Revealed: UN in Secret Peace Talks with Taliban

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The Guardian/UK

Revealed: UN in Secret Peace Talks with Taliban

Kabul envoy met top commanders in Dubai this month to discuss terms

by
Julian Borger

Taliban fighters in a Madrassa compound near the northern city of Kundoz in Afghanistan.

Taliban commanders held secret exploratory talks with a United Nations special envoy this month to discuss peace terms, it emerged tonight.

Regional
commanders on the Taliban's leadership council, the Quetta Shura,
sought a meeting with the UN special representative in Afghanistan,
Kai Eide, and it took place in Dubai on 8 January. "They requested a
meeting to talk about talks. They want protection, to be able to come
out in public. They don't want to vanish into places like Bagram," the
Reuters news agency quoted a UN official as saying, referring to the
Bagram detention centre at a US military base outside Kabul.

The
Dubai meeting was confirmed to the Guardian by officials with knowledge
of the encounter, but they said they could provide no further details.

It
was the first such meeting between the UN and senior members of the
Taliban. The fact that it took place suggests that peace talks have
revived since exploratory contacts between emissaries of the Kabul
government and the Taliban in Saudi Arabia last year broke down.

It
also suggests that some Taliban members might be prepared for the first
time to put faith in an international organisation to broker a deal to
end the nine-year war.

News of the Dubai meeting surfaced at the
end of a day-long conference in London intended to map out a transition
over five years from a Nato-led military campaign to Afghan-led effort
involving more political, social and economic measures to end the
fighting.

As part of the transition, Afghan forces are due to
take lead responsibility for security in a handful of provinces by the
end of this year, assume the lead in the most violent regions within
three years, and take overall responsibility for security across the
country in five years. If successful, the transition would pave the way
for the withdrawal of foreign forces.

An official statement from
the Taliban leadership in response to today's conference warned that
"attempts by the enemy to bribe the mujahideen, offering them money and
employment to abandon jihad, are futile". However, it added what
appeared to be a conciliatory note, saying that it was waging a jihad
only to "liberate" Afghan territory and posed "no threat to
neighbouring countries or anyone else".

Although an important
development, it was unclear how significant a faction Eide had met in
Dubai or how serious they were. A western official confirmed that there
were indications of splits in the Taliban over the prospect of a
settlement.

"We believe there are mid-level commanders tired of
fighting and who have realised neither side is going to win," the
official said. "There is a younger generation of Taliban commanders who
believe it was a colossal mistake to side with the Arabs [in al-Qaida].
In fact the vote at the shura [meeting] in Kandahar in 2001 was only
narrowly in favour of sticking with the Arabs."

The western
official said: "This 'new Taliban' is not that much more extreme than
some of the people in government. They could be willing to compromise
on some issues, like women's rights, girls education, even watching
telly perhaps."

At today's London conference, President Hamid
Karzai declared: "We must reach out to all of our countrymen,
especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al-Qaida, or
other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution."

The
Afghan government pledged to hold a peace council, loya jirga, in the
next few weeks, to which village elders from across the country,
including some known to have Taliban ties, would be invited.

Speaking
at the end of the conference, the US secretary of state, Hillary
Clinton, signalled that the US was ready to accept talks. "The starting
premise is you don't make peace with your friends. You have to be able
to engage with your enemies," Clinton said.

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