Ben Farmer and Barney Henderson
The Taliban is prepared to completely disown al-Qaeda, allow the US to retain several military bases in Afghanistan and agree a ceasefire deal to end its 11 year conflict with Nato, a major report released on Monday discloses.
The group, which was ousted by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, is now willing to cooperate with the US on security and take part in peace negotiations in return for international political recognition, the study says.
The report was compiled by the respected Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) following interviews with four senior Taliban figures close to the organisation’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. These included former government ministers, one of the group’s founding members and a Mujahideen commander.
It sets out a detailed path to a negotiated settlement for Afghanistan that could allow the majority of western troops to withdraw in 2014 without the country descending into renewed chaos.
According to the report, the Taliban representatives believe there is “no natural enmity” with the Americans, and that they would be prepared to accept a long-term US military presence in the country if it helped Afghan security.
Under the plan, five US military bases could operate in Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul to help rebuild Afghanistan up to 2024. The Taliban figures expressed hope that military assistance would translate into economic assistance over time.
According to the paper, the group’s leadership and ‘base’ deeply regret their past association with al-Qaeda and would obey a command to completely renounce the group once a ceasefire had been agreed.
The four Taliban representatives, who did not want to be named, said that while they could not speak for the more hardline military commission, Mullah Omar had broad control over all factions and he supported the plan.
However, they imposed several conditions on the deal. These would include rejecting the current Afghan constitution so that any ceasefire would not be considered a “surrender”, a refusal to negotiate with the “utterly corrupt” President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban being re-accepted into the international fold.
The four representatives also said that the US would have to guarantee not to launch any attacks on Pakistan or Iran from its Afghan bases, with the deal terminated if they did. America would also have to end drone strikes from the country.
They added, however, that the US would be free to attack Iran from the Persian Gulf.
“They all stated, in different words, that the Taliban now recognise their links to al-Qaeda before 9/11 were a mistake,” said the report that is due out on Monday, adding that the Taliban now considered al-Qaeda responsible for their ousting from power in 2001.
“The report shows that the outlook of the Taliban leadership has changed over the last three years,” explained Dr Rudra Chaudhuri, one of the report’s authors along with Michael Semple, Anatol Lieven and Theo Farrell. “There is an acceptability now that this conflict cannot be won and an outright victory is almost unforeseeable.
“They understand that the US military machine will stay on after 2014, and allowing bases to stay would be similar to those in Iraq — with clear red lines on what is and is not acceptable. They see the Americans as a safe bet.
“It will obviously be difficult for David Cameron to sell a deal with the Taliban when British troops are dying in Helmand. It will be equally difficult for the Taliban to sell negotiating with the so-called infidels. But a narrative is needed that is acceptable to both sides.”
Making reference to the Coalition and the political relationship between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, one of the Taliban members dismissed rumours of division within the Quetta Shura.
The leader responsible for military affairs, Qayum Zakir, challenged the group’s coalition from within, but only to a “tolerable extent”.
“We think of Zakir as Nick Clegg,” he said.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, deputy leader of Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council and himself a former Taliban envoy, confirmed to The Daily Telegraph that some Taliban figures had discussed negotiating a “package”, including a ceasefire, to try and find a settlement to the conflict.
However they rejected current demands that they lay down their weapons and abide by the constitution, saying it would be tantamount to a surrender. Mr Karzai has said in the past that acceptance of the constitution was not negotiable.
Concessions to the Taliban are likely to face deep opposition from the influential remanants of the Northern Alliance who fought the Taliban regime throughout the 1990s.
America and its allies have made concerted efforts in the past 18 months to get an embryonic peace process under way, but talks have failed to materialise.
Taliban negotiators in Qatar earlier this year cancelled plans to open a political office to foster peace contacts, saying America had broken a promise to release five of their leaders from Guantanamo Bay prison.
Violence in Afghanistan has in the meantime continued unabated and many in the country doubt the insurgents’ sincerity.
The United Nations estimates 1,145 civilians died in the first six months of the year, about four fifths killed by insurgent bombings or shootings. The White House refused to comment on the report.
(First published in The Telegraph)