After the news that the Afghan Taliban had signalled willingness to enter talks to end Afghanistan’s long war, senior representatives of the militant group visited Islamabad for secret discussions on the next step forward. They left with a blunt message from Pakistan the Taliban must end a rift between top leaders, or talks might never get off the ground. The two senior Taliban figures in question over their difference over peace talks are political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who favours negotiation, and battlefield commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, who opposes talks with Kabul. Pakistan is seen as the key player in bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table. But it is tough to get insurgents and the Afghan government around the same table, let alone agree a lasting peace, even with help from Pakistan, the Taliban’s erstwhile backer that still wields influence over them. This division and disagreement between what is sometimes described as the difference between the military (against negotiations) and the political (in favour of negotiations) wings of the Taliban points at one of the central challenges of any peace process in the region namely will the Taliban leadership represented by the Quetta Shura be able to convince its fighters in the case of an agreement?
The success of these proposed peace talk is highly doubtful. Wakil Ahmad Matawakil, the former Taliban foreign minister, argued that if the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, agreed to peace in the current situation, he would lose all credibility. Lost credibility could form fractures within the Taliban leading to the creation of splinter groups. Some argue that like Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who left al Qaeda and formed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or key Taliban commanders that broke away from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the same will happen to the Afghan Taliban if there is pressure mounted on them to negotiate. Issues of ideology also plague the Taliban’s relationship with regional powers and can impede the peace process. According to Abdul Hakim Mujahid who served as Taliban’s ambassador to the United Nations during their rule in the 1990s and is currently serving as the first deputy of the Afghan High Peace Council said that the Taliban and Pakistani government have no convergence of ideology, only a shared interest in the conflict. Even ideological differences within the Taliban may prevent the group from listening to Pakistan. While many militants join the Taliban under radical Islamic motivations, others join for financial purposes or to exact revenge for personal grievances.
There is another very valid question that why should there be a change in this stance of now when conditions look extremely favourable for the Afghan Taliban in the face of the withdrawal of most coalition forces? What would the Afghan Taliban gain by opening negotiations with a government which would not be able, by all accounts, to withstand a potential determined onslaught by the Taliban as 2016 approaches. As coalition forces draw down, the Taliban has recast its mission from one resisting foreign occupation to one that is confronting a government it considers a Western pawn. Meanwhile, its battlefield position and financial interests further reduce its incentives to negotiate. Illegal businesses including the drug trade, timber, illegal mining, extortion, and taxing of development projects not only serve as primary financial sources for the Afghan Taliban, but also inspire many to join the group. Afghan and international forces causing civilian casualties and insulting cultural and Islamic values also boosts the recruitment of non-ideological militants. These militants, pursuing profit or revenge from the Afghan government, will continue fighting regardless of any political settlement. The Taliban’s leadership understands the significance of such recruits within the Taliban’s ranks and, therefore, will not agree to peace negotiations that might result in the non-ideologues leaving. Strong revenues from a bumper poppy harvest and other illicit trade have further reduced the Taliban’s incentives to reach a negotiated settlement. Some Taliban factions have become less an ideology-driven armed opposition group than a profit-driven mafia.
Furthermore the Taliban movement has splintered, with several commanders emerging to challenge the supremacy of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the reclusive leader not seen in public since 2001. Also the other insurgent groups who are now with Taliban in their fight against Kabul could be potential spoilers of a peace process such as the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar or the Tora Bora Mahaz as they may feel left out in talks. Even if some settlement was negotiated there is very little guarantee that all insurgents would lay down their arms. On the contrary, one might expect an intensification of violence in those periods when peace talks take place, since those who are opposed to peace talks should be expected to demonstrate their continued resistance, as they have done until now. There is another problem that also needs attention prolonged periods of rebellion against the state create strong economic interests among the insurgent leaders. Thus, the intricate conflict in Afghanistan calls for a complex multi-party peace process. Durable peace only returns once the grievances that supported the rebels are fully addressed. Even if the insurgents lay down their arms, they will take them up again if they continue to feel that the state and the associated governing apparatus continue to discriminate against them.
(Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency Views Around can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr Matiullah Mati Political Analyst from Kabul, Afghanistan provided input for the article.)