In Afghanistan, Peace Talks Face an Uncertain Future

6 MINS READAug 10, 2015 | 09:30 GMT
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani addresses a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on July 12.

Peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban have reached a stalemate in the days since news broke that Mullah Mohammad Omar had died more than two years ago. The talks aim to yield some sort of power-sharing agreement to end more than a decade of fighting between the internationally recognized government in Kabul and the former Taliban leadership of the country. The news of Mullah Omar's death, however, has exacerbated deep divisions in the Taliban and thwarted attempts by interested outside parties, primarily Pakistan, India and China, to shape the talks. Outside powers and the Taliban are now scrambling to determine who exactly speaks for the Afghan militant group.

Kabul and neighboring states will struggle to contain the rising violence as various Taliban factions try to entrench themselves ahead of an anticipated drawdown of U.S. troops in 2016. The process is also likely to see greater involvement of regional states in Afghan affairs. While Pakistan has traditionally been the country most involved in Afghan affairs, India and China will exploit a window of opportunity to expand their respective footprints in Afghanistan with an eye toward Central Asia.

Afghanistan offers opportunities and risks to outsiders. It sits on substantial mineral reserves in its own right — Kabul often claims the country's ore and mineral deposits are worth trillions — and straddles key energy transit routes between Central Asia and South Asia. But violence between the Taliban and Kabul continues to undermine Afghanistan's economic potential. Meanwhile, weak governance and violence have created a haven for regional militants (with the Islamic State posing a more publicized than actually competent challenge to the Afghan Taliban). Islamist militants based in Afghanistan threaten both Pakistan and India. Moreover, Beijing is increasingly worried about Islamist militancy along its western flank aggravating China's ethnic Uighur insurgency and about the threat of violence to its growing investments in Central Asia, which include proposals for rail routes.

To tackle Afghanistan's security problem, outsiders have backed peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. These were expected to continue from late July through August, with China joining Pakistan as host. The revelation, however, of the death of Mullah Omar — who was frequently cited by Taliban factions as approving of talks — in a Karachi hospital more than two years ago caused the negotiations to fall apart. The collapse was due as much to internal conflicts as to serious questions from the governments involved over just whom they were negotiating with.

The Taliban Leadership Question

The Taliban's rifts reflect Afghanistan's mountainous geography, which has created a society divided by numerous ethnic, sectarian, familial and tribal loyalties and regional affiliations. Mullah Omar was one of the few unifying elements in the Taliban who could bridge such rifts. Those divisions re-emerged once the National Directorate of Security on July 29 released details of his death.

The Taliban are thought to have several factions. The main split at present lies between those backing Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the longtime deputy of Mullah Omar, and relatives of the deceased Taliban leader.

In the days following the announcement of Mullah Omar's death, Mullah Mansoor claimed the leadership of the Taliban with the approval of a group of Taliban leaders meeting as the Quetta shura, or council, in Pakistan. Mullah Mansoor has long been believed to be close to the Pakistani government, particularly the state's spy branch, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

But Mullah Mansoor has not been universally acclaimed as Mullah Omar's successor. Relatives of the late Taliban leader have rejected Mullah Mansoor's move, including Mullah Abdul Manan, Mullah Omar's brother, and Mullah Yaqub, the former leader's son. According to recent rumors, Mullah Yaqub has since died. Meanwhile, Mullah Abdul Manan has pushed for a broader shura of senior Taliban leaders to determine Mullah Omar's successor.

Even the Taliban's political office in Doha, set up to facilitate negotiations between the Taliban and governments such as the United States and Afghanistan, has not been immune to turmoil. It announced that it was unaware of any peace talks, while Doha office head Syed Mohammad Tayyab Agha resigned following Mullah Mansoor's announcement. Though Tayyab Agha was close to Mullah Omar, the departure of the longtime rival of Mullah Mansoor from the political office will have little impact on the peace process in Afghanistan. It has, however, called into question future interactions between the Doha branch and foreign governments.

A delegation from the Doha office led by Qari Din Mohammad visited Chinese officials earlier this year in January as part of China's efforts to expand its economic footprint in Afghanistan's extractive resources sector and to halt the flow of militants. With Tayyab Agha's departure and his promises to remain neutral in the ensuing leadership competition no longer certain, governments such as Beijing seeking to engage the Taliban will likely have to deal instead with the Afghan government — or, given China's lack of Afghan ties, with the Pakistani government — directly.

Afghanistan Divided Over Peace Talks

Divisions over peace talk strategies are not exclusive to the Taliban. The 2014 Afghan presidential election, though largely peaceful, did not result in a conclusive victory for either of the top two candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who are now in an uneasy power-sharing agreement as president and chief executive officer, respectively. The timing of the leaks from the National Directorate of Security regarding Mullah Omar's death exposed divisions within the Afghan government over proceeding with peace talks with the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, given its role as a guarantor of state security, the National Directorate of Security has long had an antagonistic relationship with the Taliban. Many in it balk at the idea of striking a deal, or possibly even a power-sharing agreement, with what they consider a terrorist organization.

So serious are the governmental rifts that they will likely overshadow the Taliban's internal competition. Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which likely has long known about Mullah Omar's death and helped pro-peace talk factions keep the situation secret as they invoked Mullah Omar's name to convince other factions to engage in negotiations, will worsen this competition. Kabul's divided government and Pakistan's own domestic political woes will likely see both state intelligence services operate without meaningful government oversight.

Taliban infighting will also risk creating an environment similar to the one in Libya after Moammar Gadhafi, where a militant threat has occupied the power vacuum left by a lack of national or local government structures. Afghanistan experienced the same instability after the Soviet withdrawal, when competing warlords ravaged the country in a destructive competition. That chaos and lawlessness helped the Taliban rise to power as many Afghans welcomed them for providing much-needed stability.

Further complicating matters, should peace negotiations resume, the Taliban's first priority in any negotiations will be a return to power. Regional players are aiming for some semblance of regional stability, but the Taliban are playing a longer game. The Taliban movement in Afghanistan has been in a state of war since its inception, and many of its fighters participated in conflict for decades before that. For many, the U.S. occupation was just the latest round of that conflict. There is still a great deal of work to be done in bringing Taliban leaders to the table for talks on peace.

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