KABUL, Afghanistan — The arrests of top Taliban figures in Pakistan abruptly halted secret U.N. contacts with the insurgency at a time when the efforts were gathering momentum, the U.N.’s former envoy to Afghanistan said Friday.
Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat who just stepped down from the U.N. post here in the Afghan capital, said the discussions that he and others from the U.N. had with senior Taliban members began in the spring of 2009 and included face-to-face conversations in Dubai and elsewhere.
He criticized Pakistan for arresting the Taliban’s No. 2 and other members of the insurgency, saying the Pakistanis surely knew the roles these figures had in efforts to find a political resolution to the 8-year-old war. Pakistan denies the arrests were linked to reconciliation talks.
“There was an increase in intensity of contacts, but this process came to a halt following the arrests that took place in Pakistan,” Eide told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home outside Oslo.
Last month’s detention of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — second in the Taliban only to Mullah Mohammed Omar — infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, one of Karzai’s advisers told the AP. Besides the ongoing talks, the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic, said Baradar had “given a green light” to participating in a three-day peace “jirga” or conference that Karzai is hosting next month.
However, Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani military, said Friday that Baradar’s arrest, which he said was a joint operation with the U.S., was not connected to any peace talks.
“Reconciliation or talks have nothing to do with the arrest of Baradar,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the talks. Serious arrests are being made continuously.”
The Obama administration has said it supports efforts to welcome back any militants who renounce violence, cut ties with al-Qaida and recognize and respect the Afghan constitution.
During a visit to Afghanistan last week, however, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said it was premature to expect senior members of the Taliban to reconcile with the government and until the insurgents believe they can’t win the war, they won’t come to the table.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said she’s highly skeptical that Taliban leaders will be willing to renounce violence.
But Britain’s foreign secretary said the Afgan government should aggressively pursue a political settlement while the U.S.-led military surge is putting pressure on the Taliban.
David Miliband said in a speech at Massachusetts Institute of Technology this month that a political settlement needs the support of Afghanistan’s neighbours and should include “those parts of the insurgency willing permanently to sever ties with al-Qaida” and abandon armed struggle.
Eide, whose comments were first reported on Friday by the BBC, said there was a lull in contacts between the U.N. and the insurgents around last summer’s Afghan presidential election, but then they intensified.
“It’s quite clear that the level of contact was increasing over the last few months to one point and that’s when you had the number of arrests in Pakistan,” he said.
Eide said there were many channels of communication with the Taliban, including those involving Karzai’s representative. Eide said the negotiations must be led by the Afghans, but that contacts have been made by other parties.
“I know many have tried,” he said, declining to identify those who have reached out to the Taliban.
Eide said the U.N. had met senior figures in the Taliban leadership as well as people who have the authority from the Quetta Shura to engage in such discussions. The Quetta Shura is the ruling council of the Taliban.
He said he believed that the talks, which he said were still in the early stages, could not have taken place without the blessing of Omar, the Taliban leader.
“I cannot say with certainty, but I’m pretty sure,” Eide said. “I find it hard to believe that these contacts could take place without his knowledge.”
Eide predicted it would take weeks, months or even longer to establish confidence on both sides.
“The reason why I am commenting on this is, of course, that I have always believed that a political process was absolutely required as an integral part of our strategy,” he said.