In Afghanistan, a Fragmented Taliban Plans for the U.S. Withdrawal

8 MINS READMay 21, 2014 | 09:17 GMT
In Afghanistan, a Fragmented Taliban Plans for the U.S. Withdrawal
Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (L) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Taliban will find it difficult to exploit the drawdown of NATO forces from Afghanistan that is currently under way. This is partly due to the fact that the Afghan government has made progress consolidating itself in recent years while the Taliban movement has suffered setbacks, especially in terms of fragmentation. The Taliban's factions disagree among themselves on whether or with whom to hold negotiations, have shown no aptitude or interest in the electoral process, and despite the Afghan security forces' limitations, have not been able to hold and control any significant territory in the country.

Because the Taliban are too weak to force negotiations, the group is planning the largest military campaign since its ouster from Kabul in 2001 to destabilize the country enough that the next Afghan government feels compelled to offer the Taliban a spot at the negotiating table on their own terms. It is not clear that such a strategy will work, but even if it fails the Taliban will not simply disappear, which will prolong an increasingly directionless conflict.

It has been almost a year since the first-ever public negotiations between the United States and the Afghan Taliban failed even before they began in the Qatari capital. Since the closure of the Taliban office in Doha, divisions within the group have proliferated. A faction of the group led by its former finance minister, Agha Jan Motasim, has been engaged in parallel talks in Dubai with the Afghan government. Not only are these talks unauthorized by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but the core of the movement has been against negotiating with the Afghan state as well.

From the Taliban's point of view, negotiations could only be held with the United States, since that would provide international recognition to the movement — something it has lacked since its emergence in 1994 and through the five years it held power in Kabul from 1996 to 2001. By engaging with the United States, the Taliban had hoped to avoid merely integrating themselves into the Afghan state through a power-sharing deal and instead forced a restructuring of the existing political system in such a way that the jihadist movement had a guaranteed position in the state. To a great degree, this strategy was informed by the fact that the Taliban have neither the intent nor the capability to engage in electoral politics.

The Costs of Taliban Fragmentation

The Taliban's efforts to negotiate with the United States have clearly failed to produce the desired results, and Motasim's efforts to negotiate with Kabul have exacerbated the movement's divisions. It is not clear how much influence Motasim's faction has over the commanders and militants waging the insurgency, but the fact that the government of outgoing President Hamid Karzai has engaged this breakaway faction shows that Motasim and his allies are far from being fringe players. In fact, authorities in the United Arab Emirates detained Motasim in April and the Afghan government went out of its way to get him released.

Underscoring the internal divisions, a number of Motasim's key associates have been killed in Pakistan in recent months — likely by the main Taliban faction and its supporters within Pakistan. Motasim himself survived an assassination attempt in Karachi in August 2010, and was forced to relocate with his family to Istanbul. It is clear that the renegade faction led by Motasim is one that the Taliban are not taking lightly.

But this faction is not the only internal problem that the Taliban face. Syed Akbar Agha, the cousin of a top aide to Mullah Omar who has been the main interlocutor between the Taliban leader and the Americans, has formed a mainstream political party in Afghanistan. Himself a former Taliban insurgent leader, Agha in late April announced the formation of Salvation Movement, whose stated goal is to solve the problems caused by the decadeslong civil war and has within its fold many former Taliban officials.

Agha has thus joined a long list of former Taliban officials who maintain links to the insurgency movement but have effectively joined mainstream Afghan politics. These include the Taliban regime's former foreign minister, its former envoy to Pakistan, and its former envoy to the United Nations, who is currently the deputy chair of the government's High Peace Council. While these people have long distanced themselves from the insurgency, the current Taliban core is experiencing dissent as well.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran

In April, Mullah Omar removed the movement's military chief, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, after he ran into problems with the leadership council. Zakir, a former inmate at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, was considered a hard-liner who opposed the talks that were favored by Mullah Omar's deputy for political affairs, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. The two had been appointed to replace Mullah Omar's longtime deputy and co-founder of the movement, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had been captured by a joint U.S.-Pakistani task force in Karachi in January 2010 and has since been in Pakistani custody.

Baradar was in secret communication with the Karzai government when he was arrested, and it is unclear whether he was acting under orders from Omar and the rest of the leadership council. Since his arrest, the leadership of the movement has undergone further divisions, especially after Omar himself decided to engage in talks with the United States. Initially, Omar replaced Zakir with Omar's stepbrother, but the leadership council reportedly objected to the move and in early May Ibrahim Sadar was appointed the new military chief. Earlier this year, Sadar was among a number of Taliban figures released by Pakistani authorities at the request of the Afghan government.

Pakistan's Role

Facing a ferocious domestic Taliban insurgency of its own, Islamabad is no longer as closely allied with the Afghan Taliban as it once was. In fact, over the past four years, the Pakistanis have taken significant steps to reach out to anti-Taliban forces — both the Karzai regime and the ethnic minority communities. Islamabad's goal has been to secure a power-sharing settlement between the Afghan state and the Taliban rebels, the idea being that if the Afghan Taliban can be brought into the mainstream, Pakistan can better manage its own Taliban rebels with whom it has been trying to negotiate.

The Pakistanis have not been successful for a number of reasons, including the fragmented nature of the Afghan Taliban movement, the differences within the Pakistani state vis-a-vis the Afghan jihadist movement, and the fact that Islamabad's influence over the Taliban is not what it used to be, something that the Pakistani prime minister's foreign affairs adviser recently acknowledged. In fact, in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sartaj Aziz was quoted as saying that it is not in Islamabad's interest to have the Afghan Taliban control territory along the border with Pakistan and suggested that perhaps the Taliban could be brought into the Afghan political system by appointing some of their people as governors or through other unelected posts.

Pakistan's new attitude toward the Afghan Taliban has contributed to the latter's limitations, but politics may prove an even more decisive obstacle. One round of Afghan presidential elections has already successfully transpired. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who has been an outspoken foe of the jihadists, is expected to win the second round. The national mood has little appetite for the ideological goals of the Taliban, and even among fellow ethnic Pashtuns the Taliban have very little room to exploit given the high turnout in the election and the fact that each presidential contender has run on a multi-ethnic slate. With NATO forces drawing down by the end of the year and Afghan army, intelligence and police increasingly shouldering security responsibilities, the Taliban's argument that the country is under foreign occupation is proving less and less convincing to Afghans.

Further undermining that perception is the tense relationship Hamid Karzai has had with Washington since the Obama administration came to office in 2009, especially with Karzai's more recent refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States that would allow a residual American force of around 10,000 troops to remain in country until 2024. Eventually, Karzai's successor will likely sign the agreement, which is tied to billions in foreign aid that Kabul will remain dependent upon for years. This could give the Taliban an opening to criticize the government as controlled by foreign interests, but their immediate strategy is more straightforward.

The Taliban's Strategy

Cognizant of the challenges they face, the Taliban in early May promised to launch the largest offensive since their ouster in 2001 against the Afghan regime this year, with the intended aim of demonstrating the Afghan government's fragility. It will be some time before the Taliban can show that they are able to threaten the survival of the Afghan state, and there is no guarantee that this will happen. If they can do so, the Taliban's thinking goes, the movement can dictate peace terms to the government. The Taliban believe they must act before the next president consolidates his government and has a chance to show that it can contain the insurgents on its own.

The Taliban will focus on creating insecurity in the southern and eastern parts of the country — their core territory. While these two parts of the country and certain pockets within the north and west contain ungoverned spaces, the Taliban have not shown an ability to control territory. There is a chance that once only residual forces remain, the Taliban could seize control of certain areas in the south and east. To a great degree, this will depend on cooperation between the Afghan and Pakistani governments, or the lack thereof.

Abdullah, who has been critical of Pakistan, appears likely to succeed Karzai, and these existing tensions and mutual suspicions between Islamabad and Kabul could help the Taliban. While both sides' leaders have promised to put the past behind them, there are powerful interests in each government that continue to operate from the old paradigms.

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban rebels both see the other country's territory as a safe haven where they can hold out when their respective insurgency is under siege. The next few years will see this dynamic play out, leading to the creation of de facto emirates in the border region. While they will not be able to overwhelm the Afghan and Pakistani states, these Taliban fiefdoms will remain a security challenge for both countries for the foreseeable future.

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