Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Rumblings within the Taliban make ordinary Afghans cautious amid prospects for peace

That the insurgency has repeatedly issued contradictory statements lately exposes disagreements over the ongoing talks with the US and their vision of Afghanistan

An Afghan security official stands guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in December 2019. EPA
An Afghan security official stands guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in December 2019. EPA

On the last Sunday of 2019, Afghans woke up to an exciting news of the Taliban insurgency agreeing to possible ceasefire, a much-needed respite from the constant violence. Reports suggested that this temporary truce with the US administration could last for as long as 10 days – a week longer than the last ceasefire between the two warring parties, during which time they would sit down to sign a deal to end America’s longest war.

There was no mention of negotiations with the Afghan government in Kabul, a party to the conflict with whom the Taliban have consistently refused to talk to. But that did not deter the jubilation among the public who have been the worst victims of a war that began in 2001, when US-led forces – in response to the September 11 attacks on American soil – invaded the country and unseated the terror group from power. People posted on social media about plans to explore their homeland and visit far corners of the country that have been under Taliban control. There was talk of bonhomie and brotherhood between the Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters, much like during the three-day ceasefire – the first of its kind – that took place during Eid Al Adha in June 2018.

However, the celebrations were short-lived. No sooner had the news made rounds in all local media, that the shadowy Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, came forward and dismissed them. “The Islamic emirate has no intention of declaring a ceasefire,” he said in his statement, issued the very next day. “The United States has asked for a reduction in the scale and intensity of violence and [the Taliban leadership] has not yet issued a final decree [on this matter],” he explained, dismissing the news reports as propaganda.

Interestingly though, Mujahid felt the need to clarify that such contradictory statements did not mean that there are differences within the Taliban. “Propaganda by some outlets has even reached heights of supposed schism within the Islamic emirate on the issue of a ceasefire – and neither are there any differences within the Islamic emirate related to this issue,” he said.

But despite Mujahid’s insistence, the proverbial split is wide open for everyone to see. This is not the first time that the Taliban have issued contradictory statements or acted against their word, especially while negotiating with the US administration over the past one year.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top political leader, third from left, has been leading negotiations on behalf of the insurgent group. AP Photo
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top political leader, third from left, has been leading negotiations on behalf of the insurgent group. AP Photo

In August last year, numerous reports suggested that the Taliban and the US were close to an initial deal, one that would not only reduce violence but also start the process of withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. The deal, lead by US special adviser Zalmay Khalilzad, would also set in motion the initial talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, an effort to eventually bring about peace in the country plagued with decades of conflict.

There is an urgent need for the US to consider the fractures within the Taliban. It is also pertinent for them to involve the Afghan leadership in the talks. Most importantly, it is incumbent on the negotiators to underline the importance of a reduction in violence and, eventually, unconditional ceasefire

Officials and analysts who were in the know, and had been closely observing the development, could hardly contain their excitement. Already there was a noticeable drop in violence perpetrated by the Taliban. That was until September 5, when the Taliban launched a complex attack on a foreign compound in Kabul, killing 12 people including a US soldier. Soon after, US President Donald Trump announced the cancellation of the talks and called off a secret meeting at Camp David with the Taliban and the Afghan leadership. This effectively brought to a halt year-long efforts by Mr Khalilzad, amounting to little in terms of ending the conflict or even the mere reduction of violence.

The meetings were eventually restarted in November, with much less fanfare and media attention. However, the subject of a ceasefire or even a reduction of violence remains dyspeptic, as seen in the last week of the year. The Taliban have continued to mount large-scale attacks on US interests in the country. In December, they targeted a medical centre near Bagram Air Field, a US base north of Kabul, wounding more than 100 civilians and at least five foreign troops in an attack that lasted for hours. However, while this attack did not prompt the US to call off the renewed talks, it did raise questions over whether the Taliban are as cohesive a force as they present themselves to be.

The Taliban continue to conduct severe attacks around Afghanistan with the excuse of gaining off-battle leverage on the US but such pressure tactics threaten an already fragile state of negotiation, while also increasing civilian casualties among Afghans. This, despite the fact that recent reports suggest they control or contest a substantial area of Afghanistan. So why then would a negotiating party risk failing in talks over a region they exert influence in? The answer to that lies in the intent of the leadership of the insurgency; one that many believe is not centralised as previously believed to be.

US special adviser Zalmay Khalilzad has been tasked with the responsibility of delivering peace to Afghanistan. AFP
US special adviser Zalmay Khalilzad has been tasked with the responsibility of delivering peace to Afghanistan. AFP

Even though factions within the Taliban have existed for a long time, never before have there been such strong signs of fragmentation as they show now. In fairness, never before has the US been so close and willing to negotiate with a group either. However, the current fragmentation of the various leaderships and sub-groups within the Taliban pose as a threat to any deal that might potentially be agreed upon.

For one, despite their promise of a reduction of violence, there is little commitment that all factions would enforce the ceasefire – even if it was announced. Sure, they showed unity during the three-day truce in 2018 but that was not a precursor to a potentially historic deal.

Many researchers and analysts have noted a growing discontent among fighters who do not agree to the idea of holding negotiations with someone they see as their enemy in the first place. Analysts I talked to say that there is an ideological rift between the fighters, their leaders and the different factions. Many among them see these talks as a betrayal of their cause. They have observed that many members are shifting to ISIS and fear that such switches will accelerate after a deal with the US.

Meanwhile, other security experts have said that some leaders believe they can win the ongoing war by military means. Such is their conviction that they see little need to negotiate with an enemy they are confident of defeating.

While the Taliban might portray themselves as a strong and unified force, there are elements within the organisation who could prove spoilers even if a deal is struck with the US. These rogue factions not only threaten long-term peace but also increase the risk of civilian casualties, with the body count already on a steady rise. It is evident that the leaders of the insurgency are aware and concerned about internal divisions – and their rhetoric simply masks their fears.

On their part, there is an urgent need for the US and other international stakeholders to consider the fractures within the Taliban. It is also pertinent for them to involve the Afghan leadership in the talks, in order to ensure that the interests of the Afghan people are safeguarded.

Most importantly, however, it is incumbent on the negotiators to underline the importance of a reduction in violence and, eventually, unconditional ceasefire. Afghans should not have to be casualties for leverage of any group in any round of talks. “Peace without a ceasefire is impossible,” President Ashraf Ghani has said repeatedly.

Despite disappointments in recent times, people remain optimistic but cautious about the year to come. As the Afghan saying goes: “Do not trust the enemy’s smile and the sun of the winter."

Ruchi Kumar is a writer in Afghanistan

Updated: January 9, 2020 06:20 PM

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