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Challenges in Talking with the Taliban

By Syed Ali Mujtaba Syed

February 19, 2012

The withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan by 2014 has set into motion a hastened process of reconciliation. Among the flurry of activities that is going on, the most conspicuous is the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban, the key stakeholders in building durable stability in the war torn country. 

It’s a foregone conclusion that if long term peace has to be established in Afghanistan, then it is essential to have a political settlement with the Taliban.

 Now when the US has changed its strategy from fighting the Taliban to reconciliation with them realizing that it cannot militarily defeat them negotiations have started at Jeddah, Qatar and in Kabul. 

 However the most complex part is with whom the negotiation has to be held. Taliban is a faction ridden organization and reconciliation with one can become source of animosity with other.

 How the negotiators can satisfy all the groups and how can they tackle the disgruntled one, is something that needs to be carefully watched.   

 It would be an interesting exercise to give some thought on the Taliban groups, their composition, to draw conclusion whether the talks would materialize in bringing the Taliban into the mainstream.

 At the moment Taliban is a fragmented lot with different views and factions emerging among them. The newer and younger field commanders who have borne the brunt of field casualties facing up to the US troops surge are more radicalized or extreme in their views.

 Some of these mobile troop commanders in the field, to whom Pakistani patrons are no longer that popular, do not feel inhibited to maintain connections with the Iranian Basij. Now, given the US Iran relationship, this negotiation process becomes complicated.

 Others are more receptive to insurgency fatigue experienced by common people at the grassroots and their support is openly voiced in favour of better civic amenities and education for girls in rural Afghanistan. This is the section which is more amenable for negotiations.

 There are three main Shooras that are known to exist and that forms the core body of the Talibs. The Quetta Shoora based in Quetta and most directly under the charge of Mullah Omar. The Peshawar Shoora, earlier known to be in control of Mullah Akhtar Mansour and the Miramshah Shoora of the Haqqanis (Jalaluddin’s sons-Siraj, Nasir) predominantly under influence of the Zadran tribes are the main pivots of the Taliban with whom negotiations is to held. 

 In more recent times, individual commanders have become prominent and established independent following or support bases.

 Maulvi Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former Gauntanamo inmate who was released by the US sometime back has emerged as Mullah Omar’s Combat Operations Commander.

 Other prominent leaders include Maulvi Hassan Rahmani, considered ideologically close to Mullah Omar and possibly inclined to moderation.

 Maulvi Abdul Rauf Khadim who earlier commanded Taliban’s mobile field reserves and is now shadow Governor for Uruzgan. He is seen as a potential rival to Maulvi Abdul Qayyum Zakir and is allied with the camp of Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

 The current shadow Governor of Kandahar, Mullah Abdul Razzaq Akhund is considered one of the hardliner, anti- US ideologues that have a brutal record against its opponents.

 Amir Khan Muttaqi is a senior leader heading their propaganda wing. Maulvi Ishmayel is known as the kidnappings expert.

 Maulvi Gul Mohd has been successful in the North while Sheikh Mohd Dost is a Taliban leader from the minority Pashai tribe.

 Though tactical linkages of Afghan Taliban with the Pakistani continues, none of the above second string Taliban leaders are known to be unduly close to the hardliner like Hakimullah Mehsud.

 They were once closer to the Mullah Dadullah faction, but known to have weakened or even dissipated after the latter’s death.

 So this is the broad spectrum of the Talibs the situation on ground is muddy. It is with these factions that the negotiations have to be held. The negotiations that are being held, it remains to be seen who all can be won over and who all will fall out. 

 Known Taliban demands openly voiced and reiterated from time to time are release of all Guantanamo Bay prisoners. There are about twenty such personnel known to be held.

 There are reports of agreement being reached with US interlocutors on release of eight such high value targets including Mullah Khairkhowa, believed to be close to Mullah Omar and considered a moderate, in comparative terms.

 Release of all prisoners held inside Afghanistan. Removal of UN sanctions- acceptance of Taliban as a political organization- declaration of a ceasefire and a time schedule for complete withdrawal of all foreign forces, are some other demands.

 Acknowledgement of Shariah principles- incorporation of Shariah law provisions in some form in the Constitution is also being demanded.

 Extension of a comprehensive guarantee of a substantive role in governance after a power sharing agreement has been negotiated.

 An essential corollary to this demand would be a purge of existing ANA/ANP forces to alter their ethnic composition and amalgamate their own mobilised armed personnel in some workable or acceptable proportion.

 Some progress appears to have been made in discussion of these demands. There were reports that President Karzai had been able to reach out to Mullah Khairkhowa and was favourably inclined towards his early release and utilization thereafter, as a conduit to Mullah Omar.

 As troop withdrawals begin at year-end, it remains to be seen how Taliban behave, will they remain content with the agreement reached if any, or will they break free and force themselves on Kabul. In such case, who and how they could be reined.

 In such backdrop, any peace process in Afghanistan has to address its military and political dimensions. In the military dimension, it would be imperative for those won over to suggest changes to the pattern of ongoing fighting operations.

 Their advice also needs to be sought whether there should be conditional or localised ceasefires mutually agreed upon, to stop aerial bombardment, whether Taliban could be given legal recognition in some areas which they control, whether a time-table could be worked out for de-escalation, which would include surrenders or voluntary arms disclosure.

 If accepted, these changes could provide grounds to take negotiations further but these need trust, which is currently just not there between the negotiators.

 On the political side, negotiators would need to work out which aspects of the Constitution would be acceptable to the Taliban and what would be the nature and content of any package of Islamic tenets, the Taliban may insist on being recognized before any power sharing deal takes shape.

 American interlocutors, Afghan government and Taliban negotiators would have to develop and communicate these military and political proposals and see how they inter-mesh with the actual situation on the ground.

 As of now the reconciliation agenda in Afghanistan is likely to remain mired in imponderables and proceed at best, in fits and starts.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He recently attended an international conference Debating future of Afghanistan in New Delhi. He can be contacted at

Source: Ground Report