While the dust around the much-hyped talks with high-level Taliban representatives in Kabul is now settling down and the race among the international media outlets for getting a scoop is almost over, it is time to actually question those who will be the key components of any future peace deal, the Taliban.
Rumors about talks with Taliban representatives started gaining momentum following a report by CNN quoting unnamed NATO officials as saying they cooperated in ensuring security of some Taliban leaders coming for talks with Afghan authorities in Kabul.
Earlier, Qatar-based al-Jazeera television released images showing some nationalist leaders from Pakistan alongside some former Taliban leaders in Kabul. When contacted for comments, one of the participants of that meeting, Afrasiab Khattak (no relation), told the author that it was a 'consultative' meeting. Earlier, two other participants, Abdul Ghafoor Liwal and Shinkay Karokhel, a member of the Afghan parliament, had also termed it a consultative meeting during their conversations with the author.
The subject of peace talks was further highlighted following the New York Times report on Oct. 13 that Taliban leaders secretly traveled to Afghanistan from Pakistan, with the help of NATO troops. Another report in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 21 then said Pakistan was left out of the Afghan talks. There has been no official reaction from Pakistani leaders thus far.
While none of the top Taliban leadership is accessible or ready to speak about the recent media reports, it is less difficult to get the viewpoint of those directly involved in the fighting, and would have a role in future peace-making in the war-torn country.
After several days of attempts, the author managed to talk to two Taliban field commanders through two local journalists to get their views about the recent 'peace talks.' As one of the commanders, Abdul Haleem, told the author, "We don't know about any such move. This is propaganda of Karzai government to create rifts among our colleagues."
Haleem, a mid-level Taliban commander in Ghazni province, located around 120 kilometers south of Kabul, said he had not received any instructions from his higher-ups (Mashartaba) to stop or slow down the fight. "Rather, we are being instructed to go deeper and attack the strategic positions of the enemy," said the young man, who looks to be in his 30s.
"So far no Taliban member has joined the government and our conditions for peace talks are clear and still in place: The foreign troops should leave the country," said Haleem, echoing statements the Taliban leadership have made.
"All of my colleagues believe that [the news about peace talks] is propaganda. If there is any substance, we will be getting instructions from our leadership, but I and my colleagues are confident that the leadership would not direct us to stop the war until the end of the foreign occupation," added the confident-looking Haleem.
Asked if they know about the reports of talks, the commander said he knows but they never even bother to discuss the topic. To another question, Haleem said of the last five years, which he has spent fighting, "I lost several friends during those years, but I got the double number of them as new recruits."
"We have a high regard for the Afghan parties and we would include them in the government under sharia once the foreign troops leave Afghanistan," Haleem said when asked about his leadership's views regarding the other Afghan groups and political parties.
Another field commander heading the Taliban operations in the south-eastern zone of Afghanistan (Khost, Paktia and Paktika) who declined to give his name was interviewed by Afghan journalist Ilyas Wahdat, who is based in Khost province.
"They (NATO troops) are pushing with all their military might on one hand, and on the other hand, they are talking about peace talks. This is meant to create rifts and we know this very well," said the commander when asked if he received any instructions from his superiors.
Claiming to speak on behalf of Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who heads the Haqqani network and is believed to be based in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal agency, the commander said "we are part of the Islamic Emirates," referring to government under the Taliban.
"We have no instructions from our leadership about any change in the fighting strategy, but we are very clear about our stance: The foreign troops should leave Afghanistan and let Afghans to form their own government," he said.
Another Taliban official from Khost province, who referred to himself as a "civil representative" for the group, told another Afghan journalist, "We haven't received any such instructions [to cease fighting]. We usually receive our operation plan of the year just before the spring, and the plan from this spring to increase our attacks is still in place for this year."
He continued, saying:
I think nobody among the ranks and files will say 'no' to any order from our leaders. We are united and disciplined force that all fighters and commanders are used to obey the leadership, whatever they say. They are fully trusted leaders. I'm sure if we are told to stop fighting, the order will be accepted by the Taliban 100 percent.
Other reports have picked up on similar themes. "There's nothing going on," reports Newsweek, quoting an unnamed senior Taliban leader in its Oct. 22 report. This was seemingly confirmed by U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, who told Fareed Zakaria on Oct. 24 that while high-level talks are taking place, there are no formal peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The same views were reported by Afghan expert and Pakistan-based journalist Rahimullah Yousufzai in his column in the Urdu-language Pakistani newspaper Jang on Oct. 23 and 24.
As for the Afghan government, there has been no clear statement about the talks. The only visible development was the formation by Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month of a High Peace Council with former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani as its chief. An ethnic Tajik from the northern Badakhshan province and with a proven record of fighting the Taliban after his ouster in 1996, Rabbani is believed to have little or no attraction for the Taliban leadership, the majority of who are ethnic Pashtuns from the southern and eastern zones of Afghanistan.
As for the reconciliation process with "good Taliban" and bringing them into the government's fold, a council is already at work under the leadership of another former president and current head since 2006 of the Afghan Meshrano Jirga, or "House of Elders," Sibghatullah Mujaddidi.
The Mujaddidi-led council has so far distributed huge sums of money as well as pieces of land (Numre) to hundreds of individuals presenting themselves as disenchanted Taliban commanders and fighters who don't want to continue. But despite this process no change is visible on the ground, and the war intensifies with each passing month.
Meanwhile, meetings between Afghan officials and former Taliban leaders, like Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef or Maulvi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, can't be termed as a landmark development as the two are already living in Kabul for years and are no longer considered reliable interlocutors by current Taliban leaders and commanders.
It will be a tremendous achievement on part of the international troops if they managed to succeed in creating rifts among the Taliban using the prospect of talks as a ploy. However, if otherwise, the trick will alert the Taliban fighters and their leadership who will think twice if invited to peace talks in future.
Daud Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.