Secret Eide-Taliban Meeting Raises Questions

This cropped photo of outgoing UN mission chief Kai Eide was taken from the NATO website. Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, is best known for his work in the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts. He clashed bitterly with US officials in Afghanistan.

President Karzai’s new reconciliation plan with the Taliban was announced over a week before the January 28 London Conference. To quote Quqnoos, a Kabul-based news organization, Karzai’s plan will supply “jobs or land to farm, education for young fighters and pension for older insurgents who may have fought for much of the past three decades of conflict.” The plan looked good on its surface but premature when word of it first became public.

However, new information from a Reuters news story surfaced on the day of the London Conference that outgoing UN mission chief for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, met with Taliban regional commanders on January 8 in Dubai. While the final verdict is not yet out, Karzai’s plan may not be premature after all.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the Eide-Taliban meeting although Mr. Eide and the Taliban have denied that it ever took place (see story). US officials claim they did not know of the meeting until they were briefed about it afterwards, and given Mr. Eide’s outgoing status (he gave his farewell speech on January 6), the meeting has been characterized as something that Eide did on his own. Clinton said in regards to the meeting, “He (Eide) wanted to test for himself and get his own conclusion about the mindset of some of the Taliban members [before the London Conference].”

Eide’s meeting with the Taliban raises a number of observations and questions. The fact that the US government knew nothing about something as serious as a UN-Taliban meeting and was briefed about it only after the fact is profound.

The blunder may be indicative of the poor US-Eide relationship that at least dates back to last year’s Afghan presidential election. Eide did not want to pursue the voter fraud allegations while the US did and in the end Eide’s deputy, US diplomat Peter Galbraith, was fired because he kept pushing Eide to investigate the fraud claims. The deputy was vindicated when Afghanistan’s Independent Election Committee (IEC) rejected almost 7% of Karzai’s vote. The Reuters story also notes the poor US-Eide relationship.

What is puzzling about the Eide-Taliban meeting is that Eide’s efforts to meet the Taliban have been characterized indirectly by US officials as rogue, as though it was something that Eide did on his own in order to get a reading on the Taliban before the London Conference. In fact, the imagery that Secretary Clinton conjures up is that of an informal visit to the doctor’s office, as though the UN chief just strolled down the street to talk to the Taliban and check their pulse.

Surely some parties must have known about the Eide-Taliban meeting in advance. After all, the international community is at war with the Taliban so the highest-ranking UN official in Afghanistan cannot simply hold a casual or an incognito meeting with Mullah Omar’s deputies without other officials knowing about it. Also, why did no one who knew of the meeting tell the US about it beforehand (see Omar photo below)?

This photo of top Taliban leader Mullah Omar is one of only a few known Omar photos. Its source is unknown and it is readily found on the Internet. This particular copy was taken from a German blog (http://ladurnerulrich.wordpress.com/2009/09/20/sowjetische-szenarien/). Note that Omar’s right eye is gone. He lost it fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. Click twice to enlarge.

The meeting was in Dubai so at least the Dubai government knew about it and presumably helped arrange for it to be held at a safe location. The UN Secretary-General must have known about. If not, then Eide’s meeting was in fact rogue and Ban-Ki Moon needs to reprimand, if not fire, the seasoned diplomat. One would also think that President Karzai must have known about the meeting. After all, his reconciliation plan with the Taliban was the biggest issue at the London Conference, and since Eide represents the UN in Afghanistan it would seem unlikely that Eide would meet with the Afghan government’s top enemy without Karzai’s blessing.

Perhaps most interesting, according to the UN official who was the key source for the Reuters story, was that it was the Taliban regional commanders who sought out the meeting with Eide. The UN official stated that the commanders “requested a meeting to talk about talks. They want protection, to be able to come out in public. They don’t want to vanish into places like Bagram.” A US military base and a detention center are at Bagram.

Since Eide met with leaders directly under Taliban leader Mullah Omar, then the question may be asked: Did Mullah Omar authorize these leaders to meet with Eide or did the men do it secretly? And if they did it secretly then by now Omar knows his leadership circle is compromised. Will Omar purge his upper leadership or will the rebel faction within his leadership assassinate him or flee?

If Omar authorized the Eide meeting then perhaps we could see a sudden reconciliation with the insurgency in the coming weeks or months. It may be that the reason President Karzai is pushing his reconciliation plan so strongly today is because of promising news that came from the Eide meeting. Otherwise it makes far more sense for Karzai to permit General McChrystal’s surge to work so that the Taliban and the other insurgent groups are humbled, then the Afghan government will be in a better position to negotiate.

While Karzai’s reconciliation plan appears to be premature, the secret Eide-Taliban meeting indicates that diplomatic work is being done behind the scenes. However, the result of this effort is unclear. The good news is that at the very least we do know that behind all the rhetoric to the contrary, Omar’s deputies are worried that their side might not win. Why else try to meet Eide in secret?