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Top Taliban Leaders’ Leverage Sought in Afghan Peace Talks

October 20, 2010 at 5:19 PM EDT
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Within the past week, reports have surfaced of more peace talks taking place between the Afghan government and Taliban members. Margaret Warner talks to Dexter Filkins of The New York Times about the negotiations and how NATO is making the talks possible.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: talking with the Taliban.

Reports of stepped-up negotiations between the Afghan government and factions of the Taliban have been surfacing this past week. Today, The New York Times disclosed new details about the stature of the Taliban participants and how NATO is making it possible for them to take part.

Margaret Warner talked to the author of that piece, Dexter Filkins, from Kabul earlier today.

MARGARET WARNER: Dexter Filkins, thanks for joining us.

You reported today that the Taliban involved in these talks aren’t just some disgruntled mid-level commanders, but are pretty well-connected. Who are they, and where are they?

DEXTER FILKINS, The New York Times: Well, they — they’re in Pakistan most of the time.

And they’re from — most of them are from the Quetta Shura, which is the kind of leadership council of the Taliban that runs the war for them, even from the kind of the upper reaches of the Quetta Shura. I mean, so it’s the very highest levels.

It’s not, very specifically, including Mullah Omar. They want to do their best to cut him out, in part because I think they believe that he’s kind of a prisoner of the Pakistani army and intelligence services. But — but these are pretty high-level Taliban.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some of these people have actually been hunted by the CIA and the U.S. military in the past, haven’t they? Why is NATO now making it easier for them to travel into Afghanistan for the talks?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I mean, that’s a good question. I mean, first of all, absolutely. Some of these guys are on the JPEL list. And the JPEL list is the — if found, kill or capture. And they’re now facilitating their movement into Afghanistan for peace talks.

And I guess the question why are they doing it is because, you know, they believe that, at some point, perhaps, these guys will have the leverage and the inclination to make a deal and bring a war — bring the war to an end.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what specifically has NATO been doing to make it possible for them to get there, to the talks inside Afghanistan?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, remember, most of these guys have been hiding in — in Pakistan. And they — I mean, that’s where the leadership is, and that’s where they plan attacks. They send fighters in, they come in and they go out, from their safe havens.

And so they have been coming into Afghanistan for these discussions, and they have been guaranteed safe passage by — by the American military, by NATO. And in — and in some cases — in one case in particular, they drove out of Pakistan, went to the border, were picked up by NATO forces, put on an airplane, and flown to Kabul.

In other cases, they have — they have secured the roads; they have basically let them through to get into government-controlled areas. So, they’re doing quite a lot. They’re doing quite a lot. And one of the Afghans that I spoke to yesterday who was involved in the talks said, look, when we can promise to the Taliban leaders that they will not be killed by the Americans when they come in here, and then it actually happens, that, in the Taliban’s eyes, it makes us look like a sovereign government, like we are in charge, like we’re not the puppets they say we are.

So, there you go.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also reported that one of the figures involved is from the Haqqani Network, that faction based in North Waziristan that — that the U.S. holds responsible for some really lethal attacks against NATO forces.

Isn’t this a group that the U.S. used to say they definitely not support the Afghans negotiating with?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I mean, as recently as just a couple of months ago, General Petraeus was asking the Obama administration to declare them a terrorist group.

So, it — it — you can see how far — see how far the American military has come. The Haqqani Network is — yes, it’s basically a mafia-like organization. They’re extremely violent. They have done a lot of suicide attacks inside of Kabul, killed hundreds of people.

They have sheltered a lot of al-Qaida people. Jalaluddin Haqqani, who was a minister in the Taliban government — I actually met him many years ago here in Kabul, when he was in the Taliban government — he has sheltered many al-Qaida leaders.

I think, if you had somebody here from the U.S. government and you asked them what is the most likely place where Osama bin Laden is hiding, they would probably say North Waziristan, under some kind of protection of the Haqqani group.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Associated Press reports today, I think following up on your story, that the Haqqani figure involved is Jalaluddin Haqqani himself, the man you met. Is that your understanding?

DEXTER FILKINS: That’s not my understanding. He’s kind of an old man now. And his son is actually in charge of the organization.

It’s possible. There’s been a lot of talks and a lot of discussions. I don’t know.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about Pakistan’s part in all this? What role, if any, are they playing, or are the Afghans and the U.S. trying to keep them in the dark?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I — I think this kind of thing is hard to keep — it will be hard to keep the Pakistanis in the dark. I think, if they don’t already know about it, they’re going to find out what — you know, they’re going to find out who’s involved.

I think the danger is — certainly, the danger in the past has been the Pakistanis play the spoiler. They control the Taliban. They keep them on a very short leash. I mean, the reason why the Taliban leadership is in Pakistan is because they have been offered safe haven.

I mean, the Pakistanis deny all this, of course, but this is the way it is.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, briefly, before we go, are these talks substantive, or are they talks about talking?

DEXTER FILKINS: They’re pretty much getting to know each other.

I think the other thing that’s happening here is, the Afghan government and the Americans in NATO are trying to figure out who these people are, and they’re trying to figure out, can they really deliver? Do they really have the leverage that they can make a deal? Are they who they say they are? That kind of thing.

So, it’s pretty early. I mean, I — you know, don’t — don’t hold your breath.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, Dexter. Thanks so much.

DEXTER FILKINS: OK. Thank you.