The South Asia Channel

To talk or not to talk: the Taliban’s internal divide

By Hasan Khan, Islamabad

Before recently reportedly rejecting an offer to engage in talks with the Afghan government, a group of Taliban senior leaders were considering conditioning the talks on the release of all Taliban prisoners from Afghan and U.S. jails in Afghanistan.

The demand for the release of Taliban prisoners, though not yet publicized, is a positive sign; previously, the withdrawal of all international forces from Afghan soil was the Taliban's precondition to talks, so this represents a step back from the previous demand (of total withdrawal).

The Taliban have ample reason to reject talks with the Afghan government: they don't trust the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, or his American allies, and if talks didn't end in their favor, it would damage the militants' credibility and image. Plus, once opened, the process of talks could create suspicion and mistrust within the Taliban's own leadership, members of which could simply be angling for their own agendas, and could encourage the U.S. and Afghan governments to try and exploit these internal rifts among the Taliban's ranks.

But according to intelligence sources in the Pakistani government, some members of the high level leadership of the Afghan Taliban are indeed interested in talks with the U.S. and its Afghan allies. They want to end the insurgency as soon as possible because simply put, they are tired. "It is too hard for them to fight for decades," said my source.

Mullah Baradar, the deputy to the Afghan Taliban's leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and de-facto operational commander of the movement, is leading those who favor talks with the Afghan government. Mullah Baradar and his allies believe the political situation for starting peace talks is in the Taliban's favor because several provinces in Afghanistan are virtually controlled by the Taliban, thus allowing them to negotiate from a position of strength. And the politically savvy Mullah Baradar reportedly wants to exploit the opportunity presented by the vigorous debate in the United States over President Obama's controversial recent announcement that he is sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to the Afghan theater.

However, Siraj Haqqani, the powerful son of the well known Afghan militant commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, is opposed to entering peace talks with the coalition. The younger Haqqani is reputedly the strongest commander in eastern Afghanistan, and has the support of large numbers of Arab fighters who oppose negotiating with coalition forces absent a total withdrawal, and Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

(Read on)

Haqqani is also a link between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and reputedly has an inflated ego because of the reach of his influence, having directed fierce fighting across eastern Afghanistan, notably in the provinces of Paktika, Paktia, Khost, Logar and Kabul.

Reports suggest that a personal rivalry between Siraj Haqqani and Mullah Baradar is fueling the divide between the two over whether to engage in peace talks. There is a tribal element in the Haqqani-Baradar competition; Haqqani belongs to theZadran tribe from eastern Paktia province, while Mullah Baradar is from Kandahar and belongs to the Popolzai tribe, as does Hamid Karzai. In general, Haqqani sees himself as more powerful than Baradar, a not uncommon view among Afghan militants from the east, who have a natural aversion to Kandaharis (with the exception of Mullah Omar).

According to Pakistani intelligence sources, the Taliban's senior leadership is trying to avoid annoying Haqqani at this stage and thus may be unwilling to enter into negotiations under the sole condition of releasing Taliban prisoners. Like the late Mullah Dadullah, Siraj Haqqani operates virtually independently from the senior leadership of the militant organization and does not follow pre-existing chains of command.

Some of Mullah Baradar's senior colleagues, particularly those in the Quetta shura, are insisting on the release of Taliban prisoners -- and not the complete withdrawal of U.S.and NATO troops from Afghanistan-- before they will consider peace talks. However, some of the Shura's other strongmen like Maulavi Younus Akhunzada and Haji Lala are reportedly completely opposed to starting talks now because they are concerned about their credibility as holy warriors, and believe that policies pursued by Afghan government and international forces for the last eight years have disillusioned Afghans, some of whom are now poised to support the Taliban's alternative vision. The Taliban is, in short, not the united force it once was.

Although the Taliban has publicly refused to negotiate with the U.S.and Afghan governments, some credible intelligence sources suggest that the powerful Quetta shura is convening soon to study the talks offer in a meeting that may be chaired by a senior Taliban leader currently in the eastern Afghan province of Zabul, Maulavi Qahar.

According to the liberal Arabic-language Saudi newspaper Al Watan, U.S. ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry has approached Mullah Wakil Muttawakil, a former foreign minister of the Taliban, for help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. The U.S. is also reportedly in touch with four other former Taliban commanders: Abdul Hakim Mujahid, Arsala Rehmani, Pir Mohammad Rohani, and Wakil Ahmad Akhundzada.

The problem with this approach is that none of these individuals has any contact with Mullah Omar, so working through them may lead to nothing but dead ends for the U.S. and its Afghan allies. The U.S. should make all possible efforts to contact members of the Afghan Taliban's leadership who can actually do something about moving the peace process forward, thus expediting the U.S.'s eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Hasan Khan is the director of news and current affairs for Khyber Television Islamabad, and he can be reached at baanopk@gmail.com. An earlier version of this article was published by Khyber TV on December 1.