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May 20, 2024

The Afghan Impasse, Part 1: Original Sin

S4 E1 34 MINS

All manner of the rich and powerful have passed through the doors of the mountaintop Hotel Petersberg in Bonn, Germany, but perhaps never as motley a cast as the one that arrived on November 27, 2001 to negotiate an end to the wars in Afghanistan. Warlords, exiled monarchists, intellectuals, and some enemies so fierce that they’d already been trying to kill each other for decades. But a key element was missing: The Taliban was not invited. Australian Iranian investigative journalist and author Soraya Lennie has the story from some of the negotiators who were in the room.

Why did some of the world’s smartest and most experienced negotiators fail for 20 years to mediate a peace deal in Afghanistan? Find out on “The Afghan Impasse,” a special seven-episode season of The Negotiators from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Listen to the full season, available now exclusively on Wondery+.

Full transcript

 

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.

 

[HAUNTING INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]

 

JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:

Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m your host, Jenn Williams. This season, we’re doing something a little different. Seven narrative episodes exploring 20 years of failed attempts to negotiate a peace deal in Afghanistan. Each episode will focus on one particular phase of the talks, and is brought to us by a veteran reporter who has spent years living and working in the region. We’re calling this series “The Afghan Impasse.” And if you happen to be a binge listener, you’ll be happy to know that all episodes are available right now. 

 

First up is Australian Iranian investigative journalist Soraya Lennie. Soraya has been covering Afghanistan for almost two decades and lived there most recently after the Taliban took control in 2021. Soraya is going to take a look at the moment that UN special representative for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi called “the original sin.”

 

In the chaotic weeks after the September 11th attacks, many Americans were sad, shocked and angry. They wanted justice, particularly against Osama Bin Laden. He was the head of Al Qaeda and the man behind the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Bin Laden was hiding out in Afghanistan, where he had deep ties to the Taliban government.

 

The Taliban tried several times to reach out to the US to negotiate conditions for turning over Bin Laden. But US president George W. Bush told Congress that there would be no, quote, “negotiation or discussion.”

 

NEWSCLIP WITH PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH SPEAKING:

The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, where they will share in their fate. 

 

JENN: Two and a half weeks after President Bush made that declaration, the US began bombing Taliban troops in Afghanistan. But this was hardly the beginning of the conflict. The last king of Afghanistan ruled for almost 40 years until he was deposed and fled to Rome. What followed was a period of intense instability. By the time the US invaded, the country had already been at war for more than 20 years. First, there was a communist coup in the late 1970s. Then the Soviets invaded for about a decade. Then, starting in 1989, there were two back-to-back civil wars. And then, in 1996, the Taliban took over, but continued to face armed resistance from the North. 

 

Just weeks after the US invasion in 2001, a conference was held to negotiate the political future of the country. Four Afghan factions were in attendance. One was the Northern Alliance, a coalition of former warlords who had been fighting the Taliban for years. The other three groups represented Afghans living in exile, some of whom had not even set foot in the country for decades. The Taliban was not invited. 

 

Here’s reporter Soraya Lennie with “The Afghan Impasse,” episode one: “Original Sin.”

 

[SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]

 

SORAYA LENNIE:

It’s November 27, 2001. All manner of the rich and powerful have passed through the doors of the mountaintop Hotel Petersberg in Bonn, Germany. But perhaps never such a motley cast as this: warlords, exiled monarchists, intellectuals and enemies so fierce, some had already been trying to kill each other for decades. Designer suits and ties to traditional shalwar kamiz. Between them, there was little in common save for two things: a love of the homeland and dislike of the Taliban. Well, for some, perhaps a third motive: power. 

 

The US was no longer talking to the Taliban, save for demands to hand over Osama Bin Laden, says the then-Taliban-ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef. 

 

[ABDUL SALAM ZAEEF SPEAKING IN PASHTO]

 

ZAEFF’S TRANSLATOR:

Before 9/11, there were meetings between us and the US regarding our mutual concerns. However, after the 9/11 attacks, the meetings ceased and the Americans decided to wage war against us.

 

[AMERICAN NEWS CHANNEL THEME MUSIC]

 

NEWSCLIP OF AMERICAN REPORTER SPEAKING:

America strikes back. Afghanistan is pounded with bombs and missiles from the air and sea. 

 

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We are supported by the collective will of the world. 

 

SORAYA: A resistance group made up of various different Afghan factions, called the Northern Alliance, had been fighting the Taliban with help from neighboring Iran. The Taliban posed a security threat to Iran through infiltrations, drug smuggling and attacks along the 582 miles of shared border. Now, the US had joined Iran in supporting the Northern Alliance, and they were making rapid gains and pushing the Taliban from city to city. 

 

[SOUND OF MUTED GUNFIRE]

 

NEWSCLIP OF BRITISH REPORTER SPEAKING:

Towards the capital at dawn, guns still rumbled in the distance, and the Northern Alliance commander, with whom we witnessed the strike, said they’re waiting for orders expected in days to advance on Kabul—still the ultimate goal for these fighters.

 

SORAYA: But once Taliban rule was dismantled, what next? There was no government, no constitution, and certainly no law and order. There was no peace process or political solution. There was, simply, a rather one-sided war. The Bush administration needed Afghanistan to function, but it was in no mood for talking about how—or who—would lead. 

 

RICHARD BOUCHER:

As the president and I think the secretary have said quite clearly, we’re not interested in making up the future government of Afghanistan. We’re interested in getting the Taliban to stop providing safe haven for terrorists. 

 

SORAYA: And so the US outsourced diplomacy to the UN with clear instructions: get Afghan political groups to agree on an interim government and leader and a new constitution, ASAP. 

 

The whole idea of a quick solution is the antithesis of diplomacy; indeed, the UN itself. There were no negotiations about negotiations, and certainly no room for a second round of talks. This was it. Many thought Spanish diplomat Francesc Vendrell, who was the UN’s point man on Afghanistan, would be chosen to host the talks. But veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi got the job as conference mediator instead, and Vendrell was put in charge of the planning. 

 

AMERICAN MAN:

You see, there was always tension between Brahimi and Vendrell. 

 

SORAYA: That’s political scientist Barnett Rubin, who Brahimi had asked to be his adviser. By 2001, Rubin had already written six books about conflict resolution; his first, focusing on the search for peace in Afghanistan. 

 

BARNETT RUBIN: Vendrell drafted a paper about who should be invited. Then Brahimi read it, and he said to me, “Go discuss this with Vendrell.” Now normally, when Brahimi told me to discuss something with somebody, that meant he was against it. So I went to Vendrell and I said, “These people don’t represent anyone.” You know. “We have to do it some other way.” But actually, there was no other way. We were in a big hurry because the American military offensive was going on. 

 

SORAYA: In a sign of how rushed the conference was, the UN hadn’t even processed Rubin’s employment paperwork before he was tasked with helping craft an agreement that would change the course of an entire country. 

 

BARNETT: I was advocating the defenses should pause in order to let the political process go forward. And I said once they had agreed on a new government, they wouldn’t need to fight anymore. Whether that was true or not, the United States definitely was not going to pause the military. So we were under great pressure. 

 

SORAYA: And so, as Vandrell suggested, the guest list was set. Four different Afghan groups, plus the UN as peacemaker, while 18 countries—including Iran, Pakistan and the US—would send representatives. Brahimi sent Rubin to greet the guests. 

 

BARNETT: When the Northern Alliance got to the hotel, the woman behind the desk said, “OK, we will need the date of birth and a credit card from each of these people.” So I said, “Well, unfortunately, they neither know their date of birth, nor do they have credit cards.”

 

SORAYA: Brahimi wanted to keep foreign interference to the periphery. There was no escaping it, but it had to be managed. So only Afghans were allowed in the actual talks and subsequent voting sessions. It was to be informal. Brahimi wanted the UN to mediate, not dictate. After all, there were already deep concerns that this whole process was foreign engineered.

 

[CLIP OF VLADIMIR PUTIN SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]

 

SORAYA: Just weeks after September 11th, Russian President Vladimir Putin had pledged weapons, ammunition and support to the Northern Alliance. That’s the same group Iran, and now the US, had partnered with. A little more than a month before Bonn, Putin traveled to Tajikistan to meet with the Northern Alliance’s political leader, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was living in exile.

 

BARNETT: Putin appeared on TV with Rabbani and said, “This is the president of Afghanistan.” And then he sent Rabbani into Kabul and sent him a lot of Russian currency in order to start the government moving again. So that was like preempting any negotiated settlement that we might have at Bonn. 

 

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It’s a great honor for me to welcome President Vladimir Putin to the White House.

 

SORAYA: Two weeks before the Bonn conference …

 

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: A day of progress and a day of hope …

 

SORAYA: … the same day the Taliban had abandoned Kabul. And despite US calls for the Northern Alliance to stay out, the group moved in. 

 

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER:

What specifically can be done in the next several days to ensure the safety of the citizens of Kabul? And does the Northern Alliance, now they’ve taken that city, enjoy pride of place at the bargaining table in the future of Afghanistan?

 

[PUTIN SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]

 

PUTIN’S TRANSLATOR

Well, the thing is that Northern Alliance did not take Kabul by storm. Kabul has been—had been abandoned, and they had to insert their certain security elements to prevent looting and robberies and murders. 

 

SORAYA: The US and Iran had backed the Northern Alliance on the battlefield. Now that the Taliban had been removed from power, that support was fading in favor of a multi-factional, multi-ethnic transitional government that would bring more of Afghanistan’s disparate groups to the table. But with the fall of Kabul, the Northern Alliance held all the cards. Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani had taken up residence in the presidential palace, and felt that any talks about the future of the country should be held in Afghanistan, not in faraway Germany. He refused to attend Bonn and sent his interior minister, Yunus Qanooni, in his place.

 

[CLIP OF QANOONI SPEAKING IN DARI PASHTU]

 

SORAYA: The Associated Press caught up with Qanooni as he boarded a plane at Bagram Airport, headed to Germany. Qanooni said, quote, “We have to make an agreement for the future so that peace can come to Afghanistan. For 23 years, we’ve had lots of problems, but now we have to finish. And this is the start.”

 

But Qanooni’s optimism hid what was going on behind the scenes. Rabbani later said, quote, “I said in Bonn there could be no decision taken on a new government. I said if my representative were under pressure, he should walk out, saying, ‘I have no authority.’” 

 

Often in diplomacy, there’s something known as a spoiler—an actor that tries to send a process off the rails. In this case, it was Rabbani who made Qanooni defer back to him before making any decisions. 

 

NEWSCLIP OF BRITISH REPORTER SPEAKING:

Unofficial talks had begun in Bonn on the political future of Afghanistan. UN special representative for Afghanistan Lakhtar Brahimi met with representative …

 

SORAYA: Aside from the Northern Alliance, there was the Rome group, made up of exiles centered around Afghanistan’s former king. Next came the Cyprus group, led by the son-in-law of a warlord perhaps best known for raining rockets down on Kabul during the civil war. The Cyprus group wanted to avoid any return of the former king. And then there was the Peshawar group, led by Hamid Gailani, who hailed from one of Afghanistan’s most prominent and well-respected families. The Gailanis had ties to the former king, but perhaps more importantly, were respected by millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s Peshawar. Islamic scholar Fatima Gailani, Hamid’s sister, went to Bonn as an adviser to the Cyprus group. She was troubled by what she saw. 

 

FATIMA GAILANI:

Quite frankly for me, it was very strange that the Taliban were not represented. As if Taliban didn’t exist. And this is exactly the sentence I used there: were they a piece of ice that we put on a hot stone in the sunshine and they disappeared? How could they disappear? Then I said that I don’t think this would have a proper future that we expect, because how could we have peace without Taliban?

 

SORAYA: The Taliban was on the run. It was at its weakest, and without leverage, arguably could have been coaxed to compromise, or at least into a political solution rather than a military one. Meanwhile, the power dynamic had slipped in a matter of weeks, and it was the Taliban’s opponents who had all the leverage and territory. Why not try for a political agreement? After all, they weren’t really in danger of losing anything. As for the public, Afghans were war-weary. Who wanted another 20 years of bloodletting? The time was ripe for a true peace accord. Here’s Taliban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef.

 

[ABDUL SALAM ZAEEF SPEAKING IN PASHTO]

 

ABDUL’S TRANSLATOR: We knew that we could not resist America. Facing them head on was impossible. Their technology was modern and highly developed. We were unable to defend ourselves. We anticipated our government would collapse. But we also believed that the US would fail here. 

 

SORAYA: It’s not so much that the Taliban refused to join their countrymen in Bonn. There was no realistic or transparent attempt to get them there, though the Pakistanis did try. 

 

[ABDUL SALAM ZAEEF SPEAKING IN PASHTO]

 

ZAEEF’S TRANSLATOR: So while serving as the other ambassador in Pakistan, I received news about the upcoming Bonn conference. I was invited to join the conference under the condition that I express my opposition to the Taliban, and was even offered money. However, I did not accept. 

 

AFGHAN AMERICAN MAN:

I think, in retrospect, it would have been better to get the Taliban involved. 

 

SORAYA: Zalmay Khalilzad is an American diplomat who was born in Afghanistan and raised in Kabul. He was working for the US State Department in 2001, when George W. Bush became president

 

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: And I became one of the special assistants to the president. My mandate was broad; included places like Afghanistan and Iraq. And when 9/11 happened, actually, the president was—I wonder—was surprised when I said to him, “Actually, I know something about this. I actually dealt with it during Reagan’s years.” 

 

SORAYA: Khalilzad says it wasn’t just the Pakistanis who were trying to bring the Taliban into the negotiations. 

 

ZALMAY: There was an effort by Qatar to say that they would host a meeting if the Talibs could also come to it. And Lakhdar Brahimi believed that he could not get them to come to the meeting. 

 

BARNETT: No Taliban could have agreed to go to Bonn because the United States would not have guaranteed their security. 

 

SORAYA: Political scientist Barnett Rubin again.

 

BARNETT: Because from the United States’ point of view, this was a war on terrorism, not a struggle to make peace in Afghanistan. But you understand, this was the start of the two-trillion-dollar misunderstanding. You see, the UN thought it was hosting a peace conference to end a war that started in 1978. The United States wanted a consolidation of victory conference, to consolidate victory in the war on terror. You could look through all the statements of all US officials—you will not find a word about peace in Afghanistan.

 

SORAYA: This mystified some of the Afghans at the conference, who had borne the high cost of civil war and were hoping, finally, for an end to the bloodletting. 

 

BARNETT: Somehow, congressman Dana Rohrabacher from California got in, and he asked to assemble the members of the Northern Alliance groups for him to talk to. And then, of course, he needed an interpreter, so we had Jawed Ludin. And he sat down with them and he said, “I want to thank you for taking revenge on our enemies. And I want you to know that whatever weapons you need, we will get them to you.” And he went on like this for a while. And Jawed was outraged. He came up to us, said, “I thought this was supposed to be a peace conference.” So did we, actually, at the UN. We were thinking of it as a peace conference, but the United States was not thinking of it as a peace conference.

 

[HAUNTING INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]

 

JENN: You’re listening to “The Afghan Impasse,” a special seven-episode season of The Negotiators from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy.

 

[SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC]

 

SORAYA: For the opening of the Bonn conference, the US had managed to get a satellite phone to Hamid Karzai, who was then a young Pashtun leader. Karzai snuck back into Afghanistan from Queta in early October. From a mountaintop in Kandahar, Karzai told the opening session the Bonn conference was the path towards salvation. The message was unmistakable. Karzai was a US favorite. 


BARNETT: That was supposed to tell everyone that Karzai was the guy. So Karzai was already decided before the meeting. And then there was the problem of how to get it through the process in the meeting.

 

ZALMAY: I was frankly surprised when we heard the name of Karzai.

 

SORAYA: Zalmay Khalilzad again. 

 

ZALMAY: This idea that Mr. Karzai—whom I knew, many of us knew, because he used to come to Washington a lot from Pakistan, where he spent time in Quetta during the years of the Taliban. So we all knew him as one of the Afghans who had good relations with the international community, with the world media. But hadn’t occurred to us that the Northern Alliance would accept him as the leader, or the interim leader, of Afghanistan. 

 

NEWSCLIP WITH REPORTER SPEAKING:

In Germany, there’s been a successful start to the first day of talks between Afghanistan’s opposing factions.

 

SORAYA: On day one, talks advanced quickly. The delegates readily agreed to a roadmap that would first form an interim administration in Bonn to run the country for the next three to six months until an emergency loya jirga. That’s a traditional Afghan council of elders and leaders drawn from the country’s many ethnic groups. The loya jirga would then pick a transitional administration to run the country for two years while lawmakers drafted a new constitution. But then things get murky. Who would lead the interim administration? How many ministries would the government need and who would control them? And what about foreign peacekeepers? We know Karzai was the US’s favored candidate, but another name was also put forward by the exile group loyal to the former king. Here’s Zalmay Khalilzad again.

 

ZALMAY: The Rome group nominated a gentleman named Mr. Sirat, who had been the Minister of Justice under the King. 

 

SORAYA: Abdul Sattar Sirat. He was actually the head of the Rome delegation. 

 

ZALMAY: And the Northern Alliance vetoed it, without making it very public, because of family relations between Mr. Qanooni, the leader of that Northern Alliance, and Mr. Sirat. I think they were brother-in-laws. He didn’t want it too loudly being said that he had vetoed him. 

 

SORAYA: At issue was Afghanistan’s tribal groups. The Northern Alliance was mainly made up of Tajiks and Uzbeks, and Sirat, who represented the Rome group, was an Uzbek. But the Northern Alliance knew that the new government would not survive without the participation of the Pashtuns, who had historically held a lot of political power in the country.

 

ZALMAY: Mr. Qanooni told me—and I know he must have said the same to the UN—that they needed a Pashtun that they could work with. It wasn’t the West who said that, it was the Northern Alliance. 

 

NEWSCLIP WITH AUSTRALIAN REPORTER SPEAKING:

OK, Brian, an important issue, of course, is the placement of security forces. Has this been determined yet? 

 

NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN (BRIAN) SPEAKING:

No, and this is an important issue of contention. There’s been no decision made … 

 

SORAYA: Then there was security. The Northern Alliance wanted an all-Afghan peacekeeping force to secure Kabul. But the three other groups were wary. After all, Northern Alliance fighters had committed significant human rights abuses for years. 

 

NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN SPEAKING: … the longer the Northern Alliance holds on to territory it has conquered, the more likely it is to become tempted to set up its own de facto government and administration. This would, of course, enrage the Pashtuns, who would then most likely take up arms and begin a new cycle of violence. 

 

SORAYA: And herein lies one of Spanish diplomat Francesc Vendrell’s early concerns: the assumption that whoever took territory would control it. Vendrell wanted the Northern Alliance disarmed, along with Afghanistan’s other hodgepodge of warlords. But this would have required a large peacekeeping force across the country, not just in Kabul. Iran formally opposed this, as Tehran didn’t want an entrenched foreign army across its border. The US, perhaps ironically, agreed, not wanting to play sheriff long-term. So the delegates agreed on a UN-mandated peacekeeping force to secure only Kabul, leaving, in theory, the Northern Alliance to secure the rest of the country. 

 

If talks had progressed rapidly for the first few days, they soon started to drag. The most critical issues were outstanding. Germany gave the deadline of December 5. The German chancellor was scheduled to come for the final signing. Meanwhile, the Hotel Petersberg had other bookings. 

 

BARNETT: So the first thing that had to be overcome was Rabbani’s refusal to step down. 

 

SORAYA: In the waning hours of December 4, bleary-eyed diplomats feared the conference would end without an agreement. They’d all been managing Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani’s power play for days. Qanooni and younger members of the Northern Alliance had defied Rabbani’s wish and stayed at talks, rather than walk out early on. Meanwhile, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was Iran’s chief diplomat at Bonn, Jim Dobbins, his US counterpart, and Zalmay Khalilzad—sometimes called Zal—had all been in contact to push him to compromise. Barnett Rubin again. 

 

BARNETT: I don’t know exactly what happened. I do know that Zal was yelling over the satellite phone quite a bit, that the US military on the ground was talking to Rabbani, and perhaps threatening Rabbani, so I heard. And then the Russians stepped in, and finally Rabbani said he would agree. 

 

SORAYA: Rabbani had refused to allow delegates to provide names for ministerial positions, as every group was required to do. Another flurry of phone calls. But as Jim Dobbins, the head of the US delegation, later told the Washington press corps, Rabbani wanted 20 out of 28 ministries. The clock was ticking, so at close to 5 a.m. on December 5, Brahimi pulled Qanooni and a crew of diplomats into his suite. Rubin recalls the horse trading.

 

BARNETT: Brahimi, Zarif, Jim Dobbins, a few others, and they were telling Qanooni, you know, “You have to give up something.” And Qanooni was just saying, “No. No.” So then finally, Zarif took Qanooni into a corner and whispered something to him. And Qanooni came back and said, “Fine, we’ll give up the Ministry of Culture.” 

 

SORAYA: The ministries were set. The Northern Alliance got the lion’s share, 17 out of 29 posts, including the power ministries, defense, foreign affairs and the interior. And this was one maneuver that guaranteed Karzai, a Pashtun, the premiership. If Tajiks and Uzbeks controlled power ministries, then a Pashtun had to control the government. It was a balancing act. 

 

NEWSCLIP WITH LAKHDAR BRAHIMI SPEAKING: 

It is an honor to welcome the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. 

 

SORAYA: December 5, 2001. German chancellor Gerhard Schröeder arrived for the formalities. As cameras clicked, a relieved Brahimi spoke.

 

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: The United Nations and the entire international community feel a tremendous sense of hope in the knowledge that an agreement has been reached here in Bonn that provides an opportunity to end the tragic conflict that has plagued Afghanistan for over two decades. 

 

SORAYA: December 5 was auspicious back on the ground in Afghanistan, too. Karzai and his troops were at the gates of Kandahar when he found out the results of the last-minute vote. He would lead the interim administration. The Taliban had also just announced their surrender. 

 

NEWSCLIP OF HAMID KARZAI SPEAKING: 

If we deliver to the Afghan people what we promised, this will be a great day. If we don’t deliver, this will go into oblivion. I hope we will deliver properly to the Afghan people. And then this day will be remembered nicely. 

 

SORAYA: Karzai was sworn in as interim chairman on December 22, 2001, and went on to be elected interim president by the emergency loya jirga in June the following year. But by then, Taliban ambassador Zarif already told the AP that the new interim government was just a pocket government that made his people the slaves of Americans. 

 

NEWSCLIP WITH MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF SPEAKING: 

The Bonn decision and agreement is not belong with Afghanis. This is the agreement from American and Russian, and this is the government of Americans, not for the interest of Afghans.

 

FATIMA: Quite frankly, I’m not sure if we were taking the wish of people with us in Bonn, because if we had taken the wish of people with us to Bonn, it would have been a reconciliation. It would have been peace. 

 

SORAYA: Islamic scholar Fatima Gailani traveled around the country after Bonn to sell the new constitution, and says all anyone wanted was peace, including the Talibs.

 

FATIMA: They would introduce themselves as a member of Taliban, and they would talk to a woman who was representing the republic and future constitution. I mean, they were not hostile. They were sad, but they wanted this peace for themselves and the people of Afghanistan. They were quite optimistic about the constitution. As soon as you’d explain that the constitution is a contract between people and the government, then they knew exactly what was their demands. Two things were very important for them. One was Islam, their religion. Man, women, young, old Taliban, non-Taliban. And the second thing was peace. 

 

SORAYA: But by excluding the Taliban, the organizers of the Bonn conference blew any chance of Afghan unity and a permanent peace. 

 

SORAYA: Do you have any regrets about perhaps your advocacy about that point, like maybe not speaking up?

 

FATIMA: Absolutely. Absolutely. I have … I have so many regrets about so many things. In my usual temperament, I really talk openly and I really express my view. And there were times that I should have. In Bonn, there were people much senior than me, in age and experience and all that. And probably I thought that maybe they know better. And of course, not just me, my other colleagues, mostly women, they also thought that probably when we go back to Afghanistan and all that, there is a provision out for the reconciliation and inviting Taliban back to Afghanistan.

 

SORAYA: Diplomatically speaking, Bonn was a success. Afghanistan got a roadmap to government which would result in a new constitution, a loya jirga and later, democratic elections. But the agreement lacked substance. Political scientist Barnett Rubin again.

 

BARNETT: The underlying political issues were not even articulated at Bonn, let alone resolved, and they are unresolved to this day. 

 

SORAYA: The exclusion of the Taliban at the Bonn peace talks haunts a multitude of diplomats who were there. Indeed, it haunted an entire nation. And if one event would define these diplomatic failures, perhaps it’s the fate of the Taliban ambassador, Abdul Salam Zaeef. He didn’t attend Karzai’s swearing-in ceremony. Despite earlier promises from the US and Pakistan to leave him be, Pakistani intelligence had arrested him and turned him over to the US. He was on his way to Guantanamo Bay, where he would spend the next four years in detention.

 

[ABDUL SALAM ZAEEF SPEAKING IN PASHTO]

 

ZAEFF’S TRANSLATOR:

For my first time in Guantanamo, I was a captive in Kandahar, and then in Bagram. They asked for my assistance, telling me that if I believed the Taliban would return to Afghanistan and rule again, I was daydreaming. It will never happen. Dismiss that thought. Wherever the US goes, it leaves destruction. If you’re hoping for that day, abandon that hope. You must stay and die here. You will never achieve your ambitions. I said, God knows best. As a muslim and an Afghan, I believe you will never last in Afghanistan.

 

JENN: It’s impossible to know what would have happened if the Taliban had been invited to Bonn. Would the parties have been too far apart to even come to a political resolution in the first place? And if they managed to create a government that actually integrated the Taliban into Afghan society, would that agreement have held? 

 

What we do know is what did happen. For the next five years, the United States continued a policy of non-engagement with the Taliban. No talks, no talks about talks, nothing. Until 2006, when that started to change. 

 

BARNETT: I was in Kabul and I wrote to my former boss and I said, “I have the feeling that things are coming apart.” And he said, “That’s because there’s no political settlement. Look into that.” 

 

UNIDENTIFIED AMERICAN WOMAN:

Instead of trying to negotiate at the apex of US power, and the nadir of Taliban power and capability in Afghanistan, we finally got serious about it as the US was clearly on the way out the door. Even if it took a few more years, like, the writing was very evidently on the wall. 

 

JENN: That’s next time on “The Afghan Impasse” from The Negotiators. 

 

The Negotiators is a podcast from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. This episode was reported by Soraya Lennie. Karen Given is the season’s executive producer. Original music written by Afghan composer Arson Fahim, and performed by Arson Fahim and Afghan rubāb player Siddique Ahmad. Our production team includes Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show. 

 

Foreign Policy is a magazine of news and ideas from around the world. We encourage you to subscribe at foreign policy.com/subscribe. 

 

Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation, where the most urgent issues of our time are discussed and debated. Learn more at dohadebates.com.

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