x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A new Taliban starts to emerge with a plan for diplomacy

Afghanistan's next political order will not be exclusively Taliban, but it won't be shaped in the American or Pakistani mould, either.

As the Americans are feeling out the possibility of a Taliban office in Doha, where they can start negotiating for Afghanistan's future after a US withdrawal, they seem unaware of other developments around them.

US troops have been fighting Afghans for over a decade, and yet seem to have learnt very little of the local culture and circumstances. Nato commanders acknowledge the Afghan Taliban are fierce fighters who cannot be defeated by military means along.

The most recent US National Intelligence Estimate reported in the media paints a dismal picture, arguing that the military campaign is mired in a stalemate, despite recent Pentagon statements to the contrary. There is some irony in the fact that Gen David Petraeus, the current head of the CIA and former chief of US forces in Afghanistan, now oversees a report that directly questions the military strategy that he helped to adopt.

Actually, the NIE report reflects well on Gen Petraeus's credibility, but it does omit the significance of certain recent developments. Washington's major error is in failing to credit the Afghan Taliban with a strategic vision and the ability to learn from their past. Today's Taliban is very different from the Taliban of yesteryear.

Earlier this month, a spokesman for Mullah Omar, the acknowledged leader of the Afghan Taliban, announced the agreement to open an office in Qatar, where negotiations would be initiated with the United States. The next day, Mullah Omar announced that Pakistan's approval of negotiations would be a prerequisite.

Then on January 16, Mullah Omar announced victory of "Afghan freedom fighters" over invading forces. This was significant in several ways. While the Taliban are gaining in strength, they certainly haven't won yet. However, by asserting the victory of Afghans, and not just the Taliban, he was creating a space to initiate talks between the Taliban factions and other Afghan groups spanning the ethnic divide.

That would suggest that Mullah Omar has taken a page from the Afghan peace initiative, which was proposed by the former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was assassinated in Kabul in September. That plan seeks an agreement among the Afghan parties, facilitated by Pakistan, but without foreign interference, particularly from the United States.

So Mullah Omar is moving towards Afghan-only negotiations even as he apparently prepares for negotiations with the United States. Clearly there is more here than meets the eye.

About three months ago, the Quetta Shura commanded by Mullah Omar sent an emissary to Hakeemullah Mehsud, the titular head of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), asking factions to make peace with Islamabad.

Also in January, Mullah Omar formed the Shura-i-Murakkaba (roughly translated as the council of the like-minded). This shura, headed by Mullah Omar's representative, includes factions from across the Pashtun TTP, including Mehsud, Maulvi Nazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Faqir.

There is little that is known for sure about the purpose of this shura, but it would be reasonable to conclude Mullah Omar is consolidating his position in Afghanistan and across the border.

So where is the Afghan Taliban headed with this?

They are clearly aware of the pessimistic views in the recent US National Intelligence Estimate, as well as the Pentagon's desire to claim some kind of a victory to negotiate from a position of strength. In turn, the Taliban are working to extend their own dominance in Afghanistan.

At the same time, by restarting the Rabbani peace initiative, Mullah Omar seems to be accepting that any future arrangement in Afghanistan will not be exclusively Taliban. Although it is far too early to tell, perhaps that means that any coalition that emerges to govern Afghanistan will have to win popular support, which in turn means that the government can never again be as repressive as the Taliban became in the 1990s.

Mullah Omar's statements about seeking approval from Pakistan in the Doha negotiations also seem to suggest that he foresees a role for Islamabad, even if that is behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's foreign ministry has acknowledged that Iran has a "significant interest and role" in the future of Afghanistan. Islamabad has gone further by inviting Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a trilateral summit including Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai.

It seems unlikely that Islamabad would risk alienating Mullah Omar. Instead, it seems probable the Afghan Taliban is well aware that Tehran will be party to any eventual arrangement in Afghanistan. The fact that Islamabad, increasingly at odds with Washington, is acting as the facilitator will not be lost on them.

It would not be very surprising to see overtures from Islamabad to Beijing and Moscow next. And all members will acknowledge the Afghan Taliban as a player in negotiations. It would seem that Afghanistan's next political order will not be exclusively Taliban, but it will probably come into being through Taliban initiatives, not American or Pakistani.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer