THE Haqqani group was represented in the Murree talks. But it is not clear if and how the group can influence the overall peace process and make commitments on behalf of the Afghan Taliban. While keeping them on board in the larger process, a parallel prudent course could be to engage the Haqqanis in separate, direct talks.
Experts see the Haqqanis’ participation in the Afghan peace process as a significant development because they are major actors in the Afghan insurgency. This is the perfect time to engage the Haqqanis in the peace process. Kabul needs to utilise all options for achieving peace and stability in the country — before they become unavailable.
The Haqqanis’ engagement in the peace process is also important in the context of the internal crisis within the ranks of the so-called Quetta Shura, which has minimised the latter’s bargaining position.
The Haqqanis are considered Afghanistan’s most potent insurgent group.
The Afghan Taliban’s spring offensive in Afghanistan was very lethal this year. With a view to exploiting the vacuum created after the exit of the foreign troops, the Taliban have stretched their military resources across different parts of the country. Although they have achieved their short-term purpose of creating unrest in the country, this operational strategy could prove counterproductive for the Taliban, especially when they are facing the emerging threat of internal differences and growing support among Afghan militants for the self-styled Islamic State (IS) or Daesh. Ultimately, it will affect their bargaining position in talks with the Afghan government.
The real enemy of peace talks lies in the divisions within Taliban ranks. The differences between the Taliban’s political wing and battlefield commanders are becoming more and more visible. Those who are in the battlefield have a narrow worldview and a weak political vision. They have less exposure to urban life even in Afghanistan, and they believe that they can conquer Kabul with force. As the political wing derives its bargaining position from its battlefield achievements, it cannot make any major commitment without the consent of those fighting out there. According to media reports, many field commanders have already threatened that they would either set up another group or join IS if the Taliban’s political wing does not stop negotiations with Kabul.
A few days before the recent Murree talks, the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan’s head Gulbuddin Hekmatyar announced his support for IS. It appears as if he did not get a desired position in the Taliban-led negotiation team. At the same time, it also indicates that IS is emerging as an alternative and spoiling force in Afghanistan. Different non-state stakeholders in Afghanistan can use the group as a cover to protect their interests. IS has the potential to become an important actor in the Afghan conflict. The group will be independent and less flexible in its approach; initiating any peace process with IS is beyond the realm of imagination, at least for now.
Contrary to the Quetta Shura, the Haqqanis are still a unified group. They are considered Afghanistan’s most potent insurgent movement. They have extended their operational outreach to southern Afghanistan, the areas surrounding Kabul, as well as to northern Afghanistan.
The dynamics of insurgency are simple. If the resistance movement fails to consolidate viable gains, a process of destruction starts from within it. The movement can survive only if it has a charismatic leadership or the ability to modify its strategies. From this perspective, the Haqqanis have an edge over the Quetta Shura, which is struggling to prove that their supreme leader is still alive. On the other hand, the Haqqanis have flexibility in their political and operational approaches.
The Haqqanis have a more than 40-year history of insurgency in Afghanistan. They have experience in dealing with states including the US and Saudi Arabia and a variety of non-state actors including the Northern Alliance, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Pakistani militant groups. They are considered politically accommodative.
Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai was not only a supporter of talks with the Haqqanis, he also held a face-to-face meeting with Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network, in 2010. Details of the meeting were revealed by Al Jazeera creating ripples in Western capitals. At that time, it was not a popular idea and Washington had immediately rejected the option. The situation is different now. Kabul has more liberty to initiate talks with any of the insurgent groups.
On the other hand, the parallel economy the Haqqanis have developed in the region bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan has increased their stakes in the Afghan peace negotiations. Their new generations are more eager to share power in Kabul.
Prospects of direct engagement by the Haqqanis in the peace process are bright. Though they have declared in the past they will back the Mullah Omer-led peace process, they have not ruled out the possibility of direct talks with the Afghan government.
Pakistan is facing problems in using its influence over the Quetta Shura, mainly because of internal differences among the Taliban commanders. Secondly, compared to the Quetta Shura Taliban commanders, Pakistan has perhaps more leverage over the Haqqanis and can facilitate a direct channel for their talks with the Afghan government.
The situation in the region is changing rapidly. While the Taliban are facing internal crises and a challenge from IS, the Haqqanis can also face similar challenges sooner or later. Multiple foreign groups including IS, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement are making inroads in areas controlled by the Haqqanis. A clash of interests or ideological differences can damage the Haqqani network. Many may conceive this as an optimistic scenario, but it could trigger directionless unrest on both sides of the border. The situation will undermine the prospects of talks and eventually of peace in Afghanistan and the region.
So far, the Haqqanis are part of the Murree peace process, but separate and direct talks can be initiated with them. If a ceasefire is brokered with the Haqqanis, it will bring down the level of violence in more than 50pc of Afghanistan.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2015