“Imtiaz, you are a very good guy, I agree with your thoughts, but why don’t you grow a beard?” asked the burly, tall Afghan. The venue was the dull café at Kabul’s scarred Inter-Continental, only a few days after the Indian aircraft hijacking drama had ended in Kandahar on December 31, 1999.
“Karl Marx had a long beard. So do Sikhs,” I quipped.
“That is a different matter. But as a Muslim, you must grow a beard,” said my host.
It was Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the Taliban’s new controversial emir. He was then an aviation minister, and had negotiated the release of the passengers aboard the Indian Airlines Flight 814 a week before the conversation.
The insistence on the beard in fact symbolized his rigid views. Mullah Mohammad Omar would not even meet Muslims who did not have a beard.
But the Afghan government and external players such as Pakistan and the US did manage to persuade the rigid Mulla Mansoor to be a part of a reconciliation process. This also signaled that more than a decade of insurgency, and nearly five years of operational command of the movement, had softened him.
This represented a major breakthrough for Pakistan as well. At least eight of the 15 Taliban Shura members, for instance, had already arrived in Islamabad for the Murree peace talks on July 29, the day the news of Mullah Omar’s death surfaced. These Taliban commanders and leaders were part of the July 7 first round as well. That also underlined Mullah Mansoor’s clout within the organization. Both the ministry of foreign affairs and the military establishment in Pakistan had worked hard to clinch this deal, with the US and China also on board.
But the fractures that have appeared in the movement over the issue of succession have stalled the entire process – at least for the moment.
“We would like to wait until all the chips have fallen in place,” said an official closely associated with the talks. We remain committed to the process because the government has taken the strategic decision of working to promote and preserve peace in Afghanistan, said the official.
This commitment also resonated in General Raheel Sharif’s address to the corps commanders’ meeting on August 3.
Pakistan-brokered peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban is the only ‘credible’ way to restore lasting peace in the war-torn country, Gen Sharif said.
“Never before had we seen such a grand consensus”
He also cautioned against “detractors and spoilers of the peace process” and reiterated the resolve to pursue the path.
But for all practical reasons, Pakistan is currently in a wait-and-see mode, watching how disagreements over the leadership play out in the days and weeks to come.
Mullah Mansoor demonstrated his strength by sending a strong delegation for talks. US and Chinese observers flew in too to participate and by implication underwrite the process.
“Never before had we seen such a grand consensus on the way forward and we hope that all stick together to take the process forward,” said the highly placed official.
He pointed out how critical this was for those calling the shots in Kabul – President Ashraf Ghani has staked his political career for the sake of these talks, but faces many Trojan horses within the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and other segments of the security establishment.
This, says a Pakistani security official, stands out as the biggest hurdle in the way of peace talks.
“Kabul has to choose between confrontation (with the splintered Taliban) or pursuing the path of reconciliation the way it took off on July 7,” the Pakistani official underscored, while talking about the opposition from within Kabul to the idea of talks.
Pakistani officials now also fear that fissures within the Taliban might now complicate the entire process, as many of the dozen or so Taliban groups may opt to go their own way instead of rallying around Mansoor.
The spoilers and detractors – the vested interest – might exploit these divisions and thus negatively impact the dialogue for peace.
For our part, we will not budge, said a security official. This is the course Pakistani leadership has chosen for the good of all and we will stand our ground.
One of the US officials, who is part of the reconciliation process, also shared Pakistani apprehensions on “spoilers and detractors.” The official acknowledged Pakistan’s hard work on this count and also appreciated the quiet diplomacy that wooed Mansoor into talks. But the real test lies in making the mare go, the official commented.
The post-Mulla Omar phase – as of now – is not promising though. The challenges for the US and Pakistan, as well as President Ashraf Ghani, are daunting. Pakistan will be required to optimally exercise its clout to bring all Afghans back to the negotiations. Given the urgency and importance of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan needs peace in its neighbourhood. It also must square off its tensions with India. Much of Pakistan’s troubles in Balochistan are also believed to be tied to relations with India. And the key to that, therefore, is resumption of a substantive dialogue with New Delhi – with or without Kashmir – the fundamental cause for most of Pakistan’s present day security crisis.
Washington, on the other hand, desperately needs a semblance of reconciliation for President Obama (before he walks out of the White House) to declare a peaceful transition, if not victory in Afghanistan. That is why it tagged itself on to the Pakistani position.
President Ghani needs to surmount internal opposition to his reconciliation initiative. He will have to deal sternly with several Trojan horses within his security apparatus. Until he shunts them out, all his efforts, particularly the confidentiality of relations with Pakistan, will remain compromised. This, say Pakistani officials, remains a formidable challenge not only for Islamabad but also for President Ghani, who seems to have bought over Pakistan’s strategic turn-around under General Sharif and Prime Minister Sharif.
If Ghani and his US supporters fail to reign in the cobweb of vested interest against the Pakistan-centred peace process, Afghanistan is likely to remain embroiled in civil strife – like it has been since the fall of Najibullah in April 1992.