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Today's Top News
Revealed: UN in Secret Peace Talks with Taliban
Kabul envoy met top commanders in Dubai this month to discuss terms
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.