Senior Afghan officials say some Taliban leaders are offering intelligence about al Qaeda to prove they are serious about peace talks with the Afghan government.
The Afghan claims represent another sign of the new state of play in the region following the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces. Amid suspicions of Pakistani complicity in providing a haven for bin Laden, the claims of Taliban outreach serve to assert Afghan authority in peace efforts and play down the notion that only Pakistan can bring Taliban leaders to the table.
The Afghan officials who described the outreach said intelligence provided by Taliban leaders aided in the capture of Umar Patek, the suspected mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings. Mr. Patek, an Indonesian, was arrested earlier this year by Pakistan’s intelligence service in Abbottabad, the same town where bin Laden was killed last week.
The Afghan assertions were ridiculed by an official with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, who dismissed them as an Afghan attempt to “impress” America. A Taliban spokesman denied the claims.
A U.S. defense official voiced skepticism that Mr. Patek’s arrest was facilitated by Afghan intelligence. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment.
But a U.S. official with knowledge of the outreach to the Taliban said some “relatively senior” Taliban leaders have been providing useful information on al Qaeda, although he couldn’t confirm the claim regarding Mr. Patek.
“We don’t know if it’s part of a reconciliation deal or a splinter group worried about Special Forces coming after them,” the U.S. official said. Reconciling with the Taliban has been a priority of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Since bin Laden’s death, Afghan and American officials have made public appeals to the Taliban to join peace talks or face an end similar to his.
A major U.S. precondition for those talks is for the Taliban to sever its ties to al Qaeda.
Bin Laden’s death is a “golden opportunity” for the Taliban to cut that connection, said Afghan deputy national security adviser Shaida Mohammad Abdali.
“There are important people that are coming and joining the process,” said Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, who advises Mr. Karzai on the outreach to the insurgency.
Afghan officials have complained that the Pakistani intelligence service, with an interest in maintaining Pakistani control over the peace process through its links to the Taliban, has repeatedly interfered to derail Kabul’s attempts to talk with insurgent leaders. But suspicion that elements of Pakistan’s military gave bin Laden refuge in Abbottabad has provided Afghan officials with new leverage.
One of the Taliban members speaking to Kabul, Afghan officials say, is Mawlawi Mohammed Abdul Kabir, a deputy prime minister during the Taliban regime who is now considered to be a senior member of the Quetta Shura, the insurgency’s leadership council.
Senior members of the Afghan government said Mr. Kabir has been helping tip off Afghan officials about al Qaeda members since being released from Pakistani custody last year. Pakistan’s government never confirmed that they detained him.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied that Taliban leaders have been providing information on al Qaeda. He said Mr. Kabir remains an active member of the insurgency and maintains no contacts with Kabul. The Taliban say they won’t join any peace talks until all foreign forces leave.
The Taliban have announced a spring offensive and stepped up deadly attacks in recent days. Mr. Stanekzai said the violence was a tactic for the insurgency to position themselves as peace negotiations unfold to get more of their demands met.
The Taliban, while condemning bin Laden’s killing, insist that the Afghan insurgency is a homegrown movement fully independent of al Qaeda, and say the death of al Qaeda’s founder will have no effect on their struggle.
Some former Taliban who have already reconciled with Kabul also cast doubt on the Afghan government’s claims, describing them as a deliberate attempt to sow discord within the insurgency.
“This is the rule of spy agencies to divide and rule,” said Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the former Taliban representative to the U.N. who is now part of the government’s High Peace Council. — WSJ