Russia 'key player' in move towards Afghanistan Taliban talks

Attempt to overhaul UN sanctions regime hangs on Russia, INdia and China dropping objections, says German diplomat

An attempt by western powers to kickstart peace talks with the Taliban by overhauling the United Nations' sanction regime against the hardline movement and its al-Qaida allies hangs on whether Russia, India and China can be persuaded to drop their objections, a senior diplomat said.

Germany's ambassador to the UN, Peter Wittig, said his country was engaged in "intensive negotiations" with foreign partners over a range of changes to the UN's "1267 list", a collection of 450 people deemed to be associated with the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Under the proposed plans, two separate lists would be created, one for each militant organisation, giving the Afghan government much greater say over which Taliban would be on the new list, which - like the existing system - would make it hard for named individuals to travel internationally or to have a bank account.

Wittig said the split would recognise the "different fields of action" between the two organisations, with the Taliban "restricted basically to Afghanistan" while al-Qaida operates globally. "Separating those two things highlights the significance of the political efforts that are ongoing in Afghanistan," he said.

Wittig said the Afghan government, which supports the changes, would be given greater control over a "more flexible" Taliban list.

The negotiations about reform coincide with a request by the Afghan government to remove about 50 of the 138 names currently listed as Taliban. The proposed names are either no longer actively involved in the insurgency or are not regarded as posing a terrorist threat.

Particularly significant are five individuals who are members of the High Peace Council, a body established by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to lay the grounds for peace talks. Last week the Guardian reported that the UK and US were backing the changes in the hope they would encourage the Taliban to engage in peace talks with Karzai's government.

Wittig, who is also chairman of the UN's al-Qaida and Taliban sanctions committee, said the proposals - which include "sunset clauses" to prevent individuals languishing on the sanction list indefinitely - remained controversial with some of the 15 members, and unanimous agreement would have to be achieved by 17 June.

Russia, which suffered heavy losses during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, is seen as the main block to the proposals. Moscow fears that the Taliban continues to maintain important links with al-Qaida, and is sceptical that the Islamist movement can be incorporated into a political settlement in Afghanistan.

Wittig said the Russians were still open to discussions and Afghan officials would be lobbying Moscow to back the changes. It is hoped that the other leading doubters, India and China, will follow Russia's lead.

It is unusual for the committee to consider delisting a large number of people with Taliban associations in one go. A decision on whether to remove them will be required by next Friday and Wittig predicted that it was very unlikely all of them would be struck off.

Delisting has long been plagued with difficulties, including the problem of collecting accurate information on many individuals, some of whom are believed to have been dead for many years.

"We have to manage expectations," Wittig said. "Not all of that 50 will be delisted but if we can come up with a couple of names that would send a good signal, I think."

The sanctions, which were first imposed in 1999 when the Taliban was still in power, have long angered former high-ranking officials in the Taliban regime now living peacefully in Kabul.

It is hoped that sanctions reform and the delisting will send a signal to insurgent leaders that the Afghan government is serious about allowing fighters to come out of hiding. It could also allow those with continued ties with the movement to travel to a proposed overseas Taliban "office" where it is hoped all sides of the conflict could hold discussions.


Jon Boone in Kabul

The GuardianTramp

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