Talking to the Enemy – How German Diplomats Opened Channel to Taliban

By Christoph Reuter, Gregor Peter Schmitz and Holger Stark, SPIEGEL-ONLINE

After months of secret negotiations, the Taliban are opening a political office in Qatar, a first step toward peace talks between the US and the group. The breakthrough was largely due to painstaking German diplomacy. But it could be years before the initiative bears fruit.

The man who landed at Munich’s snow-covered airport in the last weekend of November 2010 was to have as little interaction as possible with normal airport operations. He arrived in a Falcon 900EX, the three-engine official aircraft of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, after being picked up in the Persian Gulf. German officials then took him to accommodations prepared by the BND.

Normally the man, Tayyab Agha, would likely have been arrested as a terrorist in Germany; Agha is on an internal list of the Taliban leadership. But nothing was normal on that particular weekend. The top-secret meeting, arranged by the BND and the German Foreign Ministry, was a political first. It marked the beginning of talks between the Taliban and the United States government, which had sent its own delegation to Munich.

Now, more than 13 months later, it is clear that the negotiations were successful. Last Tuesday, the Taliban announced plans to open a liaison office in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. The office, as spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid explained in a statement posted on the Internet, will be “a political office for negotiations.”

An office in Qatar? It doesn’t exactly sound earthshaking. Nevertheless, it sends the message that all sides have agreed to the commencement of peace negotiations involving the Taliban, the government in Kabul and the forces stationed in Afghanistan. It also signals that the Taliban are now stepping onto the global stage, even if their office does not enjoy the status of a diplomatic mission.

Talking to Their Enemies

Now, in January 2012, a significant change is coming to a conflict that once seemed intractable: The Americans will talk to their mortal enemies. These are the men who are to blame for the deaths of 1,783 American and almost 990 non-American soldiers in the international Afghanistan mission — and who still provide support to the al-Qaida terror network.

The goal of the talks is to provide Afghanistan with a political outlook for the period following the withdrawal of Western troops in 2014. Everything seems possible, even the inclusion of the Taliban in a government of national unity.

The leadership, headed by Mullah Omar, has even indicated that it could agree to one of the West’s central conditions: that it part ways with al-Qaida and renounce international terrorism. This would be a signal that would enable Western governments to sell the Afghanistan mission as a political success after all.

As a presidential candidate, current US President Barack Obama promised that he would talk with America’s “enemies.” Now Vice President Joe Biden has even said: “The Taliban per se is not our enemy” — a remark its leadership had suggested as an initial confidence-building measure.

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