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Signals are mixed as Taliban adopt a new tactic


DOHA, Qatar » When the Taliban opened their political office in Qatar last week, stepping into the halogen glare of TV cameras, it was the first time in a dozen years that the world had gotten to see members of the insurgents’ inner circle — and they seemed different. Urbane and educated, they conducted interviews in English, Arabic, French and German with easy fluency, passed out and received phone numbers and, most strikingly, talked about peace.

Back in Afghanistan, though, it has been the same old Taliban: Fighters have waged suicide attacks that have taken an increasing toll on civilians, and on Tuesday the militants staged a deadly strike right at the heart of the heavily secured government district in Kabul.

For officials watching the talks, those contradictions offer a picture of a top Taliban leadership taking advantage of two different tracks — orchestrating the fighting element even while setting up a new international diplomatic foothold in Doha. This complicates efforts to pin down the insurgents’ true goals.

At the Taliban office, it quickly became clear that the contingent’s members had all been carefully vetted for their diplomatic credentials. Though many were officials in the old Taliban government, often sent abroad, none are known as fighters. And they all are considered loyalists to the Taliban’s reclusive leader in exile, Mullah Omar.

Further, while the delegates claimed to be there to talk peace with the Afghan government and U.S. officials, on closer examination, what they did — essentially setting up a virtual embassy to the world — sent what many saw as the reverse message, raising serious questions about the insurgent movement’s real motives in going to Qatar in the first place.

"From minute one, the Taliban didn’t play this by the book," said a Western official who has tracked the Taliban for a number of years. "They overstepped pretty well agreed upon guidelines."

The identities and backgrounds of the delegation’s key members — and thus some of the Taliban leadership’s aims in choosing them — can now be detailed based on interviews with four disparate officials and on public appearances by the group in Qatar. The sources include a member of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council in Pakistan; a Taliban military commander from eastern Afghanistan; a former Taliban official; and a Western official in Kabul who is close to the Doha talks and spoke about the delegation’s general approach. All included the same nine key names, though their lists differed slightly in other ways.

"Every single member of the delegation has been picked by the leadership council after a long series of lengthy discussions and sometimes tense talks," said the eastern Taliban military commander. "There were certain criteria they should meet. First was loyalty to Mullah Mohammad Omar. Second was having experience in diplomacy. Third was speaking at least one foreign language, either English or Arabic."

Among the delegation are six former diplomats, five ex-ministers or deputy ministers, and four preachers — one of them so admired for his oratory that the Qatari defense minister is said to be in the congregation when he makes guest appearances at his mosque.

They are all seen as close adherents of Mullah Omar. One, Tayeb Agha, the apparent leader of the delegation, was his secretary and chief of staff. Another, Hafiz Aziz Rahman Ahadi, is the son of Mullah Omar’s teacher at his madrassa in Quetta, Pakistan.

"All of the representatives that we selected and sent to Qatar for peace talks belong to the political wing," said the Quetta Shura member. "None have a military background. We don’t need to send commanders: We are not fighting in Qatar. We are fighting in Afghanistan."

While there are some two dozen Taliban officials here — along with their families, they number a couple of hundred people in all — most are administrative and support staff.

The emissaries are by Taliban leadership standards relatively young, mostly in their 40s. Tayeb Agha is apparently the youngest, at age 37 or 38.

Although Agha is reportedly a fluent English speaker, he was not speaking out for the group last week. That role was filled by Sohail Shaheen, a former second secretary in the Taliban’s embassy in Islamabad. He gave a flurry of interviews to Al-Jazeera, Japanese and other Arab news outlets after the office was opened, but when the Afghan government threatened to pull the plug, he went quiet.

"We really want to talk," he said in a brief phone conversation, speaking fluent English with a trace of a Pakistani accent, "But until we decide on our answer, there is nothing we can say."

In another interview, with Al-Jazeera, he made clear, though, that any talking in Doha would be conducted while fighting continued in Afghanistan. He said the Taliban "simultaneously follows political and military options. Because there is no cease-fire now, they are attacking us, and we are attacking them."

The group’s other spokesman, Mohammad Naim Wardak, in his 40s, is also fluent in English, and speaks Arabic and German as well. When the Taliban was in power, he was posted to embassies and consulates in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Of the nine known delegates here, at least three are on the U.N. blacklist that authorizes the seizing of assets – and prevents international travel. However, it appears that special arrangements were made to allow them to come to Doha. The listed men are: Shahbuddin Delawar, described by the U.N. as either 56 or 60, a veteran diplomat and also deputy supreme court justice for the Taliban regime; Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, described as about 50, a former public health minister; and Qari Din Mohammad Hanif, who is about 58, an ethnic Tajik from Badakhshan, the only non-Pashtun member of the delegation. Shaheen had previously been listed, but was delisted in anticipation of his role in Doha.

The other confirmed delegates include Mualavi Nik Mohammad, age unknown, from Panjwai district in Kandahar, a former minister of agriculture and commerce; and Khalifa Sayid Rasul Nangarhari, a former low-level diplomat about whom little is known.

Qatar and other countries are providing extensive monetary aid to support the Taliban office, allocating a total of $100 million for it, according to Mualavi Shahzada Shahid, the spokesman for the Afghan government’s High Peace Council. There was no independent confirmation of that figure, although at one point the U.S. and allies had allocated a quarter-billion dollars for peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.

When the previous effort to open a Taliban office in Qatar collapsed in March 2012, many analysts saw that as a result of a split between Taliban officials in the political leadership and their military commanders. But some Western officials also note that when Mullah Omar and his closest aides make a decision, it does seem to get carried out.

"We do understand there are divisions among the Taliban — some people want to keep on with the military campaign, others are in the middle and others have concluded there can only be a political way forward already," said a Western official in Kabul who is close to the talks. "I don’t know where that balance lies."

Whatever the state of harmony within the Taliban, there are still obvious contradictions between their statements and actions.

Mullah Omar has, for instance, promulgated a code of conduct that among other things warns fighters not to put civilians in harm’s way. Yet their preferred weapons — suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices — are indiscriminate by their nature. According to U.N. figures, more than three-fourths of all civilian casualties are caused by the insurgents, and the proportion has steadily increased in recent years.

Still, Sayid Akbar Agha, a former Taliban official who remains close to the group, insisted that earlier tensions between the political and military wings had been resolved — at least in setting up the mission to Doha.

"There were people who used to think maybe peace negotiations were a conspiracy by the Afghan government," he said. "This time, there is a full agreement between the political and military commissions of the Taliban about the creation of this office."

The Taliban’s true intent in setting up their office, however, is still contested by Western and Afghan officials.

One Western official who has long watched the Taliban found it hard to credit the idea that the insurgents were truly interested in reaching peace.

"The next step then is to say there are ‘good Taliban’ in Qatar and there are ‘bad Taliban,’ who are the guys fighting us," the official said. "If they are good Taliban and they don’t speak for the other bad Taliban, then they are not really Taliban. Either these guys in Qatar have nothing to offer and are irrelevant, or they are lying about their goals."

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