Talking to the Enemy: How German Diplomats Opened Channel to Taliban

By Christoph Reuter, and Holger Stark

Part 2: A Reputation for Keeping His Word

Photo Gallery: Secret Talks with the Taliban Photos
AFP

Agha is a calm and levelheaded negotiating partner, a Pashtun with a reputation for keeping his word. The meeting with Mützelburg took place in the neutral terrain of the Persian Gulf, easily reachable from both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In April 2010, Mützelburg was succeeded as Germany's special envoy to Afghanistan by Michael Steiner. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had given her blessing to talks with the Taliban, as had President Obama. The White House agreed to guarantee Agha's security, a condition without which he would likely not have agreed to the meetings, given the substantial risk of being arrested en route and flown to Guantanamo.

In Washington, Richard Holbrooke, Obama's then special envoy for Afghanistan, coordinated the negotiations. However, with his determination to head possible talks with the Taliban, he alienated many government advisers who were opposed to dialogue of any kind solely for this reason. Shamila Chaudhary, the former National Security Council Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan, argues that, because Holbrooke wasn't able to become secretary of state, he wanted to singlehandedly broker peace in the region, as he had done in the Balkans.

Tense Mood

The communication between Agha and the Berlin brokers was handled through intermediaries, without the use of mobile phones or email, so that no one could determine the whereabouts of the insurgents' representative. Agha proved that he was indeed in contact with the Islamist group's leadership by posting a pre-arranged message on a website attributed to the Taliban.

The mood was reportedly extremely tense when he and the Americans met for the first time in November 2010. The Americans were very aware of a 2009 incident in the eastern Afghan city of Khost, when a supposed CIA informant detonated an explosive belt, killing himself and seven CIA agents. But the BND guaranteed that nothing would go wrong in Munich.

The American delegation consisted of diplomats from the State Department and intelligence officials. Agha was accompanied by two of his closest associates. The meeting was "a breakthrough," according to sources in Washington. In May 2011, the German government hosted another meeting in Munich.

The German government has now acquired experience with negotiations between mortal enemies, a process that consists of many small steps. Agha took one of these steps last summer, when he helped the Americans in the case of Bowe Bergdahl.

Possible Deal

Bergdahl, 25, is an American GI who disappeared, under circumstances which are unclear, from his post in Afghanistan's Paktika province in June 2009. He left his weapon, protective vest and radios behind. In a video later released by the Taliban, he said that he had been kidnapped.

Last summer, Agha provided the Americans with a sign that Bergdahl was still alive, while simultaneously demonstrating that he has access to the senior Taliban leaders who are allegedly holding Bergdahl. Under a deal which is currently being worked out, the GI could be exchanged for five senior Taliban officials being held in Guantanamo.

They include two former provincial governors, the former intelligence agent Abdul Haq Wasiq, and Mohammed Fazl, who was deputy defense minister in the former Taliban regime.

Agha supplied the list of names. Under the proposed agreement, the prisoners will be placed under house arrest in the Qatari capital Doha, where they will be taken care of by the Red Cross. It is still unclear whether the exchange will actually take place. It is a potentially risky move for the Obama administration, because it could provide the Republicans with ammunition against the Democrats in an election year. Obama is hesitating, but without the exchange there will be no political negotiations, despite the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar.

The president's problem is that the US public still perceives the Taliban as a terrorist group. The Republicans are openly rebelling against any approach to negotiations. Senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Intelligence, warns against talks with "terrorists," while presidential candidate Mitt Romney accuses Obama of having a "foreign policy of appeasement."

Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser to the late Richard Holbrooke who is now a professor of political science at Tufts University, holds a different view. "We're going to leave Afghanistan, so it's better to help negotiate an agreement with the Afghan Taliban that would make our exit easier" and help stabilize the country "after we leave," Nasr said in an interview with the Bloomberg news agency.

Political Balancing Act

But stumbling blocks remain. What role will President Karzai, the Iranians and, most importantly, Pakistan play? The Americans practically had to force Karzai to agree to the opening of the Taliban office, given Mullah Omar's obvious intent to boycott the current Afghan president. But Karzai is demanding that whatever happens now, it must be subject to his administration's control. That is an illusion.

The Iranian leadership, which recently signed a defense pact with Kabul, also wants to play a stronger role in Afghanistan and is seeking contact with the Taliban, despite having almost gone to war against Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 1998. Senior military leaders in Pakistan will also do what they can to keep the Taliban under control.

A lot of time will pass before negotiations with the group produce results. It is a political balancing act that "is more likely to take years than months," say officials in Washington and Berlin.

For now, however, the fighting goes on in Afghanistan. Washington insists on continuing its "kill-or-capture" operations, which have claimed the lives of thousands of Taliban fighters in recent years.

Mullah Omar's fighters are unlikely to behave any differently.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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