The South Asia Channel
It’s Complicated: The Relationship Between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Taliban
How will these complex relations impact peace negotiations and a lasting solution?
The Afghan Taliban have grown stronger and more deadly over the past 13 years, something Pakistan is often blamed for by Afghans and some in the international community. Thus, Pakistan is seen as the key player in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table. However, the Taliban claims their militancy in Afghanistan is completely independent of Pakistan. In this context, there are three major concerns associated with materializing peace talk efforts between Afghanistan and the Taliban. First, it remains unclear whether Pakistan will cooperate in the Afghan peace process and urge the Taliban to stop fighting. Second, and of most interest, is whether the Taliban will listen to Pakistan. Third, Afghanistan’s role in a lasting and enforceable settlement has yet to be determined.
Pakistan is increasingly threatened by militancy on its own soil and fears the consequences of pressuring the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. This concern is evident in the remarks of the Pakistani National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz in Nov. 2014. Aziz said that Pakistan should not antagonize groups that pose no threat to it. In reference to the Afghan Taliban he argued: “Why should America’s and [Afghanistan’s] enemies unnecessarily become Pakistan’s enemies and that Pakistan must not make enemies out of them all.”
The Taliban are not likely to listen to Pakistan regarding the peace process for many reasons — threats to internal and political stability, ideological motivations, and trust issues with both the Afghan and Pakistani governments. The Taliban cannot appear to bow to Pakistan’s interests and disarming while there is a continued foreign military presence in the country would be no less than political suicide for the group. In a discussion with the author in early Dec. 2014, Wakil Ahmad Matawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, argued that if the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, agreed to peace in the current situation, he would lose all credibility.
Lost credibility could form fractures within the Taliban leading to the creation of splinter groups. Some argue that like Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who left al Qaeda and formed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or key Taliban commanders that broke away from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the same will happen to the Afghan Taliban if there is pressure mounted on them to negotiate. There are already rumors that Abdul Qayum Zakir — the Taliban’s number two and former leadership council head of military commission — was cashiered, and in response, defected to Iran where he wants set up a base.
Issues of ideology also plague the Taliban’s relationship with regional powers and can impede the peace process. According to Abdul Hakim Mujahid — who served as Taliban’s ambassador to the United Nations during their rule in the 1990s and is currently serving as the first deputy of the Afghan High Peace Council — during an interview in December 2014 said that the Taliban and Pakistani government have no convergence of ideology, only a shared interest in the conflict. Even ideological differences within the Taliban may prevent the group from listening to Pakistan. While many militants join the Taliban under radical Islamic motivations, others join for financial purposes or to exact revenge for personal grievances.
Illegal businesses — including the drug trade, timber, illegal mining, extortion, and taxing of development projects — not only serve as primary financial sources for the Afghan Taliban, but also inspire many to join the group. Afghan and international forces causing civilian casualties and insulting cultural and Islamic values also boosts the recruitment of non-ideological militants. These militants, pursuing profit or revenge from the Afghan government, will continue fighting regardless of the political settlement. The Taliban’s leadership understands the significance of such recruits within the Taliban’s ranks and, therefore, will not agree to peace negotiations that might result in the non-ideologues leaving.
Taliban leadership also believes that agreeing to negotiate with the government at this juncture will cost them the current influence they have.
Finally, peace may elude this round of negotiations because of the new administration in Afghanistan. First of all, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani endorsing the Bilateral Security Agreement and Status of Forces Agreement with the United States and NATO renewed one of the very reasons the Afghan Taliban fight. Moreover, there is an acute trust deficit between the Afghan Taliban and the Kabul administration — trust which is a prerequisite to any sort of settlement between the two sides.
Secondly, the Afghan government does not have a unified stance vis-a-vis peace talks with the Taliban. There are and have been internal elements within the Afghan government that oppose negotiations with the Taliban, and residual factional and tribal rivalries between senior officials intentionally ruin efforts by the government to reach a political settlement.
Ordinary Afghan villagers will also have an impact on peace talks. Villagers, sick of the corrupt and weak local governance favored the Taliban over the government in Kabul, but joined the militancy as a last alternative. The Taliban’s parallel governance has been able to deliver faster courts, with transparent and enforceable verdicts, while local Afghan governments detain innocent civilians and treat them inhumanely, making locals wonder why they should not just join the Taliban.
Due to providing safe-sanctuary, Pakistan certainly has leverage to initiate the negotiation process but there are no indications that the Afghan Taliban will listen to Pakistan. Instead, there are further demonstrations of tension in the Taliban-Pakistan relationship that includes the Taliban sending a delegation to Qatar to cut short Pakistan’s influence over the process — according to Matawakil — and the departure of prominent Taliban commander, Mansur Dadullah, and his fellow commanders from Pakistan, and low ranking Taliban commanders who were prevented from entering Pakistan for their winter break this year. Moreover, given the Taliban’s hatred towards Pakistan for allying with the United States immediately after 9/11, the group does not think favorably of Pakistan.
Internal and political stability of the Afghan Taliban is contingent upon not negotiating. And although the leadership is currently enjoying a sanctuary in Pakistan, given the mixed nature of ideological motivations between Taliban field commanders and the rank-and-file members, the war in Afghanistan seems beyond Pakistan’s control. Moreover, the growing influence of ISIS in the region will lead the Afghan Taliban to intensify its relations with TTP and ISIS so the three can work together to fight on two fronts.
In the meantime, by conditioning the success of peace talks on a commitment from Pakistan, the Afghan government is putting all its eggs in one basket. Afghanistan instead should also do its homework and undertake confidence-building measures to gain the trust of its people, address local grievances, and provide better living and governance to ensure an end to the Afghan Taliban.