Bringing the Taliban to the Table

13 01 2013

13 January 2013

Below RFE/RL quotes me on how the Afghan government can improve its reconciliation effort with senior Taliban officials released from Pakistani custody. Link available here.

Taliban Prisoner Releases are High-Risk, Low-Reward

By Frud Bezhan

After having little success playing it safe, the Afghan government is gambling on a risky new strategy to convince the Taliban that the road to peace runs through Kabul.

In recent months, scores of Taliban officials and rank-and-file have been freed from prisons in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Now, Afghanistan is upping the ante with the expected release of thousands more within its borders while pushing Islamabad to free some of the Islamist militant group’s most dangerous characters.

The prisoner releases are seen as a signal of good faith from the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is wary of peace efforts not led by Kabul but whose overtures for direct talks with the Taliban have been refused.

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But there are no assurances that the freed detainees will, as Kabul predicts, help bring the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table or convince militants to reintegrate into Afghan society.

Analysts say the move is fraught with risk, and has little chance of succeeding.

“The worst-case scenario, which is actually quite likely, is having these individuals return to the Taliban, bolster their ranks, and increase their efficacy on the battlefield,” says Jeffrey Dressler, a senior analyst and team leader for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

“It would not surprise me one bit if the majority of these folks were recaptured or killed on the battlefield six months to a year from now.”

Dressler says that even those who might be ready to give up the fight would be highly reluctant to facilitate reconciliation.

‘Doomed From The Start’

The Afghan authorities announced on January 4 that 80 prisoners captured in operations against the Taliban and other groups had been released from Bagram military prison, which houses some 3,000 Taliban fighters and suspected terrorists. A further 1,200 prisoners, it was announced, would be freed in the coming weeks.

​​In neighboring Pakistan, 26 Taliban have been freed in recent months amid reports that Kabul had presented a 40-man wish list to Islamabad. The release of about 100 more prisoners is reportedly forthcoming.

David Young, a Washington-based conflict-resolution expert and adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, says the Afghan government’s latest effort to get the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table is “doomed from the start.”

He says that even before the detainees were released, it was unknown what role the freed militants might play in bringing Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, what connections they still have to the group’s leadership, or even their stance on negotiations.

Under a “safe passage” agreement between Kabul and Islamabad, according to Young, prisoners have been released with no conditions and many have simply disappeared. A better approach, he suggests, would have been to home in on key individuals.

​​”In order to work, a strategy like this would require the release of officials who still hold significant weight in the Taliban’s political apparatus, but are reconcilable. Secondly, it would be far more effective if Afghan officials had taken the time to build relationships with the prisoners before they were released,” Young says.

“Their sincerity and access to the Taliban could have been tested while they were still in prison. And then perhaps arrange their release once it became clear that they would be more effective on the outside.”

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