Efforts to draw the Taliban into a peace process to prevent Afghanistan from collapsing into civil war after NATO troops pull out in 2014 will take a small, but potentially significant, step forward in France this week.
Under the auspices of a French think-tank, two senior Taliban officials will sit down for informal talks on the war-ravaged country’s future with the government and other opposition forces, including the Northern Alliance.
The Taliban ran Afghanistan as an Islamic emirate from 1996 to 2001. It will be the first time they have taken part in a round-table of this kind since being overthrown by U.S.-backed opponents in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York.
They have emphasized that it should not be seen as any kind of negotiation with the government of President Hamid Karzai, whom they regard as a corrupt puppet of the United States.
“We want the world community to listen to our goals,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP. “But we must clarify that no negotiations with anyone are involved.”
But the insurgents are sending senior figures Shahabuddin Dilawar and Naeem Wardak to France. And that appears to support the view of many Afghan experts that they are looking for a way into negotiations on the country’s post-2014 make-up, which could eventually facilitate a ceasefire in the 11-year-old war.
Karzai’s government will be represented by members of its High Peace Council. One of them, former Kabul governor Din Mohammad, told AFP that there could be informal bilateral talks with the Taliban on the sidelines of the conference.
Ahmad Zia Massoud, the head of the National United Front, the main party in the Northern Alliance that was the main opposition to the Taliban when they were in power, also underlined the significance of the Taliban’s involvement.
“We are witnessing a new generation, every one of us has new thinking,” he said. “This new generation does not believe in war.
“We seek an understanding between us and the Taliban, to know their views and thinking and pave the way to reach peace in Afghanistan.”
A study by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute published in September concluded that a “pragmatic” section of the Taliban is ready to do a deal under which it would agree a ceasefire in return for a power-sharing agreement post-2014.
“They can see the consequences of getting this wrong for them is that they will bear responsibility for plunging Afghanistan into another round of civil war post-2014,” said Michael Semple, one of the authors of the report.
This week’s talks will take place at an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Paris. They are the third in a series organized by France’s Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) with the support of the foreign ministry - but the first at which the Taliban has been properly represented.
“Officially, all the participants will be here in a personal capacity,” said FRS director Camille Grand. “The goal is to get them round a table and get them talking. Being away from Afghanistan should make it easier to have a discussion.”
The efforts to engage the Taliban politically reflect a growing consensus within NATO: that a military victory in Afghanistan has not materialized and so the Islamists have to be involved for any political settlement to have a chance of succeeding.
The U.S. has already signaled its willingness to talk to the Taliban, having started secret talks last year. They broke down in March over the organization of a proposed prisoner exchange.