KABUL — Talking to the Taliban is all the rage.
Whether for or against, upbeat or down, everyone seems to be weighing in on the wisdom or folly of negotiating with the black-turbaned crowd.
President Barack Obama has even suggested that his administration may reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban.
GlobalPost has gained unique access here in Kabul to two former high-ranking officials of the now-deposed Taliban government to hear their view of the possibility of an opening for dialogue.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, and Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, who served as foreign minister during the Taliban regime, confirmed in separate interviews that such talks were feasible, but that they would need to begin with a fundamental understanding that the view of this conflict looks very different from an Afghan-Taliban perspective.
Both emphasized they do not represent Mullah Omar and the Taliban's active militant insurgency, but offered valuable insight into the likely debate within the Taliban's inner circle about the various overtures from Washington to open talks.
Before any serious discussions can take place, they say, the warring parties at least have to agree on what they are fighting about. To date, that fairly obvious goal has been shrouded by rhetoric and misunderstanding.
"We are fighting two wars on one battlefield," said Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, who served as foreign minister during the Taliban regime. "The Taliban are fighting the 'slaves of America' while the United States is confronting 'terrorists.'"
The United States is engaged in a Global War on Terror, battling the jihadists in Afghanistan so that they do not have to confront them on the streets of New York; at least that is how the Bush administration defined the engagement.
The Obama administration doesn't use the "GWOT" brand, and is expected any day to release its own policy strategy in Afghanistan. To date, it has contented itself with insisting there is no military solution to the conflict, while approving a 17,000-troop surge and appointing an active-duty general as ambassador. NATO defines its role in Afghanistan as nation-building.
The Taliban, for their part, are fighting a holy war of liberation against a foreign, infidel invader that has come to topple their government, impose an alien system on an unwilling people, and further its own interests.
In a March 22 interview with "60 Minutes," Obama was concise about the mission in Afghanistan: "Making sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies. That's our number one priority."
This is something that the Taliban are more than willing to talk about, according to Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef.
"The United States has a right to guarantee its own security," he said, in an interview at his home in a dusty Kabul suburb, where he is under house arrest.
After serving four years in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Zaeef was released and reconciled with the Afghan government.
"They have a right to ensure that there is no danger to them from Afghanistan," Zaeef added in an interview that happened only after negotiating a cordon of officers from the National Security Directorate, Afghanistan's internal security agency.
Mutawakil agrees that the U.S. has a legitimate interest in making sure that Afghanistan is not used as a base for attacks against America.
"That is the limit of their rights in this country. They do not have the right to impose democracy, nor to say to one group 'you are on our side' while telling another group 'you must be killed,'" said Mutawakil, who surrendered in Kandahar to U.S. troops, according to the BBC in February 2002 and was later released.
The problem goes back to the very beginning of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, according to more than one savvy observer.
"The Taliban were fighting a civil war in 2001," said Sardar Roshan, a former ambassador for the Afghan government in exile. "All of a sudden they were told they had destroyed New York."
But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were the work of Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, insist Mutawakil and Zaeef.
"The United States interrogated many Taliban at Bagram and Guantanamo," said Zaeef, who spent more than four and a half years in U.S. detention. "They never proved that a single Talib was involved in the attacks on New York and Washington."
Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda and the architect of the 2001 attacks, had been widely viewed by Afghans as a thorn in the country's side for years after he was forced out of the Sudan and arrived here as an exile from his native Saudi Arabia in 1996.
After the attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, in 1998, the United States demanded that the Taliban hand bin Laden over.
They failed to do so, turning themselves into an enemy regime that harbored anti-American terrorists.
According to Alex Strick van Linschoten, an expert on the Taliban who has spent much of the past four years conducting research in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, the problem was not merely the time-honored Afghan code of hospitality to a sanctuary seeker or an excess of fondness for their Saudi guest, but an insistence on the diplomatic protocol involved.
"The Taliban were asking that the United States give them some proof that Osama was involved in the bombings," he said. "They would not respond to demands without evidence."
Another complication was the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries: The United States had never recognized the Taliban regime, and so had no extradition treaty with it. So the Taliban refused to surrender bin Laden.
The U.S. countered by sending cruise missiles into Afghanistan.
In 2001, after bin Laden's Al Qaeda hit New York and Washington in the worst attack on American territory since Pearl Harbor, the United States again demanded that the Taliban hand bin Laden over.
The response was the same, with far graver consequences for Afghanistan. After initial airstrikes in October 2001, the U.S. steadily increased its troop presence to 38,000, with a "surge" force of 17,000 more on the way.
"We Afghans are famous for our hospitality," Mutawakil laughed. "But now we have such powerful guests that the host is in trouble."
When the United States sent the Taliban packing in 2001, it brought back many members of the Northern Alliance, the loose grouping of fighters who had been all but defeated by the Taliban. Under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the alliance had been confined to a small sliver of territory.
"The Taliban could not accept that the enemy they had relegated to 5 percent of the country should be given all the power while they were being bombed," Roshan said.
For more than seven years, the international community has been fighting an enemy whose outlines are poorly defined. "Taliban" and "Al Qaeda" are used almost interchangeably, while there is even less distinction between Afghan and foreign Taliban.
"It is very important to distinguish the Afghan Taliban from the Pakistani Taliban and from Al Qaeda," van Linschoten said. "The problem stems partly from grouping everyone as 'enemy' and assuming that everyone has the same beliefs and goals."
In contrast to the more ideologically driven Al Qaeda and, to a certain extent, the Pakistani fighters, the Afghan Taliban are a relatively pragmatic lot, he said.
Ironically, it may be the foreign presence that is cementing the alliance between the Afghan Taliban and their more hard-line allies.
"Without a doubt, the Taliban and Al Qaeda are now going in the same direction, because they are fighting the same enemy," Mutawakil said. "Al Qaeda will be here as long as NATO is."
On March 8, Obama told The New York Times that he was considering overtures to the "moderate" Taliban, an announcement that spurred a flood of debate on what exactly constitutes a moderate Talib.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, speaking by telephone in an interview aired on Afghan television, called the statement "illogical."
"If it means those who are not fighting and are sitting in their homes, then talking to them is meaningless," he said. "This really is surprising the Taliban."
Zaeef and Mutawakil agree that trying to separate out the moderate from the hardline Taliban is not helpful.
"We should be talking about 'Afghan' versus 'non-Afghan' Taliban," Mutawakil said. "If I could advise Obama, that is what I would tell him."
Up until now, both the Taliban and the U.S. have had highly unrealistic preconditions for talks.
The Taliban insist that all foreign troops should leave before negotiations begin; the United States has said that it will talk only to those Taliban who lay down their arms and accept the Constitution.
"That is not negotiation, that is surrender," Zaeef said.
But the Taliban are not eager for the foreign troops to hop the next plane home, either. With the re-emergence of the Northern Alliance, the stage would be set for another civil war.
"If the soldiers leave the way they came, that would be the second tragedy," said Zaeef, who insists that the United States now has a moral obligation to help Afghanistan get back on its feet.
Mutawakil agrees. "If the troops leave tomorrow, there will be a lot of bloodshed," he said.
But a solution has to be found, and quickly. Obama is looking for an exit strategy, and the Afghan people are desperate for some relief from the unremitting violence of the past 30 years. But so far there is no light at the end of this very dark tunnel.
"It is easy to be optimistic if you look at things superficially," Zaeef said. "But at a deeper level, there is a very grave crisis. The current situation is of no benefit to anyone, not to the U.N., the U.S., the Taliban, the Afghan government, or the Afghan people."