By KATHY GANNON | Associated Press
ISLAMABAD (AP) — Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders agreed they wanted a deal with the United States, but some were in more of a hurry than others.
Taliban negotiators were at odds with their Council of Leaders, or shura, about whether to travel to Camp David even before President Donald Trump abruptly canceled the high-stakes meeting planned for last weekend .
According to Taliban officials familiar with the discussions, the shura opposed the trip to Camp David and chastised the negotiators who were eager to attend.
The Taliban have been holding talks with the U.S. for over a year in the Qatari capital, Doha, where the militant Islamic movement maintains a political office under the banner of The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Doha office, told the Taliban Al-Emarah website on Tuesday that U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had invited Taliban negotiators to Camp David in late August.
The Taliban accepted, only to delay, demanding the deal be announced first by Qatar. They also wanted a signing ceremony witnessed by the foreign ministers of several countries, including Pakistan, Russia and China. The delay followed the shura’s rejection and admonishment of its negotiators.
This wasn’t the first disagreement between the negotiators and the shura, according to Taliban sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of they were not authorized to discuss internal debates with reporters.
Several months earlier, the shura opposed an offer by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the chief negotiator and co-founder of the Taliban, to give the Americans 14 months to withdraw their roughly 14,000 troops from Afghanistan. The shura let Baradar know it wasn’t on board with the timeline and that he could not make decisions independent of the shura.
Still, several Taliban officials familiar with both the negotiating team and the shura said that while opinions differed, the Taliban leadership debated every article of the agreement and the negotiating team either got the shura to agree or bowed to its decisions.
“What’s striking is how the Taliban mobilized at the highest levels to support negotiations with the U.S.,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “Senior Taliban officials didn’t only endorse the talks; they helped lead them.”
“This suggests that Washington would have trouble exploiting fractures within the Taliban in an effort to strengthen its hand in negotiations,” he said. “There may be divisions within the Taliban, but they presented a relatively common front in the negotiating process. That’s more than one can say for the Afghan government, or even the Trump administration.”
Baradar, the lead negotiator and believed to be the most influential of the Taliban interlocutors, has been pushing a peace deal in Afghanistan even before the U.S. was willing to enter talks. As far back as 2010, he had secretly opened peace talks with Afghanistan’s then-president, Hamid Karzai. When neighboring Pakistan found out, Baradar was arrested in a raid jointly carried out with the CIA. He spent eight years in a Pakistani jail — punishment for trying to sideline Islamabad in peace talks.
Karzai previously told The Associated Press he asked both Pakistan and the U.S. on at least two occasions to release Baradar, but was turned down. The first secret contacts between the Taliban and the U.S., aimed at finding a way to talk, reportedly did not occur until 2013.
Even as Washington seeks an exit to its longest war, the Taliban are at their strongest since their ouster in 2001 and hold sway over more than half the country, staging near-daily, deadly attacks across Afghanistan.
Khalilzad’s year-long peace mission has been Washington’s most dedicated push for peace, focusing not just on the Taliban, Afghanistan’s government and prominent Afghan powerbrokers but also on its neighbors, who are often blamed for outright interference in Afghanistan.
The meddlers include Pakistan and Russia, accused of aiding the Taliban against Islamic State insurgents with deep connections to Central Asia, and also Iran, which has trained Afghan fighters known as the Fatimayoun Brigade that fought alongside Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Syria.
“One of my concerns is that if the talks don’t start up again soon, the tremendous progress that Zal (Khalilzad) made in generating a strong … regional consensus for peace in Afghanistan could dissipate, and (Afghanistan’s neighbors could) revert to destabilizing, hedging behavior,” warned Andrew Wilder, Asia Programs’ vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
“If Pakistan feels the U.S. is going to precipitously withdraw troops during the next year … Pakistan may decide that it’s more important than ever to support a proxy like the Taliban to protect Pakistan’s perceived interests in Afghanistan,” which would be to keep India’s influence to a minimum, said Wilder.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have been unapologetic about their relentless attacks that have killed scores of civilians — and which have been blamed for the talks’ collapse.
Trump claimed earlier this week that the Taliban had later expressed regret.
Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Doha, seemed anything but repentant. He argued that the U.S. has also continued its military campaign in parallel to the peace talks, adding that “there was no cease-fire and the agreement was not signed.”
Despite the posturing, it appears the two sides are still talking, even if it is just to ask the other what it all means.
“We have contacted them (U.S. officials) and they too have approached us,” Shaheen said. “We have sought formal clarification from them about Trump’s decision. We are hopeful of a response and are waiting for their response.”
The U.S. still wants its troops out of Afghanistan. Even as Trump declared talks with the Taliban “dead,” he said American troops have become policemen in Afghanistan and that’s not their job. He said the Afghan administration has to “step up” and take on that role.
“The Taliban are in a good place right now,” said Kugelman. “They’ll remain open to renegotiating a troop withdrawal deal with the U.S. in the future, but unlike the U.S. they’re in no rush to get one.”