Taliban break off closet negotiations after Pakistani crackdown

The former UN envoy to Afghanistan criticises Pakistan’s arrest of senior Taliban figures, saying this has put talks with the militant leadership at risk. The Quartet condemns Israeli settlement construction. The Burmese military sustains casualties fighting against northern rebel groups. All of this and much more, in today’s security update.
Oliver Scanlan
19 March 2010

Kai Eide, the former UN envoy to Afghanistan, has criticised the Pakistani government’s decision to arrest high level Taliban leaders, saying that this has resulted in the collapse of a clandestine diplomatic back channel between the militants and the UN. In what was the first official confirmation that such talks with the Taliban had taken place, Eide revealed that he had personally met with senior leaders who acted with the authority of the Quetta Shura, the movement’s high command.

Eide said that these talks included senior members of Harmid Karzai’s administration and speculated that such high level contacts could not have been carried out without the approval of Mullah Omar, thought to be the Taliban's highest ranked leader. Although Eide conceded that the talks were in their infancy,  he said that the year old discussions had been making progress prior to the arrests. It is still unclear what led the Pakistani government to order the arrest of a dozen Taliban leadership figures in recent weeks, but they have stated that they had no intention to damage the talks.

Eide’s revelations came shortly after the announcement of a new coalition offensive against the Taliban’s stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said that the operation to secure the country’s second largest city had already begun. In addition to its military dimension, consultations have been launched with tribal elders and community leaders with the intention of expanding good governance to the villages in the region.

The openSecurity verdict: Events at the end of the week provided an illuminating insight into the twin track strategy being pursued by the Obama administration in Afghanistan. Kai Eide’s revelations, although referring to a recent failure of the diplomatic process, make startlingly clear the depth and duration of contacts between international agencies and a Taliban leadership that, until very recently, was considered beyond negotiating with. It is to be hoped that the disruption of the talks was a genuine misstep on the part of Pakistani authorities, responding to US pressure to be more proactive in tackling the Islamist guerrillas operating from their territory.

Militarily, operation Moshtarak’s apparent success in driving the Taliban back in Helmand has paved the way for an offensive against Kandahar. Such a move has enormous symbolic importance, Kandahar being both the birthplace of the Taliban movement and the de facto seat of their national government between 1996 and 2001. With another, more modest, operation planned for the northern province of Kunduz, the stage is set for the further extension of Kabul's authority, though how long their authority will last is uncertain.

The key to success will remain the diplomatic route. If Mullah Omar himself, caricatured at the height of the ‘war on terror’ as an irrational fanatic, is open to discussions on this issue, there seems no practical reason why Afghanistan cannot move forward. If the US strategy’s underlying assumptions are valid, the increasing military pressure on the Taliban will bring them back to the table regardless of the arrests in Pakistan. The key task will be to ensure that this window of opportunity is fully exploited, before the security gains are eroded by the lack of manpower and government capacity which continues to erode Kabul's appeal, and the military tide turns back in the Taliban’s favour.

Middle east Quartet calls for Israel settlement halt

It was reported on Friday that, after a meeting in Moscow, representatives from the UN, EU, Russia and the US, the so-called ‘Quartet’, issued a joint statement strongly condemning Israel’s announced construction of 1,600 housing units in east Jerusalem. The group, which included EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, called for a freeze on all settlement activity, the dismantling of settlements built after 2001 and Israel’s engagement in peace talks that would aim to create an independent state within two years, predicated by the withdrawal of Israeli military forces and civilians from land occupied since the 1967 war.

They also called for an end to the Israeli siege of Gaza. Ashton, on a visit to the beleaguered territory, is reported to have been horrified, describing it as ‘worse than Haiti’. The announcement comes after US and Israeli diplomats unofficially described the current state of relations between the two countries as at their lowest ebb since 1975.

Burmese army sustains casualties fighting northern rebels

On Friday, a spokesman for the Burmese rebel Shan State Army claimed that twenty government troops had been killed in an ambush carried out on 13 March. The ambush, which was launched in the Nam Zam township in the northern Shan state, aimed to deter government forces from launching an offensive to disarm the rebel groups. The spokesman, Sao Lao Seng, said the firefight had lasted for three hours and that no rebels had been killed in the action. The Myanmar regime has not commented on the statement and there has been no mention of it in the heavily controlled state media.

The Shan state, which borders China, Thailand and Laos, has long enjoyed de facto autonomy within Myanmar and is dominated by armed groups representing a diverse patchwork of ethnic minorities. A tenuous ceasefire between the Myanmar junta and several notable rebel groups had held for twenty years before the mobilisation of government troops in the region sparked renewed hostilities last year. Although the junta has persuaded six of the ethnic groups to disarm, it is unlikely to repeat this success with the larger factions, all of which have refused offers to join the political process, stating that they have nothing to gain from demobilisation.

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