A ray of hope was raised in the last month of 2018 for peace in Afghanistan. This ray of hope can become a beacon of light in 2019 if the US and Afghan Taliban make a breakthrough in the second round of their direct peace talks to be held in Saudi Arabia in the first month of the new year. US officials are trying their best to include the Kabul government in the peace talks but Afghan Taliban are not ready to talk with them even in Saudi Arabia.
It was unbelievable a decade ago that US can talk to Afghan Taliban but now US officials are not only talking to Taliban but some American and Western experts are ready to engage al-Qaeda in peace talks. Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden predicted talks between Taliban and US twenty years ago. Now the next round of talks in Saudi Arabia may result in the release of some more Taliban prisoners and US will once again force Taliban to include Kabul regime in talks. Taliban are not flexible on talks with Kabul regime.
On the other side, President Ashraf Ghani made Amrullah Saleh Interior Minister who is opponent of talks with Taliban. Situation is very difficult but all stakeholders are committed to continue dialogue.
I was sitting with Osama bin Laden 20 years ago in Kandahar and confronted him on his Fatwa (Edict) about the killing of Americans. This Fatwa was published in an Arabic newspaper in 1998. It was signed by Osama bin Laden and some other Jihadist leaders. This Fatwa became an issue of debate all over the world and that’s why I reached Afghanistan to interview the head of al-Qaeda. I asked him a simple question. “How can you justify the killing of innocent non-Muslims in the light of Holy Quran?” Osama bin Laden failed to provide any justification from Islamic teachings and started talking about the American support to Israelis. He said, “Why Americans don’t stop the Israeli atrocities against Palestinians?” I told him that Palestine is a political problem and it could be resolved through political means. Why don’t you support talks between Palestinians and Israelis? He angrily rejected my suggestion and said that they always betrayed the Arabs in the name of talks.
He tolerated some of my very hard questions but gave very long answers. After more than five hours I finished my audio cassettes and told him it was not possible for me to summarise the whole conversation in one newspaper interview but may be it can become a book. He agreed for a book and promised to provide me more material for his biography. That was my second interview with Osama bin Laden. He was not a most-wanted person in 1998 and many Western publishers were ready to publish his biography. Within a few days of that interview, American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. Everybody suspected al-Qaeda for those bombings. I lost contact with him and my book was delayed.
I risked my life again after 9/11 and reached Afghanistan in the middle of US aerial bombings. I was able to interview OBL the third time in October 2001. This interview was published in Dawn. That was his last interview to any journalist. Osama bin Laden was now the most wanted person who was threatening the world by chemical and nuclear attacks but he also gave a message of truce in his last interview. He said “I ask American people to force their government to give up anti-Muslim policies like they opposed the war in Vietnam.” He said “live and let others live”.
When I asked a question about a political solution, he never rejected political solution. Mind it that he rejected that option in the 1998 interview. When we finished this interview, he asked me about the book. I told him the book needed some more time because I was doing my own research and investigation about all his claims. He started laughing and said “Americans declared us terrorists, your government supporting them in the name of war against terror but remember my words they are here for a very long humiliation they will be defeated and they will talk to terrorists”.
My interview with Osama bin Laden generated a debate in the West about the possibility of talks with al-Qaeda and Taliban. American President Bush clearly rejected this possibility and said no nation can negotiate with terrorists. I was invited to many American universities from Harvard to Berkeley. Many professors and students were very much interested to know about a possibility of talks with terrorists. I always told them that if Israelis can talk to terrorist Yasser Arafat, if South African white government can talk to a black terrorist Nelson Mandela, then the American government can at least talk to the Afghan Taliban who has no global Jehadi agenda.
In 2006, Osama bin Laden released an audio message through the Al-Jazeera television and first time made a truce offer to the Americans in clear words. He linked his offer to the pulling out of American troops from Iraq. America rejected that offer but many security experts suggested the US and United Kingdom government to start engaging both al-Qaeda and Taliban. Former MI5 head Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller publicly said America must talk to al-Qaeda. A former UN official from Norway Jan Egeland who helped broker secret talks between Israel and Yasser Arafat supported the idea of talks between al-Qaeda and Americans.
It was US president Barack Obama who finally took the initiative of engaging the Afghan Taliban in peace negotiations. He allowed the Taliban in 2013 to open their political office in Qatar despite the opposition of Kabul regime. This engagement resulted in the release of a US Marine Beaudry Robert Bergdahl from the Taliban custody and release of five Taliban prisoners from the US custody. British negotiator with Irish Republic Army (IRA) Jonathan Powell wrote a book “Talking to Terrorists “in 2014. He supported the idea of talking to both Taliban and al-Qaeda and that’s how Americans started serious efforts to reach Taliban.
President Trump nominated Zalmay Khalilzad for talking to the Taliban in 2018. Taliban is still a terrorist organisation according to UN resolutions. Zalmay Khalilzad requested the Pakistani government to arrange direct talks with the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan tried its best to help Khalilzad who was an old critic of Pakistan in the US administration. Pakistan convinced the Taliban for talks. Nobody can deny the fact that Taliban enjoy more influence and power in Afghanistan than the government of President Ashraf Ghani. Direct formal talks between the American officials and Taliban were held in the middle of December 2018 in the UAE where officials from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were also present. Why were the talks held in the UAE not Qatar? Because the US doesn’t want any indirect pressure on Taliban from Iran. These days, the leadership of Afghan Taliban is very close to Iran. Both the Taliban and Iran think that Americans are supporting ISIS (Islamic State) against them. The ISIS threat forced Iran to make an unannounced alliance with the Afghan Taliban.
On the other side, Russia also cultivated the Afghan Taliban through Iran and that was one of the reasons President Trump gave a go-ahead for direct talks with the Taliban who are still terrorists in the eyes of the UN. Taliban and Americans are killing each other in Afghanistan but they talked to each other in the UAE. There is no big breakthrough in the first round of the UAE talks. Taliban refused to meet the representatives of Kabul administration. They think that the Kabul regime always played double games with them and opposed the opening of their political office in Qatar. They refused to announce a ceasefire and demanded release of their prisoners. They want removal of Taliban leaders from a UN blacklist which inhibits their travel.
Taliban tried to give an impression that they are talking to invaders for forcing them out of Afghanistan. President Trump is desperate to make a deal with the Taliban in 2019 but his military advisers think that total withdrawal from Afghanistan in one go may create a new crises in Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad saved these talks from a collapse many times.
Now Taliban and American officials will meet again in January 2019 in Saudi Arabia. Actually the Americans want peace in Afghanistan to contain the rising Iranian influence in the region. They know that if they can make a peace deal with Taliban, then they can also engage the al-Qaeda through Taliban. Engaging al-Qaeda is also needed by Saudi Arabia but they want to do it quietly.
China is also helping and facilitating the talks between US and Taliban. China is concerned about the rising dissatisfaction among the Uighur Muslims who are in contact with the al-Qaeda since long.
Russia is also eyeing the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. This withdrawal will be their quiet revenge from Americans because it will be considered a victory of Taliban. 30 years ago Russian troops announced their withdrawal from Afghanistan and it was considered a victory of America, Pakistan and Afghan resistance leaders. Now Russians want a defeat of Americans by using the Taliban. All regional powers must realise that peace in Afghanistan can become a victory of all sides. A face saving for everyone, it will open road and rail links from Delhi to Peshawar, from Peshawar to Kabul and Kabul to Moscow. 2019 can become a game-changer in the whole region. If Americans can broker a peace deal with Taliban, the whole South Asia and Central Asia will be the beneficiary. International community will enhance efforts to resolve the disputes of Kashmir and Palestine with the same kind of negotiations. The Afghan peace deal will become a role-model for resolving more disputes in different regions by talking to players who are terrorists for the UN but a bold initiative of talking to terrorists can stop the making of new Osama bin Ladens.