London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Last week, the British Financial Times newspaper held discussions in Dubai with several figures close to the Taliban in Afghanistan. According to the discussions, an agreement between the Taliban leadership and the US Administration over certain principal issues is closer than most analysts would expect. It is probable that the main obstacle to reaching a peaceful settlement is not represented by the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda, but rather by the issue of allocating power within Afghanistan.
The discussions were held with four individuals: two former members of the Taliban government, a former Mujahidin senior commander with close links to the Taliban, and an unofficial Afghan mediator. They all stressed that the Taliban leadership has developed a strong sense of realism as a result of its experiences over the past decade, and it intends to distance itself from al-Qaeda and remove it, along with other international terrorist groups, from regions under Taliban control. The four individuals claimed that Taliban leaders and fighting elements would accept this if it was ordered by Mullah Omar.
A former Taliban government minister said that “reports of a continued presence of al-Qaeda elements could be referred to a joint commission of ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], the Taliban and the Afghan government, which would verify the reports and decide what action to take”.
The US forces might take such action from within Afghanistan itself. One of the most striking results of the discussions was when three of the four individuals claimed that the Taliban would consider agreeing to the presence of US bases and military advisers in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US forces in 2014. This contradicts all previous statements issued by the Taliban. Nevertheless, the informed sources confirmed that the Taliban would only agree to this within the context of a comprehensive peaceful settlement agreement, and “will never accept anything that looks like surrender.”
The informed sources also revealed that the Taliban intends to commit to existing health and education systems, and does not wish to exclude women as long as there is a guarantee of separation between the two sexes.
This new pragmatism also includes acceptance of the current Afghan constitution. The four individuals said: “The Taliban had no serious problem with the constitution as such – but would never agree to it as a precondition of talks, as hitherto demanded by Washington.” The four men expect the constitution to be discussed and agreed upon within a national debate including the Taliban.
All this is encouraging, however it indicates that there is something else necessary in order to reach a settlement, which might pose a greater problem. The Taliban is satisfied with the current constitution, which is highly-centralized, because they want a strong central government in which they can play a prominent role.