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Fantasyland Peace Talks with the Taliban

2:32 PM, Dec 19, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The Obama administration is still pursuing negotiations with the Taliban, even if it doubts a viable negotiating partner sits across the table. And, as part of this ad hoc diplomatic effort, the administration is considering the transfer of Taliban members held at Guantanamo back to Afghanistan. Those are the two key takeaways from a new piece published by Reuters (“Secret U.S., Taliban talks reach turning point”).

Khairullah Said Wali Khairkhwa

Khairullah Said Wali Khairkhwa

The administration has been secretly pursuing these talks with the Taliban for a while, but a close reading of the Reuters account reveals there is little hope that they are going anywhere.

Reuters quotes a senior U.S. official as saying, “We imagine that we're on the edge of passing into the next phase. Which is actually deciding that we've got a viable channel and being in a position to deliver…” The phrasing here does not inspire confidence. The administration is left to “imagine” which phase the talks have reached and they are still not sure if they have a “viable channel” for conducting meaningful negotiations in the first place.

These are, of course, fundamental problems.

As Reuters correctly notes, past attempts at such talks have been futile, with the Americans engaging phony emissaries or Talibs with little to no real power. Earlier this year, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who led the Afghan High Peace Council, was assassinated by a suicide bomber claiming to represent Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura Taliban. That same council has repeatedly tried to broker the talks.

Even the State Department, which is leading this effort, is not especially confident. Unnamed “senior officials” place “the odds of brokering a successful agreement at only around 30 percent.” That low probability of success is actually a rather high guesstimate coming from the most dovish corridor of the U.S. government.

“There's a very real likelihood that these guys aren't serious ... which is why are continuing to prosecute all of the lines of effort here,” one senior U.S. official told Reuters. Imagining that “these guys” – whoever they may be – aren’t serious is rather easy.

Into this amateur effort at statecraft the Obama administration has now injected the possibility that it will acquiesce to Taliban demands to free some detainees from Guantanamo. Reuters reports: “It is not known which ones might be transferred, nor what assurances the White House has that the Karzai government would keep them in its custody.”

We do know, however, the Afghan High Peace Council has previously lobbied for the release of the four top Taliban commanders held at Guantanamo. There is no reason to believe that those four detainees would be willing participants in any attempts at “reconciliation.”

The four Taliban leaders are: Abdul Haq Wasiq (former Taliban deputy minister of intelligence), Mullah Norullah Noori (a former Taliban governor and military commander), Mullah Mohammed Fazl (the Taliban army’s chief of staff), and Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa (the former Taliban governor of the Herat province).

All four were deemed “high” risks by U.S. military intelligence officials, according to leaked memos authored by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). In addition, JTF-GTMO recommended that all four remain in the Defense Department’s custody, as opposed to being transferred to the Afghan government. Approximately 200 other Afghans have been repatriated from Guantanamo. Two of the four are wanted by the U.N. for war crimes.

The biographies of these men, including intelligence contained in the leaked JTF-GTMO files, make it difficult, if not impossible, to see how they could be honestly interested in peace. All four had extensive ties to al Qaeda prior to their capture, meaning they are unlikely to foreswear al Qaeda’s violence going forward – a key goal of the peace talks.

Abdul Haq Wasiq (Internment Serial Number #4)

Abdul Haq Wasiq, the former Taliban intelligence official, “had direct access to Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) leadership,” according to a JTF-GTMO threat assessment. Wasiq “was central to the Taliban’s efforts to form alliances with other Islamic fundamentalist groups to fight alongside the Taliban against U.S. and Coalition forces after the 11 September 2001 attacks.”

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