KABUL (Reuters) - Mid-level Taliban insurgency commanders do not believe their leaders have begun tentative peace talks with the Afghan government, with many vowing on Friday not to give up the fight after nearly 10 years of war.
NATO and Afghan officials have reported preliminary contacts between President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Taliban, although doubt surrounds when those contacts were made, who they were made with and what, if any, progress was made.
Karzai is pushing a negotiated settlement to the conflict and has launched a High Peace Council which has said it is prepared to offer concessions to bring insurgents to the table. Kabul and Washington say fighters must renounce violence.
Insurgency commanders from across Afghanistan indicated they were not involved in the initial contacts.
“No one has come so far and sat with the government and there is no hope that the Taliban will come and negotiate,” said Abdullah Nasrat, Taliban commander for Girishk district in the southern province of Helmand, a traditional Taliban stronghold.
“We basically hear the reports of talks through the press and do not believe in them,” he told Reuters by telephone. “As long as foreign forces are in Afghanistan, there will be no talks. Our morale is high.”
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001. Record civilian and military casualties will weigh heavily when U.S. President Barack Obama conducts a strategy review in December.
The war will be a central part of discussions at a NATO summit in Lisbon next month.
Providing an upbeat assessment of recent offensives, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Berlin that insurgents in Afghanistan were on the back foot.
“The insurgency is under pressure, under pressure like never before in Afghanistan. Our aim for this year was to regain momentum,” Rasmussen said. “Now we have it.”
NATO commanders say the number of operations targeting senior Taliban members has increased dramatically since Obama authorised a 30,000 increase in U.S. troops last December.
Tarak Barkawi, a defence expert at Britain’s Cambridge University, said the stepped up activity, driven by U.S. and NATO commander General David Petraeus, aimed to put pressure on the insurgents while encouraging them to seek reconciliation.
He said the strategy had been backed by a big increase in special forces activity, and in the use of unnmanned aircraft to target insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.
“Petraeus is fighting a much more kinetic war. He’s let loose the airstrikes a bit more; there’s a huge special forces war going that’s largely outside of media coverage,” he said.
“They have set up a killing machine that is absolutely relentless in the pressure it’s putting on the insurgents. They are clearly now killing off various commanders in the Taliban hierarchies, which is inflicting some serious pain.”
Barkawi said though that prospects for success of the strategy were limited by the weakness of Karzai’s government and added that destroying the Taliban’s command could fragment and further radicalise the movement, making reconciliation harder.
Wednesday’s New York Times newspaper quoted an unidentified Afghan source as saying Taliban leaders from the “Quetta shura” — the leadership of the Afghan Taliban who are based in Pakistan — and one member of the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network had taken part in “extensive” talks.
However Salahuddin Ayoubi, a senior commander for the Haqqani network’s Sirajuddin Haqqani, accused Petraeus, the commander of the almost 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, of trying to drive a wedge through the insurgency.
“These (reports) are part of a drama of General Petraeus, who from one side has stepped up the military operations and from other side wants to confuse the minds of the mujahideen by talking about talks,” Ayoubi told Reuters.
“There has been no let up in our activities and we have not been told by our leaders to reduce or halt our operations for any reason,” he said.
Similar sentiments were expressed across the country.
“Karzai has no authority for making peace and cannot do anything without the order of the foreigners. I do not believe in the reports of the talks,” said Feda Mohammad, a Taliban commander in northwest Badghis province.
Commanders for Hezb-i-Islami, run by veteran fighter Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the Haqqani network in southeastern Khost and Paktia provinces near the Pakistan border also said they would continue fighting.
In Kunduz province, some criminal gangs, including about 60 members of one group, had surrendered in recent weeks, encouraged by government reconciliation efforts and in fear of increased military operations by NATO-led forces.
The High Peace Council said on Thursday it would be willing to make concessions to bring insurgents to the negotiating table and also called for Saudi Arabia’s help in future talks. Saudi Arabia sponsored secret, but inconclusive, talks last year.
Pakistan is also seen as central to any attempts to negotiate but one senior Pakistani security official and other officials told Reuters Islamabad had been kept out of Afghan and U.S. efforts to end the war.
Islamabad has frustrated Washington with what U.S. officials see as its reluctance to crack down on insurgents. Pakistan may see contacts with militants as a way to have a say in Afghanistan and counter influence of arch-rival India.
Additional reporting by Elyas Wahdat in KHOST, Ismail Sameem KANDAHAR, Sharafuddin Sharafyar in HERAT, Mohammad Hamed in KUNDUZ, Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMABAD, Dave Graham and Christian Ruettger in BERLIN and David Brunnstrom in BRUSSELS; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Patrick Markey