Taliban urged to reshape, consider peace

Mujib Mashal

BREAKING with nearly 15 years of public silence, Sayed Muhammad Tayeb Agha, who until recently was the Taliban’s chief negotiator and head of their political commission, issued a letter about peace talks to the insurgency’s supreme leader over the summer and discussed reconciliation efforts in an interview with The New York Times in recent days, his first on the record with a Western publication in years.
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times and appeared in the Afghan news media, Mr. Agha supported the idea of talks, and said the insurgency should be urgently trying to position itself as an Afghan political movement independent from the influence of Pakistan. Mr. Agha led efforts to open the Taliban’s political office in Qatar in 2011, but he became disgruntled over the internal power struggle that broke out in 2015 after the death of the movement’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, for whom he was a trusted aide. He remains in exile abroad.
Within the Taliban, discussions of whether or how to take up negotiations have proved divisive. Some of the group’s most senior field commanders openly bridled at the possibility in 2015, when a meeting in Pakistan seemed to signal that talks might progress. Now, however, with the insurgents seizing so much territory in Afghanistan and badly bloodying the security forces, some officials believe the Taliban might be more amenable to coming to the table.
Mr. Agha’s letter, which he sent in July but has not been answered by the new Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, was a sign that not all senior Taliban figures were so reluctant to talk. In fact, he insisted that it should be a priority for the insurgency — and that the Taliban movement must change to allow it or risk disintegrating into splinter groups, making way for bandits and IS loyalists.
Much of Mr. Agha’s letter, about four pages long and containing eight recommendations, was focused on steps that would reform the insurgent group to a relatively independent political movement that could fit into a framework of reconciliation with the Afghan government. He suggested that the insurgency break with foreign fighters in its ranks, call itself a movement rather than an Islamic emirate, and stop pretending it is a parallel government. His most important recommendation was that the insurgency’s leadership, which has operated in exile in Pakistan since the toppling of its regime in 2001, should leave that country to avoid being used as proxies. But Mr. Agha insisted that progress could be made now despite the existence of a public ultimatum from the Taliban that they would never negotiate with the Afghan government as long as American or other foreign troops were still in Afghanistan — a demand he characterised as flexible.
In fact, he rejected the idea that the insurgency had strict preconditions for talks beyond certain necessary trust-building measures. “Not at all — we did not have the precondition that the American forces leave and then we will sit down with the Kabul government, because that would not be wise and practical,” Mr. Agha said in the interview. “Of course, if we had reached that stage of negotiations, we would have asked for a deadline, for a timetable. And this was our right, and also a wise condition.”
The new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani banked tremendous political capital on trying to persuade Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the table. After just one round of talks in a Pakistani resort town last summer with a Taliban delegation of suspect legitimacy, the process fell apart. Officials remain divided on the extent of Pakistan’s control over the Taliban, and how much that affects their intention to talk about peace.
A former senior Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said that individual members of the Taliban’s leadership council might well support the idea of talks and moving away from Pakistan’s sphere of influence. But put them all together in the same room, the official said, and none would say so — out of fear as well as internal mistrust. Nevertheless, Afghan officials say Pakistani influence over the Taliban is an increasingly touchy issue within the insurgency’s ranks.
“The Taliban were angered by Ashraf Ghani saying somewhere that if they make a deal with Pakistan, then Pakistan can deliver the Taliban,” said Anwar ul Haq Ahadi, a former Afghan cabinet minister involved in some of the contacts with the Taliban. “They were offended. Peace through Pakistan — that has failed. The assumptions were wrong.”
— Courtesy: The New York Times

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