Whatsapp with the Taliban | Free press

For the Sunday of two weeks ago, which changed everything in Afghanistan, he had booked plane tickets to Kabul. The luggage was ready, the letter of credentials as ambassador, which he intended to hand over to President Ashraf Ghani, was available. However, the head of state fled the country when the Taliban approached the capital, provoking resistance from the army …

For the Sunday of two weeks ago, which changed everything in Afghanistan, he had booked plane tickets to Kabul. The luggage was ready, the letter of credentials as ambassador, which he intended to hand over to President Ashraf Ghani, was available. But the head of state fled the country when the Taliban approached the capital, which completely collapsed the army’s resistance – and for Markus Potzel the mission and purpose of his trip changed.

The 55-year-old diplomat now works in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Under the protection of the Emir, the Taliban have maintained there since 2013 a sort of foreign ministry, the “Taliban Political Office”. Negotiations have been going on with them here for years – with the former Afghan government over integrating Islamists into a future political order, with President Donald Trump’s US administration over the Western troop withdrawal deal, that the Taliban finally signed in February 2020, that the Taliban are now for Seize Power.

Potzel accompanied these talks intensely, first as German Ambassador to Kabul, which he once served between 2014 and 2017, then as Federal Government Commissioner for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its special mandate is to wrest concessions from the Taliban. He would have to negotiate security guarantees and exit options for those whom Germany was no longer able to evacuate – and ideally also commitments to minimum standards of democracy and human rights in Afghanistan.

Every three or four days, Potzel meets his most important contact, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the head of representation in Doha. This is seen as a reliable transmitter of messages to Taliban leaders around Hibatullah Achundsada, who is now in Kabul. And if things have to go fast, Potzel can also call or write a Whatsapp directly to the cell phone.

Potzel got to know the Taliban who, in exile in Qatar, found that although Sharia law applies, bars serve alcohol and bikinis can be seen on the beach. Either pious warrior wonders if it makes sense to repeat the ruthless regime of yesteryear and exclude women from work and education. Or punish all those who have cooperated with the West. Without the better educated classes, there would be no Taliban state, and without foreign money either.

This is the lever for Markus Potzel, who grew up in the GDR, joined the foreign service in 1993 and later became the personal adviser to Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD). He feels in a good negotiating position: if the Taliban do not want everyone to flee in panic, they must give security guarantees. If they want development aid to be delivered again or even the long-awaited recognition of Western states, they need to get involved instead of intimidating them.

He has already won a negotiation. His counterpart Stanikzai has promised that Afghans with valid papers will be allowed to leave the country even after the western evacuation operation is over. The only problem is that the German Embassy in Kabul is currently closed and it is not at all predictable if and when Markus Potzel will be able to start his ambassadorial activity there. Until then, he will have to write many WhatsApp messages to the Taliban.

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