Taliban names removed from U.N. list – how times have changed

July 31, 2010

mullah zaeefIn all the noise about the war in Afghanistan over the last week, including the WikiLeaks uproar and a spat between Pakistan and Britain over remarks made by Prime Minister David Cameron about Pakistan’s links to Islamist militancy, one piece of news carries real significance.

On Friday, five Taliban members were struck off a U.N. Security Council list of militants subject to sanctions in a move designed to smooth the way for  reconciliation talks with insurgents.  Among those, two of the five were dead. The other three - Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad Awrang, a former Afghan ambassador to the United Nations, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the last Taliban ambassador to Islamabad before 9/11, and  Abdul Satar Paktin – are no longer subject to the asset freeze and travel ban imposed on those on the list.

To get a sense of quite how significant a change this is, consider how Mullah Zaeef – who now lives in Kabul and says he is no longer an active member of the movement – describes his treatment when he was arrested in Pakistan in early 2002, according to his book “My Life with the Taliban“. The Pakistani official who arrested him told him:  “Your Excellency, you are no longer an Excellency! America is a superpower. Did you not know that? No one can defeat it, nor can they negotiate with it. America wants to question you and we are here to hand you over to the USA.” 

Turned over to the Americans near Peshawar after being driven there from Islamabad, he says he was attacked and his clothes ripped with knives. “The Pakistani soldiers were all staring as the Americans hit me and tore the remaining clothes off my body. Eventually I was completely naked, and the Pakistani soldiers — the defenders of the Holy Koran — shamelessly watched me with smiles on their faces, saluting this disgraceful action of the Americans.”

“That moment,” he says, ”is written in my memory like a stain on my soul.”

That was followed by long years of humiliation and degradation in jails first in Afghanistan and later in Guantanamo. Finally freed from Guantanamo without charge on Sept. 11 2005, he returned to Kabul where he has lived under government protection.

The decision by the United Nations, with American support, to remove the names of Mullah Zaeef and others from the sanctions list is possibly the closest Washington has come since 9/11 to offering some kind of legitimacy to the Taliban movement which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

It is an important step for a movement which some analysts argue always craved legitimacy – it was recognised only by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan when it was in government - and which in any negotiations about giving it an eventual share of power in Afghanistan would be looking for the kind of funding and trade possibilities that only international recognition can provide.

It should also make it easier to open the kind of informal  contacts that could eventually pave the way to more serious negotiations.  Mullah Zaeef – who in his book speaks of his loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar – was involved in earlier meetings in Saudi Arabia which were reported to have focused on the possibilities of reconciliation with the Taliban.

The United States and its allies have increasingly spoken about the need for talks with the Taliban to try to bring an end to an unpopular war now into its ninth year, although Washington has also said it needs more time to end a stalemate on the ground so that it can enter any talks from a position of strength.

But if and when talks do start, one of the obstacles has been over how to talk to a movement whose members are on the United Nations “most-wanted” list.

The Taliban leadership is not expected to negotiate in public until their names are removed from the list. The United States and its allies are unlikely to remove those names from the list until the Taliban sever ties with al Qaeda. And the Taliban are unlikely to sever ties with al Qaeda until after negotiations start, since that is their biggest bargaining chip.

The removal of some names – even of former Taliban members – from that list is a small step to resolving that conundrum. Potential intermediaries can now travel more freely and if they choose to do so, open up lines of communication to agree on the kind of confidence building measures which would likely be an essential prelude to more organised talks. U.S. and other officials can also meet them without fear of sanction.

Whether those contacts succeed or not is a different question – the Taliban leadership will make their own calculations about whether they can win more at the negotiating table than by waiting out the clock for the Americans to leave. But they should help both sides to understand each other a bit more in a shadowy war where neither side, each from radically different cultures, has much of an understanding of the enemy it is fighting.

In the words of Mullah Zaeef again:

“The biggest mistake of American policy makers so far might be their profound lack of understanding of their enemy. The U.S. brought an overwhelming force to Afghanistan. They arrived with a superior war machine, trying to swat mosquitoes with sledgehammers, destroying the little that was left of Afghanistan and causing countless casualties on their mission, knocking down many more walls than killing insects. Till this very day, it is this lack of understanding and their own prejudices that they still struggle with.”

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