Have Taliban arrests undermined peace talks?

31 March 2010

The recent arrests of senior Taliban figures in Pakistan, which UN officials have said undermine Afghanistan peace talks, reveal a confused US strategy in Afghanistan.

Deutsche Welle: In an interview with the BBC, the UN's former envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, has criticized Pakistan's recent arrests of high-ranking Taliban leaders, including Mullah Baradar, saying they have undermined efforts to hold talks with the Taliban. What is your take on this?

Well, I can’t see this in the case that Kai Eide has mentioned because obviously it took quite a while of applying pressure on Pakistan to be stricter and to be more repressive with some of the elements of the Taliban, which it has now become.

Some elements in Pakistan obviously are still trying to utilize the Taliban as a bargaining chip and to follow some goals in Afghanistan but in this case I can’t really see that that has happened.

US officials hailed the latest arrests in Pakistan. There were also reports that the arrest of Mullah Baradar was the result of a joint operation with American intelligence officials. Is there a rift between the US and Pakistan on the one hand and Afghanistan on the other when it comes to how to deal with the Taliban?

That’s exactly what I meant. Some of the arrests have been done with the cooperation of the CIA and of the American government so it doesn’t really make any sense to criticize Pakistan on this account without criticizing the US government as well, which Eide and others haven’t really tried to do.

What we really have here is a contradiction on how to deal with the Taliban. Obviously, because of the crisis in Afghanistan, the deteriorated security situation and all the talk of a new strategy in Afghanistan, there is a tendency to bring some Taliban to the negotiating table.

On the other hand, the new strategy, which is being pursued by the new Obama government and which seems to have been accepted by most parts of the international community, is also trying to marginalize and repress the Taliban leadership.

This contradiction has to be resolved before we accuse one government or the other of subverting a strategy, as long as it is not clear what the strategy really is here.

Kai Eide also admitted in his interview with the BBC that his team had met senior Taliban leaders several times since last spring. Why is the UN getting involved in negotiations?

I really think it’s a situation where they’re getting involved by default because NATO is a bit cautious – we know from Washington and  from Brussels that the idea of dealing with the Taliban is getting stronger even in military and in NATO circles, but it’s very difficult for these players to get involved.

So shifting this kind of opening to more civilian and international organizations like the United Nations seems to be a way around that – at least in the preparation stage.

But we shouldn’t forget that the new US strategy, in principle, is promising to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in the middle of next year.

And this can’t work with just repression and military tools – it will only work if you really can get the insurgents and the opposition to cooperate. My impression is that the United Nations are slowly trying to fill a gap, which other countries can’t fill.