Signals are mixed as Taliban adopt a new tactic

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DOHA, Qatar -- When the Taliban opened their political office in Qatar last week, stepping into the halogen glare of TV cameras, it was the first time in a dozen years that the world had gotten to see members of the insurgents' inner circle -- and they seemed different. Urbane and educated, they conducted interviews in English, Arabic, French and German with easy fluency, passed out and received phone numbers and, most strikingly, talked about peace.

Back in Afghanistan, though, it has been the same old Taliban: Fighters have waged suicide attacks that have taken an increasing toll on civilians, and on Tuesday the militants staged a deadly strike right at the heart of the heavily secured government district in Kabul.

For officials watching the talks, those contradictions offer a picture of a top Taliban leadership taking advantage of two different tracks -- orchestrating the fighting element even while setting up a new international diplomatic foothold in Doha.

At the Taliban office, it quickly became clear that the contingent's members had all been carefully vetted for their diplomatic credentials. Though many were officials in the old Taliban government, often sent abroad, none are known as fighters. And they all are considered loyalists to the Taliban's reclusive leader in exile, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Further, while the delegates claimed to be there to talk peace with the Afghan government and U.S. officials, on closer examination, what they did -- essentially setting up a virtual embassy to the world -- sent what many saw as the reverse message, raising serious questions about the insurgent movement's real motives in going to Qatar in the first place.

The identities and backgrounds of the delegation's key members -- and thus some of the Taliban leadership's aims in choosing them -- can now be detailed based on interviews with four disparate officials and on public appearances by the group in Qatar. The sources include a member of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's leadership council in Pakistan; a Taliban military commander from eastern Afghanistan; a former Taliban official; and a Western official in Kabul who is close to the Doha talks and spoke about the delegation's general approach. All included the same nine key names, though their lists differed slightly in other ways.

"Every single member of the delegation has been picked by the leadership council after a long series of lengthy discussions and sometimes tense talks," said the eastern Taliban military commander. "There were certain criteria they should meet. First was loyalty to Mullah Mohammad Omar. Second was having experience in diplomacy. Third was speaking at least one foreign language, either English or Arabic."

Among the delegation are six former diplomats, five ex-ministers or deputy ministers, and four preachers -- one of them so admired for his oratory that the Qatari defense minister is said to be in the congregation when he makes guest appearances at his mosque.

They are all seen as close adherents of Mullah Omar. One, Tayeb Agha, the apparent leader of the delegation, was his secretary and chief of staff. Another, Hafiz Aziz Rahman Ahadi, is the son of Mullah Omar's teacher at his madrassa in Quetta, Pakistan.

"All of the representatives that we selected and sent to Qatar for peace talks belong to the political wing," said the Quetta Shura member. "We don't need to send commanders: We are not fighting in Qatar. We are fighting in Afghanistan."

The emissaries are by Taliban leadership standards relatively young, mostly in their 40s. Tayeb Agha is apparently the youngest, at age 37 or 38.

Although Mr. Agha is reportedly a fluent English speaker, he was not speaking out for the group last week. That role was filled by Sohail Shaheen, a former second secretary in the Taliban's embassy in Islamabad. He gave a flurry of interviews to Al-Jazeera, Japanese and other Arab news outlets after the office was opened, but when the Afghan government threatened to pull the plug, he went quiet.

In another interview, with Al-Jazeera, he made clear, though, that any talking in Doha would be conducted while fighting continued in Afghanistan.

The group's other spokesman, Mohammad Naim Wardak, in his 40s, is also fluent in English, and speaks Arabic and German as well. When the Taliban was in power, he was posted to embassies and consulates in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Of the nine known delegates in Qatar, at least three are on the U.N. blacklist that authorizes the seizing of assets -- and prevents international travel. However, it appears that special arrangements were made to allow them to come to Doha. The listed men are: Shahbuddin Delawar, described by the U.N. as either 56 or 60, a veteran diplomat and also deputy supreme court justice for the Taliban regime; Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, described as about 50, a former public health minister; and Qari Din Mohammad Hanif, who is about 58, an ethnic Tajik from Badakhshan, the only non-Pashtun member of the delegation. Mr. Shaheen had previously been listed, but was delisted in anticipation of his role in Doha.

The other confirmed delegates include Mualavi Nik Mohammad, age unknown, from Panjwai district in Kandahar, a former minister of agriculture and commerce; and Khalifa Sayid Rasul Nangarhari, a former low-level diplomat about whom little is known.

Qatar and other countries are providing extensive monetary aid to support the Taliban office, allocating a total of $100 million for it, according to Mualavi Shahzada Shahid, the spokesman for the Afghan government's High Peace Council. There was no independent confirmation of that figure, although at one point the U.S. and allies had allocated a quarter-billion dollars for peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.

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