THE endorsement of the landmark talks in Murree by the Taliban’s reclusive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has put to rest the scepticism surrounding the maiden face-to-face meeting between representatives of the insurgent movement and the national unity government in Afghanistan.
Soon after the clandestine interaction near Islamabad ended, detractors raised a volley of questions as to the Taliban negotiators’ authority. Most of the suspicions centred on the silence of their supreme leader, whose protracted absence from the scene has set off speculation about his death and splits within the group.
Armchair critics in Kabul, in utter disregard of months of behind-the-scenes efforts to bring together the antagonists, scoffed at the initiative as another exercise in futility. Without rhyme or reason, some political commentators questioned Islamabad’s credentials as an honest peace-broker.
Mullah Omar’s pro-talks message is a morale booster for Ghani.
No doubt, there may be a clash of opinions among Taliban leaders over the issue of negotiations with President Ashraf Ghani’s government. But such differences — that exist in almost all outfits — do not necessarily indicate a revolt against their leading lights. Taking a dim view of the push towards peace amounts to instigating anarchy in a country wracked by decades of terrorism.
Some field commanders did voice aversion to a negotiated settlement, casting doubt on the Afghan government’s sincerity and accusing it of using the dialogue as a propaganda tool. Haji Hazrat in Helmand, Irshad Ghazi in Kunar and Minhaj in Kandahar are some of the commanders who are hell-bent on fighting to the bitter end, denouncing the Murree meeting as a sell-out to Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment.
Some senior government figures, with a history of ill-will toward the Taliban and Pakistan, obliquely equate talks with an outright retreat. It is a flawed approach, not least in that it impedes progress toward normality besides hurting confidence-building measures.
At a time when the country is mired in an increasingly deadly insurgency, whose shifting dynamics have stumped the entire security establishment, taunting the militants is plain inanity. Unfortunately, these churlish comments are being passed by powerful figures, including a former president, some spymasters, lawmakers and jihadi commanders.
Their apparent objective is to mount pressure on Ghani to abandon his diplomatic endeavours to mend fences with Afghanistan’s neighbours and put an end to the conflict. Embattled as he may appear, Ghani has evinced tremendous grit in standing his ground. Supported by major powers including the US and China, he has stoically faced all odds.
While refusing to stop offering an olive branch to the armed opposition, he is scrambling to address the root causes of militancy, which is a threat to the entire region. Under these circumstances, Mullah Omar’s support for a political settlement comes as a morale booster for the president.
Effectively ending the ambiguity around peace parleys, Omar’s Eid message comes in the wake of a crucial official sit-down in several years between the two sides. It will help solidify support for the dialogue, which has generated profound enthusiasm among the Taliban rank and file.
As the mythical supremo has not been seen publicly since the ouster of his regime in 2001, it has given rise to some discontent among his acolytes. Consequently, some of the pushy rebel commanders have pledged allegiance to the self-styled Islamic State, an outfit that is yet to consolidate its foothold in Afghanistan.
In his message, Omar has sought to iron out divisions — if any — within the movement. “All mujahideen should be confident that in this process, I will unwaveringly defend our legal rights and viewpoints everywhere.” One goal of the negotiations is an end to Afghanistan’s occupation by foreign forces.
Omar’s statement is confirmation he had green-lighted the Taliban representatives to attend the July 7 meeting. Still carrying a $10 million US bounty on his head, he continues to enjoy the unflinching loyalty of many senior commanders. Now that he has put his stamp of approval on the tentative encounter, cynicism about the Taliban negotiators’ credibility has been removed.
His backing of a peaceful modus operandi and political outreach to resolve issues comes as a breath of fresh air. What is urgently needed is a ceasefire between the various factions, as well as a unified stance by the government to prevent the fledgling process from being scuttled by a clear mismatch of perceptions within the ruling, rainbow coalition.
Omar’s willingness to talk may win him favour among the Afghans, whom he courts with a commitment to better governance and protection of the rights of minorities and women.
With the next round of talks expected in a fortnight, Kabul has signalled its readiness to discuss the Taliban’s demands. The presence of coalition forces was one of the three top issues the delegates discussed in Murree. The two other agenda items were UN travel restrictions and treatment of Taliban prisoners.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2015