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Afghan National Army soldiers stand in front a building damaged during a fierce gun battle in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Friday. (Abdul Khaliq/AP2010)
Afghan National Army soldiers stand in front a building damaged during a fierce gun battle in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Friday. (Abdul Khaliq/AP2010)

War in Afghanistan

If the West reaches out, will the Taliban talk? Add to ...

Last spring, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader, issued a series of stunning directives to his fighters. One decree banned the burning of schools and the indiscriminate killing of Afghan soldiers. Young girls, said another, should be allowed to attend mosque.

The new code of conduct was meant to bolster Afghan support for the insurgency by projecting a slightly less brutal version of the Taliban's interpretation of Islam.

However, Mr. Omar's orders - contained in a booklet of 13 chapters and 67 articles - never reached his local commanders in Kandahar, or so they claim. Interviewed by a Globe and Mail researcher, one commander after another said he had never seen it.

Intentional or not, that disconnect between the Taliban's leaders and their subordinate commanders and fighters in the field highlights just one of the numerous challenges facing any effort to make peace in Afghanistan through political negotiations.

In theory, the West and the insurgency are seeking the same end to the eight-year war - the withdrawal of more than 100,000 foreign troops from Afghanistan.

However, the road between the simmering conflict in the south and a vague political solution in Kabul is fraught with obstacles. As world leaders mull a proposal to reach out to the Taliban's senior command, the most obvious one is that Mr. Omar refuses to talk.

"Mullah Omar will not speak," maintains Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who remains deeply loyal to Mr. Omar and is in constant contact with him.

A recent meeting in Dubai between Kai Eide, the outgoing UN special representative for Afghanistan, and a delegation of Taliban commanders was meant to test the waters. However, the conversation was apparently cut short because there was no common ground, said a source in Kabul familiar with the talks.

The meeting echoed other failed efforts at dialogue, such as those brokered by Saudi Arabia in 2008. Then as now, it was unclear who from the Taliban was negotiating, and whether they had the blessing of Mr. Omar.

The basic stumbling blocks remain unchanged.

"The Americans are sending more troops. The Taliban are preparing to resist. There will be no peace, no negotiations," said Mr. Zaeef during an interview with The Globe in his well-guarded compound on the western edge of Kabul.

The Taliban have never been a unified movement. Rather, they are a disparate group of fighters motivated by different reasons united against the common enemy of foreign troops, Mr. Zaeef said.

Even if Mr. Omar did agree to sit down at the table - in Riyadh, Islamabad, Dubai, or at the tribal assembly proposed by Mr. Karzai - it is not clear that a decision by the Taliban high command to support the government would erode the insurgency in the restive south.

In Kandahar and Helmand, there are signs that the battle is increasingly being fought by pockets of breakaway fighters who would rather renounce their allegiance to Mr. Omar than lay down their weapons.

"If he changes his position we will not be obedient to him," said a 35-year-old commander from Kandahar province who goes by the name of Abdul Ahmad.

Said Abdul Raziq, another commander from a different district of Kandahar: "Yes, Mullah Omar is our leader and if his orders are according to Allah, we will accept them. If his orders are against Allah's we will reject him strongly."

The prospect of insurgents striking off on their own raises the possibility that political negotiations with Mr. Omar will be meaningless.

Meanwhile, military commanders in Kandahar are loath to use the phrase "reconciliation," underscoring a lack of faith in the idea that political talks can fundamentally reshape the battle in the region.

Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard, the senior Canadian officer in Afghanistan, said proposed talks with the Taliban leadership are irrelevant to his battle strategy, which includes a spring offensive that will see Canadian and U.S. troops push out from platoon houses around Kandahar city in an attempt to drive the Taliban from the surrounding countryside.

"Reconciliation is more a political statement. … For us, it's not what we live. It has no bearing on day-to-day operations," Gen. Ménard said in an interview in his office at Kandahar Airfield.

Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Bernard, a Canadian serving with Task Force Kandahar, said it is a misconception to regard the insurgency as a single unified ideological movement.

"We're giving them too much credit by calling them Taliban. The insurgency is very complex, there are criminal elements, tribal conflicts," he explained.

Some analysts say a political solution will result not from cutting one deal with the Taliban, but from many deals with various pockets of the insurgency, with mixed prospects for success.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the founder of Hezb-e-Islami and the leader of the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan, has signalled he may be willing to reconcile with Mr. Karzai, the strongest indication yet that talks may work to defuse the escalating conflict.

"We have no agreement with the Taliban - not for fighting the war, and not for the peace," he said in a video leaked to The Wall Street Journal.

However, other insurgent leaders like Sirajuddin Haqqani, who rules the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, will likely prove less amenable.

Leaving aside questions about the fruitfulness of high-level political negotiations, a less ambitious plan to persuade rank-and-file fighters to lay down their weapons in exchange for jobs and cash presents its own problems. Insurgents may simply pocket the cash and then return to the fight, or too few of them might accept the offer to result in any real change.

According to an unclassified report by Task Force Kandahar, only 30 per cent of insurgents fight for money. The rest take up arms because of tribal allegiances or for "other reasons," an amorphous category that encompasses everything from revenge to land disputes. Just 10 per cent fight for religious reasons, according the analysis.

"There is no silver bullet," one NATO official said.

Of all the obstacles to peace in Afghanistan, the most daunting could prove to be time. Military commanders believe the insurgency peaked about six months ago, in the run-up to the presidential election, but for now, the Taliban still hold the upper hand. Instead of negotiating, they may simply decide to wait out NATO forces that are already eyeing the exit.

U.S. General Stanley McChrystal is seeking to create enough pressure to weaken the insurgency fast enough to compel its leaders to negotiate, but the fight is no longer about defeating the Taliban, it's about setting the stage for a compromise with them.

Military commanders are notoriously reluctant to discuss timetables and exit strategies. That is no longer true in Afghanistan, where there is a striking sense of urgency.

"The next four months will be critical. This has to be the tipping point," said Col. Bernard.

While the recent military mission has focused on building trust with Afghan locals, a parallel political effort will now seek to build up trust with the Taliban.

"The Taliban thinks the West has been two-faced. They say they want to speak with one face; with the other face, they fight," said Waheed Mozhdah, an independent analyst who has written a book about the insurgency and once served as foreign minister in the Taliban government.

Still, he conceded that momentum from this week's London conference of Western countries fighting in Afghanistan means "this time feels different from last time."

"Maybe the Taliban will talk," he said. "And maybe they won't."

With reports from Globe and Mail staff in Kandahar

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