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Taliban talks: internal dilemmas and confusion?

March 22, 2012

This is a very interesting piece from The Daily Beast, perfectly highlighting some of the current Taliban dilemmas and forming a useful reminder that, if the US, the international community and the Afghan government are having some difficulties (and many failures) this year, there are particular areas in which the Taliban are probably also struggling.

The article highlights two Taliban commanders, accused by the Taliban leadership of entering into unauthorised talks with the Afghan regime (and receiving money for it).  The issue of talks can be both disruptive and divisive to an insurgency’s effort.  It will be picked up by western military and political leaders as crucial evidence that “we’re winning”, but I’m not so sure.  I think the article overplays it somewhat; they suggest that this internal dispute is “threatening to undermine the guerrillas’ previously unshakable unity” (I think their unity has always been somewhat shakeable).  And you can never rule out that internal Taliban struggles are more personal than policy. 

But one of the great historic Taliban weaknesses since 2001 has been their fragmented command and control structure; different groups, fighting in different parts of Afghanistan, with limited strategic communications capability and a leadership primarily based in Pakistan.  In the last two years, the significant stepping up ISAF’s targeting of Taliban leadership inside Afghanistan has served to disrupt their command capability even further.  This remains a very delicate time for the Taliban – talks can be a very tricky process and confusion, misinterpretation and misdirection could have really damaging consequences – imagine if half the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan stopped fighting while (what they believed to be) talks were underway because they thought they had been told to do so.  This would be Mullah Omar’s nightmare; he will of course want to generate another effective fighting season this year in order to maximise his bargaining chips – even if he decides not to talk to anyone this year.

Daily Beast, March 2012: After a decade of vows that the jihad would never end until total victory and the imposition of Taliban-style Sharia law throughout Afghanistan, the unheralded peace moves have just about paralyzed the insurgency’s ranks with a sense of betrayal and uncertainty. Even usually hot-blooded madrassa students may be having second thoughts about joining the fight. The madrassa’s headmaster says many of his 80 students may not follow orders to cross the border and fight once the school term ends early next month. “Maybe only 50 percent will go,” he says.  Some Taliban officials are speculating that the disarray surrounding the detention of Agha and Hassan could have been one of the unspoken but underlying reasons behind Mullah Omar’s breaking off the Qatar talks with the Americans. “He is trying to reestablish a degree of discipline, unity and common purpose,” says a former Taliban intelligence officer who remains close to the leadership. “Peace talks were becoming too divisive an issue.” That would be very bad news for anyone who yearns for an end to the war.

So there is much scope for inter-insurgency misunderstanding and I additionally suspect that ISAF and other supporting western information, communications and intelligence organisations will be looking to exploit any communication and information weaknesses that they think they can see within the Taliban command.  This in itself will be high risk – it might disrupt the Taliban but it might also disrupt well-intentioned peace talks.  There are likely to be many Taliban leaders now – partly a function of the ISAF kill/capture process that has “removed” older, more experienced commanders – who are more driven by local issues in their immediate area, be less interested in peace with infidels and less inclined to respond immediately to edicts from a leadership that they may never have met.  Within the wider “tradition” of Afghan groups keeping a bargaining foot in every camp, some Taliban commanders may be establishing links with the Afghan government for their own self-interest.  Others may genuinely believe that it is acceptable (at least in some circumstances). Small wonder that the Taliban leadership are extremely sensitive to what is at stake and keen to keep a very tight hold.

But to return to another theme of mine – who is actually leading in this “Afghan-led” negotiation process?

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