Veteran Afghan strongmen to form new front for negotiating with Taleban

KABUL (REUTERS) – A band of veteran Afghan leaders, including two regional strongmen, are angling for talks with the Taleban and plan to meet within weeks to form a new front for holding negotiations on the country’s next government, a member of a group said.

Mr Khalid Noor, son of Mr Atta Mohammad Noor, the once-powerful governor of northern Afghanistan’s Balkh province, said the group comprises veteran ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum and others opposed to the Taleban’s takeover.

“We prefer to negotiate collectively, because it is not that the problem of Afghanistan will be solved just by one of us,” Mr Noor, 27, told Reuters in an interview from an undisclosed location.

“So, it is important for the entire political community of the country to be involved, especially the traditional leaders, those with power, with public support.”

Mr Atta Mohammad Noor and Mr Dostum, veterans of four decades of conflict in Afghanistan, fled the country when the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif fell to the Taleban, the hardline Islamist group, without a fight.

The United States-backed government and military folded elsewhere as the Taleban swept into Kabul on Aug 15.

However, the backroom discussions are a sign of the country’s traditional strongmen rising again after the Taleban’s stunning military campaign.

It will be a challenge for any entity to rule Afghanistan for long without consensus among the country’s patchwork of ethnicities, most analysts say.

Unlike its previous period in power before 2001, the predominantly Pashtun Taleban did seek support from Tajiks, Uzbeks and other minorities as it prepared its offensive last month.

“The Taleban at this point is very, very arrogant, because it just won militarily. But what we assume (is) that it knows the risk of ruling the way it did before,” Mr Khalid Noor said, referring to the previous Taleban regime’s exclusion of minority ethnic groups.

‘Surrender out of the question’

Despite a commitment to negotiations, Mr Noor said there was a “huge risk” the talks could fail, leading the group to already prepare for armed resistance against the Taleban.

“Surrender is out of the question for us,” said Mr Noor, the youngest member of the erstwhile Afghan government’s team that held talks with the Taleban in Qatar.

Mr Ahmad Massoud, leader of Afghanistan’s last major outpost of anti-Taleban resistance, last week also said he hoped talks with the Taleban would lead to an inclusive government, failing which his forces were ready to fight.

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It remains uncertain how much popular support is enjoyed by leaders like Mr Atta Mohammad Noor, who is widely accused of corruption, and Mr Dostum, who is accused of multiple acts of torture and brutality, and described in a US State Department report as a “quintessential warlord”.

Both leaders deny the accusations.

The Taleban, already a formidable military force, is now in possession of an estimated 2,000 armoured vehicles and up to 40 aircraft, among other arms left behind by fleeing Afghan forces, potentially bolstering its firepower.

Still, Mr Khalid Noor said the Taleban would not be able to hold out against popular resistance.

“History has shown that no one in Afghanistan can rule by force, it is impossible,” the Western-educated politician said. “No matter how much support it has from international community, it will fail.”

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