The South Asia Channel
Who’s Talking for the Taliban?
The Afghan government's discussions with the Taliban earlier this month sparked hope for an eventual peace process, but were those in attendance speaking on behalf of the Taliban? Or will rifts between the Taliban's political office in Doha and the factions in the field prove fatal to negotiations?
One immediate and somewhat positive outcome of the first-ever direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government on July 7 is that it vindicated President Ashraf Ghani, who has been under criticism by his political opponents, particularly ex-president Hamid Karzai.
After less than two months in office, President Ghani traveled to Pakistan as the head of a high-level delegation to discuss peace in the region. The most conspicuous aspect of his three-day official trip was his meeting with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif at the military’s General Headquarters, the center of military strength which is viewed by many as the key arbiter in decision-making regarding Afghanistan.
However, the mounting attacks since his initial visit to Pakistan on cities and provincial centers in Afghanistan’s north (Kunduz, Faryab, and Jawzjan provinces) by an alliance of Central Asian, Pakistani, and Afghan militants combined with the pressure from political opponents forced President Ghani to the brink of reviewing his policy of putting too much faith in enlisting Pakistan’s help in restoring peace to his war-battered country.
As a last ditch effort to continue with the bonhomie generated by his November 2014 Islamabad visit, President Ghani wrote a letter, parts of which were leaked to media outlets, in which he requested the Pakistani civilian and military leadership to deny sanctuary to Afghan Taliban, show sincerity in backing the Afghan peace process, and take action against the Haqqani Network.
The environment of trust was further muddied by the botched up attack on the Afghan parliament in June following which Pakistan’s “dubious” role in the Afghan peace process was once again questioned in local and international media.
It was under this backdrop that Pakistan, under pressure from Ashraf Ghani, the key regional and international partners in the Afghan peace process and the media, organized the unprecedented meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives in its Murree Hill resort.
The talks at Murree Hill also pointed to Pakistan’s seriousness with the Afghan peace process and its support for President Ghani, who, unlike his predecessor Hamid Karzai, is known for his straightforwardness and practical approach towards issues ranging from corruption to mismanagement to human rights to peace building.
The meeting was unprecedented in another sense; besides key members of the Afghan High Peace Council and the National Unity Government being in attendance, representatives of different Taliban factions, including the Haqqanis were there, while senior U.S. and Chinese officials played a support role allowing Afghans to discuss the ways and means for ending the conflict and bringing peace and stability to their country.
Recently, China’s expanding role in the region has been seen with utmost interest, particularly after its multi-billion dollar investment in the Pak-China Economic Corridor project in Pakistan and its eyes on the untapped mineral resources in neighboring Afghanistan and central Asia.
Only a peaceful Afghanistan, referred to as the Heart of Asia by Pakistan’s national poet Muhammad Iqbal in his Persian verses, could ensure China’s reach to the vast energy resources in Central Asia beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan and its products could reach Europe reviving the legendary Silk Route.
The presence of Chinese representative in the Murree talks was more important mainly because China never played an active part in the decades-old Afghan conflict. Besides its leverage over Pakistan, the Taliban also see China as the best international guarantor; and China had already hosted a meeting of the Afghan peace envoy with the Taliban representatives in Urumqi in May.
Furthermore, it was the first time the Afghan government has expressed willingness to consider all demands and concerns presented by the Taliban to ensure peace in the country.
Soon after their return from Islamabad, the Afghan delegation expressed confidence in the authority of the Taliban delegation which, they said, was fully authorized by the Taliban Quetta Shura, a body of top Taliban office bearers responsible for the Taliban’s military operations, administration, and peace-making with the Afghan government.
However, the road ahead is long and bumpy. Despite an agreement on pursuing another round of talks after the month of fasting (which is supposed to end July 17), some signs of a rift or at least disagreement is visible in the Taliban rank and files over the issue of talks, or to put it more specifically, over the issue of who is authorized to speak on behalf of the Taliban movement — the Taliban’s political office at Doha, Qatar or the Quetta Shura in Pakistan?
In this regard, a statement released by the Taliban’s Qatar office just a day after the July 7 meeting was carrying both a message of hope and a sign of disagreement.
Unlike previous statements from the Taliban, the Pashto-language message circulated to the media this time was vague.
For example, the Taliban did not disapprove of the peace talks. Nor had they disowned the leaders who attended the July 7 meeting on behalf of the Taliban. Rather, the words expressed seemed more like a silent approval of the Murree talks and of the leaders who attended on the Taliban’s behalf, but with a certain degree of resentment or unwillingness to continue.
One apparent cause of that resentment could be seen in the second part of the two-paragraph statement, which reads (according to my translation): “(Only) the political office is responsible for all the internal and external affairs (relating to talks) and the political office has the authority to hold talks with local and foreigners anywhere and at any place.”
This shows the Qatar office’s unhappiness with the participation of the leaders of Quetta Shura in the Murree talks, which they believe falls under the purview of the Qatar office. Still, they did not disapprove of the talks and did not disown the leaders who joined in clear terms.
Quite understandably, the Taliban Qatar office sees the Quetta Shura more as a military wing while reserves the political role for itself. “In this case, they [the Qatar office] conveyed their unhappiness for being bypassed by the Quetta shura leaders,” says Danish Kadokhel, director of the Kabul-based Pajhwok Afghan News.
But without disapproving of the talks out right or disassociating themselves from the Taliban leaders who attended the meeting, the Qatar office statement said in its first paragraph that the “Taliban introduce changes in the abilities (responsibilities) of (their) officials from time to time for the purpose to ensure progress and betterment.”
This diplomatically written line is either meant to support the participation of the Taliban leaders in Murree talks in ambiguous terms only to avoid resentment in the fighters and field commanders, many of whom are unhappy with peace efforts and want to continue their ‘holy war,’ particularly after the withdrawal of most of the international troops from Afghanistan, or to hide the stroke of being bypassed and rendered useless by the Quetta Shura, which is the key authority of decision-making regarding war and peace.
In any case, the rift is visible and if it continues to spread, it may create adverse effects on the nascent peace talks, says Kadokhel, who believes the switching over of some Taliban fighters and low-rank commanders and to ISIS is a looming threat for the Taliban insurgency, which remained united for the past 14 years and survived the hardest circumstances.
Since the parties to the July 7 meeting have agreed to hold another round of talks after the month of fasting, analysts look forward to the participants from the Taliban side.
It is most likely that the Taliban Qatar office and Quetta Shura come to an agreement and select delegates for the next round of talks that may likely be arranged outside Pakistan.
If that happens, it will save the peace process as well as the Taliban movement. If not, it could be the beginning of another long, drawn out conflict that may pave the way for strengthening ISIS, luring away Taliban fighters and mid-ranking commanders who don’t want to end the war and those unsure of which Taliban group to side with.
AISAL AL-TIMIMI/AFP/Getty Images