By Graeme Smith
The Globe and Mail
Thursday 01 May 2008
After years of refusing to negotiate with insurgents, soldiers in Kandahar put word out they want to talk.
Khenjakak, Afghanistan - Canadian troops are reaching out to the Taliban for the first time, military and diplomatic officials say, as Canada softens its ban on speaking with the insurgents.
After years of rejecting any contact with the insurgents, Canadian officials say those involved with the mission are now rethinking the policy in hopes of helping peace efforts led by the Afghan government.
The Canadian work on political solutions follows two separate tracks: tactical discussions at a local level in Kandahar, and strategic talks through the Kabul government and its allies. Neither type of negotiation appears to have made progress so far, though efforts are still in the early stages.
In Kabul, the topic is under discussion within the Afghan government and among members of the Policy Action Group, a high-level committee that includes Canada, as major international players try to find agreement among themselves about so-called "red lines," or parameters for talks with top Taliban commanders.
President Hamid Karzai has called for peace talks with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but there is heated debate about how such dialogue might affect Afghanistan's constitution, laws and state structure. The Taliban have called for strict Islamic laws, for instance, and insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has suggested a rewriting of the constitution. Some participants in the discussions are even suggesting Taliban leaders should be given political posts, or control over districts or provinces, though this is fiercely contested.
The United States is said to want to maintain an ability to continue military operations in Afghanistan, which it views as crucial to the fight against al-Qaeda and other extremists.
In Kandahar, the Canadian military seems to be moving cautiously toward smaller, more localized talks with insurgents.
"I'm going to try something new," said Sergeant Tim Seeley, a civil-military co-operation officer for Canada's Provincial Reconstruction Team, taking off his helmet to speak with a small group of villagers during a visit last week to Khenjakak, a cluster of mud homes about 15 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city.
The village has been a notorious hideout for insurgents, and Sgt. Seeley suggested that the local elders should pass a message to the Taliban.
"Maybe we could set up a meeting to talk," the sergeant said, speaking slowly for the sake of his translator. He gestured toward the commander of the Afghan National Army battalion responsible for the district, Lieutenant-Colonel Mirwan Anwar, and then pointed at his own uniform, with the round ISAF badge on his sleeve that indicates Canada's membership in the International Security Assistance Force.
"ANA, maybe ISAF and Taliban, no guns, just talk," Sgt. Seeley said.
"Talking is the best way to solve problems. Do you think the Taliban would ever talk with us?"
A white-bearded man in grubby brown clothes squinted up at the Canadian soldier skeptically. Like many villagers in areas where the Taliban have a strong influence, he was eager to persuade the soldiers that his area did not contain insurgents.
"No Taliban here! No Taliban here!" the old man shouted.
"Yes, but next time the Taliban visit you, maybe you could ask them," the sergeant said. "Our real brothers in the Taliban will be willing to sit down and talk, instead of fighting."
Such gestures of openness are common practice among some of Canada's allies in southern Afghanistan, notably the Dutch, who make talking to the Taliban a formal part of their counterinsurgency strategy.
But Canadian politicians and military commanders have flatly refused to contemplate such talks until recently, saying negotiations are an issue only for the Afghan government.
"I don't talk to the Taliban," Brigadier-General Guy Laroche, Canada's top commander in Afghanistan, told The Canadian Press in August.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay supported that position in a September appearance on CBC's As It Happens: "We don't talk or negotiate with terrorists," he said.
When asked whether that prohibition included talking with the Taliban, Mr. MacKay replied, "That's correct."
But the new commander of Canada's battle group, Lt.-Col, Gordon Corbould, nodded enthusiastically when he heard a description of the scene in Khenjakak, saying he endorses localized talks with the Taliban, led by Afghan authorities and supported by the Canadians.
"That's out-of-the-box thinking at the tactical level, which I think is brilliant," Col. Corbould said. "You need to make these Taliban understand that we're not the devil. I think it's a great idea, at the tactical level."
Creative tactics for negotiating with Taliban have not always been rewarded, however. Two senior diplomats for the United Nations were expelled from the country in recent months, accused by the Afghan government of unauthorized dealings with insurgents in Helmand province.
But Col. Corbould emphasized that his soldiers are only supporting the local representative of the Afghan government, Panjwai district leader Haji Shah Baran, who has expressed a desire for outreach to ordinary Taliban fighters.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Baran said he's pleased at the help he's getting from Canadian troops, and described his goals for Taliban talks in modest terms. Sitting down for discussions won't likely bring peace to the war-torn district, he said, but some young fighters might be persuaded to put down their weapons and find other employment.
"We don't plan to talk with the big Taliban leaders," Mr. Baran said.
"But maybe we can make a shura [council], sit with the elders and tell them to separate their boys from the fighting groups."
The Afghan government has been trying for years to persuade Taliban fighters to put down their weapons, through a program called Peace Through Strength. But officials from the PTS program say it has suffered from a lack of funding and credibility, partly because it does not have direct support from the international military forces.
Canadian military officials have also expressed concern that PTS gives amnesty to Taliban figures who continue to work for the insurgency.
Ottawa still has not formally decided how, or whether, to get involved with Taliban talks, an official said. United Nations resolutions require Canada and other countries to avoid supporting terrorist groups, including the Taliban, but the resolutions do not forbid talking with those groups, and other countries have already cut deals with individual Taliban figures to bring them over to the government side.
Whether talks produce any deals, Col. Corbould said, it can't hurt to expand those existing contacts with the insurgents.
"Why not?" he said. "Observe, collect, consult. The more we know about them, the better."
There's little agreement among those with a stake in Afghanistan about whether to negotiate with the Taliban, and if so how to go about it. These are some of the positions.
Afghanistan: The government, which has had a series of secret talks with the "moderate Taliban" since 2003, insists that the Taliban must first surrender completely, disavow armed insurrection and accept the foreign presence before entering formal negotiations.
Taliban: Last year, a spokesman for the Taliban said leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has approved demands for negotiations, including control of 10 southern provinces, a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign troops, and the release of all Taliban prisoners in six months. Not all the fighters are on board, however, with some saying they'll never negotiate.
Pakistan: The newly elected government quickly began negotiations with Taliban groups in that country, and could act as a trusted host for any negotiations among the Kabul government, NATO and the Afghan Taliban.
United States: Officially, the United States is strongly against any negotiations with the Taliban. But Kurt Volker the deputy head of the European and Eurasian Affairs office at the U.S. State Department, said Washington welcomed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's bid to sit down with radical Afghan groups, as long as they rejected violence.
Britain: Although Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Parliament, "We will not enter into negotiations with these people," his Defence Secretary, Des Browne, said in March that Britain and other democratic states should negotiate with elements of the Taliban, among other extremist groups, to prevent the long-term spread of terrorism. It's been reported that MI-6, Britain's external security service, has already held secret talks with the Taliban. At the local level, the British cut a deal, appointing a former Taliban leader as district chief of Musa Qala in Helmand province in exchange for security guarantees.
Netherlands: Although the Dutch are reluctant to go into details, negotiating with the Taliban is an explicit part of Dutch military policy in Afghanistan. Talks are usually held through the provincial governor.
Germany: The government is officially against negotiations, but some members of the governing coalition have suggested Berlin host talks with the Taliban.
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