In Afghanistan, it seems that everybody these days is talking about talks with the Taliban. Since President Hamid Karzai established a peace council last month to midwife negotiations between his government and the insurgents, an avalanche of media reports have suggested that something may finally be taking shape behind the scenes. It's said that the two sides may already be having secret discussions, despite the Taliban's public stance that it won't do so until all foreign forces leave the country. U.S. officials, in turn, have expressed support for the initiative, claiming to have facilitated some of the meetings, even as American troops concurrently wage a major combat offensive across the militants' southern heartland. But no one from either camp with intimate knowledge of what's really happening has come forward with anything concrete. Is there a change in the wind, or just more hot air?
What's certain is that, with the Afghan conflict now entering it's 10th year and levels of violence at an all-time high, President Karzai is throwing what's left of his executive weight behind a political settlement that he sees as the only antidote to a failing military effort. Although sporadic, informal contacts between Afghan government and Taliban delegates abroad in recent years amounted to nothing more, many observers agree that a groundswell of international support for dialogue combined with the U.S. military's plans to begin a troop drawdown next summer has given the embattled President more traction to push for serious talks. The new peace council, composed of about 70 prominent Afghans tasked with creating a framework for any future discussions, would appear to be a solid down payment. Yet a host of sticking points on the government's side lie in the way of a possible sit-down assuming the Taliban actually are ready to go to the negotiating table.
Should the insurgents be serious, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the council's head, has said a small team would be put together to meet with them. But to some critics, the selection of Rabbani, a former President and mujahedin leader who fought against the Taliban, is an immediate obstacle to peace. A host of Afghan parliamentarians and political commentators contend that his presence alongside other warlords on the council could deter long-standing Taliban enemies from going to the table. The critics are also skeptical of how a familiar cast of well-connected strongmen will stand up for Afghans who suffered as a result of their actions during the country's brutal civil war, during which thousands of civilians were killed by competing militia factions. "Don't they know that there are up to 30 million Afghans who have a right to determine the direction of their future too? ... Let's get rid of these selfish and egotistical people who think of themselves as leaders," wrote columnist Idrees Daniel in Kabul Weekly, an English-language newspaper.
According to a study done by Thomas Ruttig, director of the Afghan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in the capital, 53 of the 70 peace-council members are associated with armed groups that fought in the country's internal conflicts, including a dozen members who held positions in the Taliban's government from 1996 to 2001. The Network does credit a subset of the former Taliban in the peace council with working to "obtain a role as pioneer thinkers on peace and reconciliation-related issues" that could become a "meaningful channel for future negotiations." Otherwise, only a small minority composed of 10 women and a couple of men is without past affiliations, an imbalance that's troubling to a host of Afghan civic organizations that fear that freedom of speech, women's rights and other hard-won advances are bound to be abridged in negotiations with the Taliban. Says Fawzia Kufi, an MP from Badakhshan province: "There must first be an agreement on the preconditions."
Yet this presupposes that all parties can find a suitable place to hold talks. Taliban representatives are reportedly said to have made security assurances should they host the talks (perhaps in Pakistan, where the intelligence agency, the ISI, is widely believed to influence the movement's leadership council in Quetta). There is also the prospect of meeting in a third country, like Saudi Arabia, scene of previous meetings between Taliban and Afghan government representatives. Peace-council members, meanwhile, insist that NATO authorities should make the necessary assurances for meetings to be held on Afghan soil. The commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, last week asserted, without giving specifics, that safe passage had already been given to Taliban leaders. "It would not be the easiest of tasks for a senior Taliban commander to enter Afghanistan and make his way to Kabul if [the coalition] were not willing and aware of it and therefore allowing it to take place," he said.
But one of the top former Taliban officials living in Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, dismissed reports of high-level talks and guarantees as propaganda meant to sow confusion, asserting that it "would be stupid to trust the Americans." The onetime envoy to Pakistan, who spent several years in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay after the Taliban's fall, explained that the stringent list of U.S. conditions (renounce violence, cut ties with al-Qaeda, respect the Afghan constitution) preclude any prospect for evenhanded talks. Indeed, he says the conditions were the reason he declined to be on the peace council. He is adamant that "powerful" foreign forces must leave the country for negotiations to begin in earnest, lest Taliban leaders feel threatened. "I know there is nothing going on between [the Afghan government and U.S.] and the Taliban," he told TIME in an interview at his Kabul home. "Why would they come when they are being targeted? There is no benefit."
Then again, although the cleric has in the past maintained phone contact with his former comrades-in-arms and still dons the telltale black turban, he no longer belongs to the movement. Asked for whom he ultimately speaks, he replied with a smile, "Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef." So far as the elusive Afghan peace talks are concerned, it's hard to take anyone's word for granted.