A resumption of long-stalled peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban may be in jeopardy. The Taliban issued a statement noting that Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the leader of the group since Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death was revealed last summer, had not accepted any invitation to return to peace talks. “We unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorised anyone to participate in this meeting,” the Taliban noted in a statement.
Mansour, like Omar before him, has largely kept silent and remained in the shadows since prevailing in a power struggle to lead the Taliban after Omar. While Mansour controls a large portion of the Afghan Taliban, a splinter group has rallied around Mullah Mohammad Rassoul in western Afghanistan. Given Mansour’s apparent lack of interest in peace talks and splits within Taliban ranks, the prospect of a return to productive peace talks appears remote, despite efforts by regional powers and the Afghan government.
The Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which comprises the United States, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and met officially for the first time in January 2016, was aiming for a resumption of peace talks in March. The Afghan government, for practical purposes, recognize the Mansour-led Taliban faction as the group’s “legitimate interlocutor.” Crucially, Mansour’s faction is represented by the Taliban’s political office in Qatar. According to Dawn, Pakistan’s powerful chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif, had traveled to Doha in February to encourage the Taliban to participate in the QCG-backed talks. The Pakistani military is thought to exercise the most influence over the Afghan Taliban of any state group in the region.
With the Taliban’s refusal to participate, the QCG’s efforts at resuming reconciliation and peace talks have been scuttled once again. The group initially had set a deadline to resume the talks in February, but the Taliban’s inflexibility and lack of interest delayed matters. With this second round of failure, Pakistan’s ability to exercise influence over Mansour’s Taliban will likely come under question.
Recently, Sartaj Aziz, adviser on foreign affairs to Pakistan’s prime minister, acknowledged publicly that the leadership of the Afghan Taliban live in Pakistan, giving the Pakistan government influence over their decision-making. “We have some influence on them because their leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities, their families are here. So we can use those levers to pressurise them to say, ‘come to the table’,” he said.
While Aziz’s statement reflects much of the conventional wisdom on how Pakistan used to exercise influence over the Taliban, at least in the days when the group was still thought to be a fairly unitary organization under Mullah Omar’s thumb, the repeated failures of Pakistan-led efforts to realize the QCG-backed talks suggest that influence may have waned with last year’s turbulent leadership transition within the group.
Despite these setbacks, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group will likely meet soon to assess a path forward for the talks.