Talking to the Enemy
How German Diplomats Opened Channel to Taliban
After months of secret negotiations, the Taliban are opening a political office in Qatar, a first step toward peace talks between the US and the group. The breakthrough was largely due to painstaking German diplomacy. But it could be years before the initiative bears fruit.
The man who landed at Munich's snow-covered airport in the last weekend of November 2010 was to have as little interaction as possible with normal airport operations. He arrived in a Falcon 900EX, the three-engine official aircraft of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, after being picked up in the Persian Gulf. German officials then took him to accommodations prepared by the BND.
Normally the man, Tayyab Agha, would likely have been arrested as a terrorist in Germany; Agha is on an internal list of the Taliban leadership. But nothing was normal on that particular weekend. The top-secret meeting, arranged by the BND and the German Foreign Ministry, was a political first. It marked the beginning of talks between the Taliban and the United States government, which had sent its own delegation to Munich.
Now, more than 13 months later, it is clear that the negotiations were successful. Last Tuesday, the Taliban announced plans to open a liaison office in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. The office, as spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid explained in a statement posted on the Internet, will be "a political office for negotiations."
An office in Qatar? It doesn't exactly sound earthshaking. Nevertheless, it sends the message that all sides have agreed to the commencement of peace negotiations involving the Taliban, the government in Kabul and the forces stationed in Afghanistan. It also signals that the Taliban are now stepping onto the global stage, even if their office does not enjoy the status of a diplomatic mission.
Talking to Their Enemies
Now, in January 2012, a significant change is coming to a conflict that once seemed intractable: The Americans will talk to their mortal enemies. These are the men who are to blame for the deaths of 1,783 American and almost 990 non-American soldiers in the international Afghanistan mission -- and who still provide support to the al-Qaida terror network.
The goal of the talks is to provide Afghanistan with a political outlook for the period following the withdrawal of Western troops in 2014. Everything seems possible, even the inclusion of the Taliban in a government of national unity.
The leadership, headed by Mullah Omar, has even indicated that it could agree to one of the West's central conditions: that it part ways with al-Qaida and renounce international terrorism. This would be a signal that would enable Western governments to sell the Afghanistan mission as a political success after all.
As a presidential candidate, current US President Barack Obama promised that he would talk with America's "enemies." Now Vice President Joe Biden has even said: "The Taliban per se is not our enemy" -- a remark its leadership had suggested as an initial confidence-building measure.
Tough Search for Reliable Partners
But what prompted the Taliban to open the door to talks with the Americans, contrary to all vows not to negotiate with the West until after the withdrawal of foreign troops? In essence, says an Afghan with close ties to the Quetta Shura, the top leaders of the Afghan Taliban linked with Mullah Omar, it was the Taliban leadership's belief the Americans could be convinced to withdraw completely, and that the best way to achieve this is through negotiation. But, says the Afghan, "if there is no withdrawal in the end, then there will be no agreement either."
Apparently, the Taliban also sense that even a victory in their campaign against the current regime in Afghanistan could be disastrous for them. They would be able to assume power in Kabul, but if Afghanistan was broke, cut off from the rest of the world and treated as a pariah state once again, they would have achieved little. This was already the case before the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, when the only countries that recognized the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" were Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. Even the Taliban realize that without billions in foreign aid, Afghanistan would be on the verge of collapse after 2014.
For the Americans, finding reputable negotiating partners among Mullah Omar's men was the toughest nut to crack. Afghans had already offered their services as emissaries. But some were already removed from circulation in Pakistan, like the Taliban's second-in-command Mullah Baradar in early 2010, who took it upon himself to negotiate with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- and was promptly arrested. Others turned out to be frauds, like the presumed shop owner from the Pakistani city of Quetta, who spent several months in Kabul in 2010, claiming he was Mullah Omar's representative, only to disappear with the six-figure goodwill payment he had been given.
Other "emissaries" killed their negotiating partners in suicide bomb attacks, like the two men who assassinated former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chairman of the High Peace Council, in his house in Kabul in September 2011.
Testing the Waters
Tayyab Agha, on the other hand, was quickly recognized as a reliable man. For the German government, discovering him was one of the rare moments of successful international diplomacy. For the second time within a few months, following the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, Germany is serving as a global intermediary.
In late 2009, an Afghan exile living in Europe contacted the BND, saying that he could put the agency in touch with the Taliban leadership. He wanted to know if the Germans were interested.
In the summer of 2005, the BND had already tested the waters to see if there was a basis for talks with the insurgents. The Germans put up two Taliban representatives in a Zürich hotel, but the talks failed because Mullah Omar refused to distance himself from al-Qaida.
This time the BND handled only the logistics, and let the Foreign Ministry lead the diplomatic efforts. In the spring of 2010, Bernd Mützelburg, Germany's special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, met for the first time the man who was to represent the Taliban and Mullah Omar: Tayyab Agha.
* Christoph Reuter, Gregor Peter Schmitz and Holger Stark