ISLAMABAD: It may have been just talk after all.
A purported Taliban official mediating with the Americans can no longer be traced, frustrating the US attempts to hold another round of talks as they seek a negotiated settlement to the decade-old conflict in Afghanistan, officials said on Sunday.
Former US defence secretary Robert Gates had confirmed late June that the US was holding ‘outreach’ talks with members of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was the first time the US had acknowledged such contact. A day prior to that statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had also disclosed that the US had been in contact with the Taliban.
While Gates and Karzai confirmed talks with the Taliban, they did not disclose the name of the Taliban leader involved in the reported talks.
The media, however, reported that US officials met Tayyab Agha, a close confidant of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar.
Agha, an ethnic Pashtun from Kandahar, also served as Mullah Omar’s spokesperson and the first secretary in the Taliban-led Afghan embassy in Pakistan during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
An Afghan leader familiar with the negotiation process said that the US has made frantic efforts to contact Agha for further talks but there has been no success so far. “Agha has not yet been traced and is believed to have gone either to Qatar or the United Arab Emirates,” he said.
They’ve held talks with him earlier but the Americans and Afghans are still unsure if Agha had a mandate from the top Taliban leadership to enter into negotiations, an Islamabad-based Afghan diplomat, requesting not to be named, told The Express Tribune.
The issue of Agha’s mandate came under discussion at the Afghan Presidency when US officials shared information with President Hamid Karzai, the diplomat said.
An Afghan leader familiar with the negotiations said that Agha was annoyed at the disclosure of the secret talks to the media by Karzai and Gates.
Agha, and those behind the negotiations, did not want the matter to appear in the media unless there was some progress.
The Taliban have always denied any talks but Western and Afghan leaders insist that channels of communication with the Taliban have always stayed open.
A leader of another Afghan opposition party confirmed to The Express Tribune that indirect contacts between the Taliban and the US had always been intact.
Meanwhile, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador in Pakistan and once a close aide of Mullah Omar, doubts any talks were held between the US and Agha.
“I do not have any exact information if the talks have been held but I can say that statements by Afghan and US leaders in the media make the process appear doubtful,” Zaeef told The Express Tribune last week from Kabul via phone.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2011.