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Talks putting a strain on the Taliban?

February 20, 2012

Last year I got the chance to pitch a question to the highly experienced Afghanistan writer, Ahmed Rashid, about the implications should Mullah Omar get killed by a US drone strike.  His view was that this would be a bad thing – it would be detrimental to the peace process and cause the Taliban to fragment.

But this must be a strange, new and unsettling time for the Taliban now – is it possible that the peace process (whatever this might come to mean) might itself cause Taliban cohesion to fracture?  The Taliban remain a mix of agendas and aspirations – from committed Jihadists to opportunists using the Taliban name for local agendas.  Even the notion of talking peace (and with the Americans) will be a provocation to many within the leadership and out in the provinces.  This article, from the Daily Beast, although perhaps overstated, highlights what I think is probably posing a very real problem for parts of the insurgency.  It was a strange step for the Taliban to issue a “Proclamation of victory” statement last month – and interesting that it appeared to be primarily a defence of their decision to open an office in Qatar.  Are they sensitive about this?  See how their tone has shifted.  You may recall that in May last year, when the subject of a Taliban office was bouncing around, the Taliban media line at one point was “we don’t need an office, our address is Afghanistan”…

May 2011 – We would like to say in clear words that the report of negotiation with the invaders or direct contact with them are mere futile rumors. Similarly, the allegation that Taliban want to open office in a certain country is not true. We have not asked for the opening of office in any country including Qatar. More than half of the country is under our control and we have active presence there. This is our permanent address which is evenly well known both to friends and enemies. None can deny our presence there nor we are people who lack address and country.

This kind of, er, if not 180 degree direction shift, then at least a 90 degree change, must be putting a lot of strain on the leadership.  And their media capabilities, although undoubtedly improved and improving, still has a tendency to do little more than deny, denounce or deflect any difficult information.

January 2012 – Today somewhere in the world if the name of the Islamic Emirate is carved and a flag with ‘Kalma tayyebaa’ (holy word of creedal testimony) is wavered on the top; it is actually the formal proclamation of the success of resistance against the incursion…The choice of Qatar for the inauguration of formal office shows the political deliberation of the Islamic Emirate. If this initiative had been taken in some neighboring country, it would have been another chance of every day propaganda for Karzai administration. If the office was inaugurated in Saudi Arabia, someone else would have suspected it because of the close bilateral relations of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. And finally Turkey could not have been considered an ideal place for the sovereignty and prestige of this office because of its membership of the NATO alliance.  But Qatar having balance relations with all sides and a prestigious status in the Islamic world is the most appropriate place for this kind of office.

Even beyond this, the issue of “talking” is moving slowly from a loose and notional concept that the Taliban have been able to point to as proof that they are “winning”, to something that might actually have to deliver a result.  I don’t believe that Taliban or the Afghan government really have any coherent sense of what they want in respect of talks.  And I think the West is too desperate to herald “talks” of any sort, to worry about the content, enforceability and sustainability of what emerges.  For what it is worth, I suspect the result beyond 2014 is likely to be a messy “fighting over the spoils” rerun of the 1990s, where, after a few false starts and half-baked truces, everyone fights over control of key government ministries.

Winning the peace is something the insurgents and government alike just don’t seem capable of.

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