AFGHAN President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to woo the Taliban to the negotiating table have received a fresh lease of life — courtesy Pakistan. Prior to the much-publicised Murree meeting between representatives of the Ghani government and the Afghan Taliban a fortnight ago, many observers were busy writing obituaries of Ghani’s conciliatory policy towards Pakistan.
Indeed, it was difficult to make sense of Pakistan’s seemingly tepid response to Ghani’s request to help facilitate talks with the Taliban. Pakistan had managed little apart from a few bold statements and a couple of innocuous meetings involving individual Taliban members. Ghani was growing increasingly frustrated and demanding harsher measures to squeeze the Taliban leadership, but to no avail. This was puzzling, especially since the Pakistani security establishment seems to have got their diagnosis about Ghani and the current situation in Afghanistan dead right.
One finds clear recognition within the establishment that Ghani is the best available partner for Pakistan; that he will not be able to sustain his Pakistan policy at home if talks with the Taliban don’t move ahead; that a failure of Afghanistan’s incumbent national unity government would potentially mean expanded civil war in the country, and this would inevitably cause spillover, including creating greater space for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan to operate out of Afghanistan.
The Murree talks have solved the mystery of Pakistan’s role to a large extent. It is clear that more was happening than we knew. And one can conclude that harsher measures against the Taliban were not deemed necessary by Pakistani decision-makers given that persuasion was working.
The Taliban have seen growing internal discord.
Pakistan’s achievement isn’t minor. In as much as the Murree meeting has been declared a formal beginning of the reconciliation process between Kabul and the Taliban and that Mullah Omar has blessed it publicly, this is a significant breakthrough. And yet, we may be ignoring the real elephant in the room: the relationship between the Taliban leadership backing talks and those fighting on the ground.
For much of the post-9/11 period, the conventional wisdom about the Taliban movement has been that it is a monolith and continues to take orders from Mullah Omar. Therefore, if Omar and his senior lieutenants could be convinced that their interests are best served through a negotiated settlement with Kabul, peace could return to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s role is seen as crucial because of its traditional leverage over the Taliban shura and the presence of the movement’s senior leadership on its soil.
Unfortunately, this basic premise no longer holds, at least not to the degree that is required for any dialogue process with the Taliban to progress smoothly. Nuances and specifics are debatable but the fact that the Taliban movement has seen growing discord between those willing to talk versus those who find this unnecessary is undeniable. Early signs of this were evident courtesy the — now known and documented — internal disagreements within the senior leadership and a number of field commanders on the Taliban’s strategy during the Afghan presidential elections last year.
Pakistan’s experience in trying to force the Taliban to initiate formal dialogue with Kabul in the past few months further confirms this. As of late last year, Pakistan’s military leadership had passed on categorical directives to the operational level to press the Taliban shura members to initiate formal dialogue with Kabul. But these efforts didn’t go as planned, because of the extent to which senior moderate actors Pakistan holds most sway over have been challenged by pro-fight voices within the movement.
Pakistan’s missing clout over those willing to stay the course in the battlefield was demonstrated by its inability to force any rethink on their decision to launch the spring offensive in Afghanistan despite having promised Ghani results. These Taliban have challenged the conventional wisdom that the movement as a whole is tired of fighting.
On the contrary, some of the field commanders leading the offensive reportedly feel that outright victory is within reach. Reports about Iran’s growing support to them, the availability of well-trained Central Asian fighters displaced from North Waziristan, and worries about defections to IS if the Taliban shura is seen as weak and compromising for personal political gains are complicating matters further for those willing to talk.
The Taliban members who sat across the table from Afghan officials in Murree are all serious players, but they will have to prove their leverage over those responsible for leading the most vicious fighting season in Afghanistan yet. Otherwise, there won’t be much of consequence they could agree to and implement faithfully. The levels of Taliban-led violence in Afghanistan in the coming days will be an obvious indicator of their relevance to the pro-fight commanders. Should they fail, we’d have to reassess the significance of the Murree talks.
The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC.
Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2015