AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 34/2007

Taliban Talks Secret Negotiations with the Islamists Proved Fruitless

To negotiate with the Taliban or not? That is the question being discussed in Germany this autumn. But as it happens, the talks already took place -- two years ago in Zürich.

By and


A Taliban training camp in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
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A Taliban training camp in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

A small welcoming committee was waiting for the two Afghans, arriving from Karachi, when they landed at Zürich airport. Agents from Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND) received the men at the gate and immediately bundled them into a limousine for the five-minute drive to the Hilton Airport Hotel. The two robed Muslims were welcome in Zürich, but secrecy was a top priority. The guests had to use a service entrance at the hotel -- and the BND had reserved a suite on the sixth floor under an assumed name.

Just who the Afghan visitors were has remained a carefully guarded secret to this day. But the reason for the discretion is clear: The men, who visited in Zürich in July of 2005, were delegates from the Taliban, a group allied with al-Qaida and which regularly plants bombs in Afghanistan, targeting US citizens and soldiers, and sometimes Germans. On Wednesday of last week, three German policemen were killed by an anti-tank mine buried by the side of a road. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack, but it remains unclear whether it was directed at the Germans or at a platoon of US troops traveling along the same road.

The sensitive question as to whether or not the German government should begin a dialogue with the group -- considered a terrorist organization by the United Nations -- is currently nagging politicians in Berlin. The country's official policy is unequivocal: no contact with terrorists is allowed. Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives (CDU) have been particularly clear on this point.

'Moderate, Reasonable Taliban'

Like last week. Thomas Steg, deputy government spokesman and a member of the Social Democrat Party (SPD), made a careful remark saying that the issue was that of getting "moderate, reasonable Taliban who are interested in reconstruction and reconciliation" to commit to the peace process. The conservatives promptly intervened.

Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs Ruprecht Polenz (CDU) warned that such suggestions could "undermine the moral basis for German and international engagement in Afghanistan." Karl-Theodor zu Gutenberg, a conservative foreign policy expert from the Christian Social Union -- the CDU's Bavarian sister party -- remarked mockingly that, aside from Steg and SPD party leader Kurt Beck aside, he knows "no one who has ever met a 'reasonable Taliban.'" Germany's conservatives reacted similarly in April, when Beck pondered the participation of "moderate Taliban" at a new peace conference.

The SPD, on the other hand, cites studies such as one by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), which cautiously suggests there may be hope of creating rifts within the amorphous, decentralized Taliban.

The SWP's Afghanistan experts have identified a hard core of ideologically and religiously schooled mujahedeen leaders surrounding Taliban leader Mullah Omar. This hard core is surrounded by a second circle of Taliban, consisting of indoctrinated students from religious schools in Pakistan and foreign sympathizers. But the periphery consists of militants from Pashtun tribes and other groups that fight as paid mercenaries against US troops. The gangsters who kidnapped German engineer Rudolf B. five weeks ago and have since been trying to obtain a ransom for him probably come from this layer.

Talking with the Taliban

Such "local, non-ideological agents of the insurrection" could at least be integrated into the reconstruction process, according to the SWP study. Volker Perthes, director of SWP, believes that, given the current situation, "there will be no way around negotiating with parts of the Taliban" at some point. He is backed by high-ranking German military officials, one of whom takes a particularly sober view of the situation: "When you go to a party, you just have to dance with whatever gals are there," he says.

The Zürich talks in July of 2005 -- which officially never happened -- are instructive in this regard. Under the supervision of then BND director August Hanning, contact with the Taliban was established via a middleman in Afghanistan. Two Taliban from what the intelligence agents call the "middle management" were selected: a stocky, impulsive man nicknamed "the commander" and said to already have fought the Soviets under Mullah Omar; and a younger, more reserved Afghan who acted as an advisor. Both allegedly belong to the circle of people around the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's council of leaders.

Getting the two visas proved easy enough. The lower right leg of the "commander" had been amputated following a battle injury, leading agents to invent a plausible story. The "commander" told visa authorities he had lost his leg in a traffic accident and that he and his companion were now "on their way to a special clinic." The orthopaedics department of Zürich's Balgrist University Hospital is considered one of the top addresses for prosthetics.

The BND is probably the only German agency capable of manoeuvring in such a sensitive gray zone. The foreign intelligence agency has already negotiated with Hezbollah and the Khmer Rouge, and it does not shy away from contacting murderers and rogue states when that seems helpful. The secret meeting in Zürich, which was coordinated with the chancellery in Berlin, took place on neutral territory in Switzerland for good reasons. It was important not to create the impression that the government was negotiating officially. It was a question of learning more about the Taliban without officially embracing them.

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