The admission by the Taliban that its leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had in fact died two years ago has appeared to derail nascent talks between the group and the government of Afghanistan. The confusion that has been on display over the past week or so has also exposed some serious rifts within the Taliban, with a hardline faction clearly opposed to any peace negotiations with Kabul. The new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour has promised to continue fighting, but it is unclear how much control he has over the Taliban rank and file.
In early July, Pakistan hosted a first round of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the resort town of Murree, adjacent to Islamabad. The Murree meeting followed a series of unofficial interactions between the Afghan government and the Taliban representatives in recent months in China, Norway and Qatar. Independent Pakistani analysts say that Pakistan played a crucial role in facilitating the talks, convincing reluctant Taliban representatives to come to the negotiating table. The Muree talks ended with an agreement to meet again after several weeks. That second meeting has now been postponed.
“The talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are a breakthrough, as Pakistan delivered on first step: direct engagement,” Jan Achakzai, a political analyst based in Islamabad, told The Diplomat before news of Mullah Omar’s death became known, adding, “It is the first time the major stakeholders were present at the meeting, and this boosted this position of [Afgan President] Ashraf Ghani.”
Kabul and Islamabad have long played a blame game with each other. In the wake of the July 22 attack on the Afghan parliament, an Afghan intelligence report that pointed the finger at Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate again threatened to derail relations between the two countries. Pakistan meanwhile accuses Afghanistan of providing the Tehriki-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP’s) leadership with safe sanctuaries. Afghanistan responds that Pakistan has given haven to the Afghan Taliban. A Karachi-based analyst, who did not wish to be named told The Diplomat, “Since 1974, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations have not been friendly. Relations became even more tense when former Afghan President Hamid Karzai was in power. To him, since the Soviet jihad of the 1980s, Pakistan had treated Afghanistan like its fifth province, as well as a strategic asset. And so besides accusing Pakistan of providing sanctuaries for the Afghan Taliban, Karzai also preferred India over Pakistan.”
Pursuing a very different foreign policy from that of his predecessor, Ghani visited Pakistan soon after taking office, while prevailing on China and Saudi Arabia to help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. With his softer approach towards Pakistan, the Afghan president faced scathing criticism at home. Still, despite terror attacks in Afghanistan, Ghani sent an Afghan delegation to the talks in Pakistan.
Two other key stakeholders, the U.S. and China, also attended the meeting as observers, which they termed as a “positive development.” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest called the meeting in Pakistan “an important step toward advancing prospect for a credible peace.” For its part, China is interested in the talks for two important reasons: First, China and Afghanistan share a small and porous border, and Beijing worries that insurgents in Xinjiang could take advantage of it. Second, Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently announced $46 billion of investment in Pakistan, for a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The route goes through some volatile regions, and this is motivating China to push Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
What now? Even before the admission of Mullah Omar’s death, some reports questioned whether the Taliban had actually authorized the Murree meeting. “Analysts and diplomats describe the statement by the White House welcoming the Murree meeting as an acknowledgement of the importance of the talks. Some Afghan experts, however, are sceptical that [a] fractious Taliban could be truly interested in a peace process after several recent success on the battlefield and high-profile attacks in Kabul and other major Afghan cities,” wrote noted Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain in Dawn.
Many analysts say that Taliban commanders on the ground were highly skeptical about the Murree meeting. One of them is the commander Ershad Ghazi, in the eastern province of Kunar, which is close to Pakistan. Ghazi called the Murree delegation puppets of Islamabad, and was quoted as saying that they did not truly represent the Taliban group, who were brought to the meeting by Pakistan. The ones who represent the Taliban, Ghazi added, are based in Qatar.
Not surprisingly, then, analysts were noting divisions within the Taliban even before the leadership issue erupted. Achakzai, the political analyst, told The Diplomat that the talks faced serious challenges: the issue of the Taliban’s unity; the roadmap from cease fire, to dialogue, and interim deal; and potential spoilers such as ISIS, the hardline Taliban, and proxy sponsors.
Afghan journalist Raza Wazir adds that the recent talks split the Taliban into two groups: one in the favor of peace, the other staunchly opposed. That division is now open. New leader Mansoour was believed to have been in favor of talks, but analysts now think he may distance himself from negotiations in order to “consolidate his support among Taliban fighters.” Recent events suggest that the internal divisions may in fact lead to a fragmentation of the Taliban.
Wazir notes that the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan has complicated the situation, with ISIS now appearing to many to be more capable. He continues, “The key issue the Taliban is facing regarding talks is maintaining the unity of its rank and file. For years, the ground fighters have waged war under the banner of jihad, which is why it is now difficult for them to talk with the ‘puppet government.’” Besides, ISIS represents an alternative, and the Taliban leadership worries that if it negotiates it may relinquish its position as the only armed and united opposition to the Kabul administration.