections, but they absolutely refused to do so under the presidency of Karzai, whom they insisted would have to be replaced by a caretaker government made up of ''neutral and respected Muslim figures''.

To these qualifications, immense additional questions need to be added. First of all, did our interlocutors really reflect thinking in the Taliban leadership? On the whole, the evidence seems to be that a consensus on these lines may be emerging in the Taliban political committee, but the military committee may be taking a considerably harder line.

Secondly, would the rank and file accept a settlement along these lines? Our interlocutors all said that an order from Mullah Omar would be obeyed, but they fell silent when we asked if the Haqqani network would follow suit. We asked what would happen if al-Qa'ida elements remained in Afghanistan. Could the Taliban possibly accept continued raids and drone strikes by US forces based in Afghanistan?

Finally, if what we were told is true, what explains this new Taliban pragmatism? Firstly, we were told, the Taliban leaders recognise that in the face of strong opposition backed by US firepower, a complete victory in Afghanistan is not possible for them — the most they can do is gain control of the south and east. Secondly, the Taliban wants a united and centralised Afghanistan with a key role for itself.

It fears a return to the warlordism and civil war of the 1990s, and may even be prepared to accept US help to prevent that, especially because they deeply fear the meddling of Pakistan and Iran. And they may — this is a theory of my own — have noticed the confirmed reports of huge mineral and energy reserves in Afghanistan, and see that if the Afghan state can be held together, it will in future have control of resources no Afghan rulers have possessed for more than 200 years.

Potential benefits on this scale can be a pretty huge impetus to pragmatism, and support the argument that with all due caution, the possibility of such a settlement is at least worth exploring.