Predicting a delay is the latest trend in Afghanistan reconciliation punditry. Uncertainty crept into the process after the disclosure that the founding leader of Afghanistan Taliban movement Mullah Omar had been running the insurgent group from his grave. The process had begun only weeks earlier in Murree with great fanfare.
The revelation about Mullah Omar’s death that came just two days before the planned July 31 meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban in Pakistan forced the cancellation of what would have been the second round of the initiative dubbed the Murree Process.
The subsequent transition in Taliban leadership, which exposed the rift in the ranks of the militant group, and the dismissal of the nascent process as “enemy propaganda” by the new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, has deepened the uncertainty about the peace move.
Despite this not-very-positive outlook on the future of the dialogue, almost everyone agrees that sooner or later the warring factions would return to the table, but the key question remains – when?
There are reports that Pakistan (read the Army) has started contacts with the new Afghan leadership for restarting the process and some of the sources contacted in this regard appeared quite optimistic about the outcome of their efforts, but would not say how long that would take.
An Afghan minister, speaking over phone from Kabul, confirmed on the condition of anonymity that there have been fresh contacts between Pakistan and Taliban for a resumption of the talks.
The Taliban delegation that went to Murree had Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s blessings
Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif, while chairing the corps commanders conference at GHQ on Tuesday, underscored the need for resuming the dialogue saying talks were “the only credible way to achieve lasting peace”.
A Pakistani security official said that Pakistan is continuing its support for the process with all sincerity.
A lot would depend on how quickly the Taliban are able to overcome their internal conflict over succession.
The key challenge to the new emir’s legitimacy is coming from Mullah Omar’s family – his brother Mullah Abdul Mannan and son Mullah Yaqub. Other important leaders and commanders have also questioned the process through which Mullah Mansoor was designated as the next leader. Resignation by Tayeb Agha, the head of Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar, has added to the new leadership’s problems.
A senior Pakistani official, who is not authorized to speak to the media, said Pakistan should initiate efforts for an intra-Afghan dialogue to settle the succession dispute before going ahead with the now-stalled peace process.
Mullah Omar’s family’s decision to agree to an arbitration by a dispute resolution council of the Taliban, comprised of elders, is therefore a cause of hope.
Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir fears that division within Taliban was inevitable. “Afghan history tells us that whenever a leader passes away his group disintegrates. Taliban are no exception,” he maintains.
But, others contend that Taliban are a disciplined and resilient bunch. Similar situations arose in the past, even during Mullah Omar’s lifetime, but were addressed through internal mechanisms. Moreover, the fact that Mullah Akhtar Mansoor remained the de facto leader of the Taliban for years strengthens his case.Even if some splintering takes place, his faction would remain the dominant group, analysts expect.
Mir says that Taliban would have to settle internal differences before returning to peace negotiations.
“For having meaningful dialogue, it is important to have legitimate representation and that can’t happen as long as Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s leadership is contested,” he emphasizes.
The new Taliban emir’s first recorded message was a clear indication that maintaining unity of the group was his priority and an immediate concern.
Therefore, his pledge to continue ‘jihad’ and rejection of reconciliation as the “enemy’s propaganda” should be seen and interpreted as an attempt to pacify the elements within Taliban, who were opposing his elevation on the pretext that he was too close to ISI or was pushing the peace process. Some of the Taliban, like Tayeb Agha, are not opposed to talks, but to Pakistan’s role.
While rejecting the Pakistan facilitated reconciliation process, Mullah Mansoor had also said that he would both fight and talk to achieve the movement’s objectives.
Notwithstanding his public pronouncement against reconciliation, one should remember that the Taliban delegation that went to Murree had come with his blessings. And if one were to go by the date of Mullah Omar’s death, which was announced by their political office in Doha as April 2013, then presumably the Doha office was also set up under his watch in June 2013 for furthering reconciliation talks. The Doha process, however, failed soon afterwards because of the controversy over the Taliban flag and plaque at the premises.
Additionally, there is international support for the process. Besides Pakistan, both US and China, which were part of the earlier process that began in Murree, have stressed on the resumption of the process.
Pakistan has, however, been warning about the detractors and spoilers in the process.
“The timing of the disclosure about Mullah Omar’s death shows the conspiracy against the process at work,” a Pakistani official said.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad