As second round of direct talks between the Taliban and Afghan government is about to begin, all is not well on the Taliban side. Amid uncertainty over Mullah Omar’s fate, internal power struggle has flared up; Mullah Omar’s eldest son Mullah Yaqoob has taken the centre stage. He is all set to take over the Taliban leadership in case his father’s death is confirmed. A recently assembled Shura has nominated Yaqub as sucessor to his father in case of his death. De-facto Taliban head Mulla Mansur is facing a rebellion by important military commanders. Opposition to Mansur, is centred round Mulla Yaqoob. Mansur heads the pro-talks faction; while those opposing the talks are gravitated towards Yaqoob.
Earlier, Fidayee Mahaz, led by Mulla Najeebullah, had claimed that Mulla Omar died 24 months ago. Mahaz has claimed having evidence, but is yet to provide any proof. Its spokesperson Qari Hamza has even pointed figure towards Mansur and Gul Agha with regard to killing of Omar. Taliban’s official spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has termed the claim as a ploy to find out Mulla Omar’s hideout. It appears the ground is being prepared for making public appearance of Mulla Omar a possibility in near future. This would certainly add to credibility of peace process and speed it up.
Afghan peace process has apparently taken a definitive shape and a predictable route. Years long behind the scene hard work is paying off and Pakistan stands absolved in the context of its stance and support for the peace process. However, caution is due; in a state of excitement Pakistan should not accept the kind of responsibility—guarantor— on which it may not be able to deliver.
Afghan officials had sat down with the Taliban cadres for their first declared face-to-face round of parleys, on July 07, in Murree. Both sides agreed to continue the talks with an aim to find a peaceful end to Afghan crisis; this drew wide spread praise. Officials from Pakistan, China and the US also participated in the talks indicating that all major stakeholders have convergence of perceptions. Earlier in May, Army chief during his visit to Kabul, had assured President Ashraf Ghani that Pakistan would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. “The second round of talks… is set for July 30 or 31,” said Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC). He said China would “most probably” be hosting the meeting.
Earlier this month, Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar hailed as ‘legitimate’ peace talks aimed at ending the war. Though Mullah Omar didn’t mention the July 7 session in his traditional Eid message, many believe that his reference to ‘political endeavours’ pointed towards these talks. Eid message this time indicates a paradigm shift in the views of the Afghan Taliban leadership on war and peace in Afghanistan. The statement has also radiated a balanced outlook on various international concerns like education and statecraft.
Mullah Omar’s statement has reignited hopes for peace talks. “Concurrent with the armed Jihad, political endeavours and peaceful ways for achieving these sacred goals are a legitimate Islamic principle and an integral part of Prophetic politics,” Mulla Omar said. “As our holy leader, the beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), was actively engaged in fighting the infidels in the battlefields of Badr and Khyber, and at the same time he participated in agreements beneficial for Muslims, held meetings with envoys of infidels, sent messages and delegations to them, and on various occasions even undertook the policy of face-to-face talks with warring infidel parties,” he added. His approval of peace talks marks a clear deviation from the earlier uncompromising position about interaction with the Kabul government. This statement has effectively put to rest the guessing spree about the legitimacy of talks.
Another raw aspect is that despite the willingness to engage in peace talks, there has been no let-up in militant attacks on foreign and government targets. According to statistics compiled by an American-led coalition official in Afghanistan, casualty rates of Afghan National Security forces (ANSF) are up by 50 percent compared to last year. Over 4,000 soldiers and police-men have been killed and nearly 7,800 wounded, while months of heavy fighting is still to come. Afghan National Security officials have confirmed, on July 26, that Taliban have taken control of Tirgaran base in Badakhshan and nearly 100 police and border officials have joined the Taliban rank and file after 3 days of fierce fighting. Taliban have also confirmed the report.
In March 2015, the commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, General John F. Campbell, testified before House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on the war and combat readiness of Afghan security forces and also discussed Afghan losses, he stated: “A high ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] attrition rate…has had an impact on combat readiness. If present rates continue, it will pose challenges to force development over time. The main causes of ANDSF attrition are assessed as poor leadership; high operational tempo; inadequate soldier/police care; and poor force management”.
Afghan security forces are struggling to maintain a military stalemate with a defensive mind-set; thus they are slowly losing ground to militant forces. They rarely mount combat patrols, what to talk of retrieving territory from Taliban. According to John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), a number of troops and police-men are not dependable. Moreover, a US Department of Defence report released in June 2015 also concedes that performance of ANSF “was uneven” during combat operations. It predicts that casualty rates will “increase in the next several months.”
Under these gloomy conditions, General Johan F. Campbell called on Army Chief General Raheel Sharif on July 23. The US general acknowledged Pakistan’s sincere efforts in combating terrorism and facilitating Afghan peace process. Campbell appreciated gains of the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb which were helping the cause of peace and stability in the region. He also acknowledged Pakistan’s sincere efforts for facilitating Murree peace talks. Much depends on the outcome of these talks, and if successful they could go a long way towards bringing peace and stability to the region.
Pakistan has said that it is willing to “go the extra mile”, however there is a considerable trust deficit between Pakistan and Afghanistan that is not likely to evaporate overnight. Several current and former officials in Afghanistan question whether Pakistan genuinely supports dialogue. “Pakistan is taking this new step under internal and external pressure,” said former Afghan interior minister Umar Daudzai. “We have to wait and see whether the step is of a tactical nature or is a genuine policy shift.”
There are influential factions within Afghanistan that have no stakes in the success of peace process; indeed, some like the continuation of current power sharing arrangement to attain permanence. President Ashraf Ghani is facing severe criticism internally for its rapprochement with Pakistan. There is no foreseeable end to Indian wheeling dealing. Iran is also quietly strengthening its proxies and waiting for the opportune time. “India is very sceptical about this entire thing,” said Sameer Patil, fellow for national security studies at Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House. He added Delhi felt it had been side-lined from the process.
Some Western diplomats, long sceptical about Pakistani promises, say Islamabad now seems serious about promoting Afghan stability. “This is the most genuine push we have seen from Pakistan,” said one diplomat. According to the Afghanistan Strategic and Regional Studies Centre, the Taliban’s growing political activities could be viewed as a rejoinder to mounting pressures it is receiving from Pakistan. President Ashraf Ghani has welcomed the Murree process and is hopeful that the talks would lead to restoration of durable peace. “The whole nation wants peace. During the past 14 years we tried to hold face-to-face talks but could not succeed. But it has happened now.” Ghani said. He has called upon the Taliban to come up with a list of their demands at the second round of talks.
Pakistan is striving to live up to its principled stance on peace process; however, it would be unfair to assume that it exercises control over the Afghan Taliban. The start of talks is a positive step, but much could still go wrong. Peace process needs a whole-hearted support from international community and an unflinching UNSC underwriting; it’s time for the P-5 to join the effort and evolve a strong system of guarantors.