An Al Jazeera report that Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with the son of the leader of the Haqqani network, a well-connected Taliban group that straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border, has been denied by both the Taliban and Karzai's government. As inaccurate as the rumor may be, it does reflect the underlying fact that contact and communications between the Karzai government and the Haqqanis are very real.
The Taliban were quick to deny a June 27 Al Jazeera report that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had met personally with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who with his father forms the leadership of the Haqqani network (Karzai's government also denied the report). The Haqqani network, which straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border, is part of the Taliban under Mullah Mohammad Omar, but it remains the most distinct individual entity within the diffuse and multifaceted Taliban movement. The Haqqanis do have a certain amount of autonomy, but their complex relationship with al Qaeda and Islamabad — and virtually everything in between — makes them especially problematic for the United States. And this makes it risky for either Haqqani to meet personally with Karzai at this juncture, which means the denials that a personal meeting took place are probably true. But there is little doubt that the Haqqanis are communicating with Kabul through intermediaries. STRATFOR has verified through its own sources that persistent open-source reports of significant communication are true, though the contact has yet to bear any fruit. The Taliban perceive themselves to be winning the war, leaving little motivation for meaningful negotiation on their part. Kabul also has long been dominated by elements skeptical of — if not downright hostile to — Pakistani intentions in Afghanistan, and these elements remain intent on keeping the Taliban from power. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the head of the Pakistani army, and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha have been regularly visiting Kabul and reportedly met with Karzai in the last few days. They are said to be planning to return to Kabul as early as June 28. Meanwhile, the forced June 6 resignations of Afghan Interior Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar (a former Marxist and spy during the Soviet days) and National Directorate of Security chief Amrullah Saleh (a Tajik and former commander in the Northern Alliance) removed two key opponents of closer relations between Kabul and Islamabad and of negotiations with the Taliban. The Pakistani arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar earlier in the year was likely a signal to Kabul that Pakistan would block any negotiations with the Taliban in which it was not involved. Baradar was a top aide to Mullah Omar and was reportedly acting as an intermediary between Omar and Karzai. Meanwhile, despite the surge of American forces into Afghanistan, it is becoming increasingly clear that the presence of the U.S. military and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force will soon begin to decline significantly. This leaves Karzai little alternative but to turn to Islamabad, which has a strong vested interest in the fate of Afghanistan. Not only are Pakistan's connections to, and intelligence on, the Taliban important, but in light of Islamabad's realization that the Islamist insurgency it once stoked has morphed into a direct, existential threat to the Pakistani state, both Kabul and Islamabad want the same thing: a coalition government in Afghanistan in which the Taliban will be a key player but not able to dominate. There are now reports that Islamabad has assured Karzai that it would be happy to see him remain in control of that coalition. The consensus in both Kabul and Islamabad is that there can be no peace without the Haqqani network, and that the network's ties to al Qaeda can be severed. But it is far from clear that meaningful negotiations can take place on a timetable acceptable to Kabul and Washington — much less that the Haqqanis and other elements of the Taliban will be willing to settle for what Kabul and Islamabad are willing to concede. The report of Karzai's meeting with the younger Haqqani, however unlikely, does reflect the fact that movement and discussions are taking place at a significant level and that geopolitical shifts are starting to occur in the region. The outcome is far from certain, but the game is undoubtedly under way.