Back to the table?

With Mullah Mansoor saddled firmly in his position, there are hopes that the reconciliation process in Afghanistan will resume

Back to the table?
The settlement of Afghan Taliban’s succession dispute has raised hopes that a new life can be breathed into the stalled reconciliation process.

The revelation about Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death days before the second round of planned talks between the militants and the Afghan government in Pakistan on July 31 had not only thrown the nascent peace process into disarray, but had also sparked an intense power struggle within the ranks of the insurgents that were earlier thought to be having a strict internal discipline.

Mullah Omar’s deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s selection as the new emir was immediately challenged by a number of commanders, but the primary opposition came from Mullah Omar’s family, who believed that either Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Yaqoob or his brother Mullah Abdul Mannan was the rightful successor.

Beyond the internal spat, the row also led to intensification of violence within Afghanistan as Mullah Mansoor sought to assert his credentials as the leader of the insurgency.

After weeks of mediation by Afghan clerics and Taliban elders, the dispute was finally resolved this week when Mullah Yaqoob and Mullah Abdul Mannan pledged allegiance to Mullah Mansoor.

With the controversy now resolved and Mullah Mansoor firmly saddled in his position, there are expectations that the Taliban will now make a decision on the future of the reconciliation process.

Although it is believed that there were multiple issues in the resumption of the dialogue – the sudden downturn in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, their mutual mistrust, intensifying violence in Afghanistan, lack of political consensus within Afghanistan over the process, and what policy the new Taliban leadership would adopt – American diplomats and officials insist that it were the Taliban who held the key.

“It is for the Taliban to decide… Everyone else is ready,” Acting US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Jarrett Blanc told reporters after completing his visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan on Tuesday.

Pakistani leaders and US diplomats agree that the Taliban would be able to make a decision on reviving the talks with the Afghan government after the succession problem is settled. “We will have to wait and see how the situation evolves after the completion of the transition. It remains to be seen what position the Taliban leadership takes and what kind of mandate they have,” Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir said.

Mir added that the (now settled) dispute over Mullah Omar’s replacement was the reason why the Afghan government was not re-engaging with the Taliban. It will be therefore interesting to watch how Mullah Mansoor moves from here, he said.

On the ground, the Taliban have gained a momentum. They have launched offensives throughout Afghanistan – more particularly Helmand, Faryab, Badakhshan, and Kunduz provinces. In Nangarhar province, they are fighting ISIS. The security situation in Northern Afghanistan has aggravated, prompting expression of concerns from Russia and neighbouring Central Asian States.

The massive jailbreak in Ghazni, in which Taliban were able to free some 355 inmates – including 148 thought to be of high risk to Afghan national security – would also be seen as a success by the Taliban.

Although the fighting season formally ends in a few weeks from now, the Taliban have carried out strikes even during winter in the last few years.

At the same time, the Afghan security forces have been more aggressive in dealing with the insurgents.

But one must not lose sight of the fact that it was Mullah Mansoor who nominated the delegation for the first round of reconciliation talks, and it was under his watch that the political office in Doha was established. Therefore, Mullah Mansoor has shown his proclivity for trying out the peace option.

The Afghan government too has begun to realize that a political settlement is a must for the country’s development.

“And with the splits in the Taliban movement, the risk of further violence is high… Violent insurgency, and the advance of extremism across the region are increasing the likelihood that the economic reform agenda will be undone by political unrest,” President Ashraf Ghani had said while chairing a meeting of senior officials from donor countries in Kabul. “The costs of fighting the Taliban and other insurgencies are eating up even more budget than they did previously.”

The metaphorical elephant in the room, however, is the tense relationship between Kabul and Islamabad.

The recent commemoration of Ahmed Shah Massoud’s death anniversary and the proceedings in the Afghan parliament may be good indicators of the level of hostility that is found against Pakistan in Kabul.

In such a situation, what role Pakistan could play in facilitating another round of dialogue, or how that role would be acceptable to Afghan politicians, are some of the tricky questions that require serious thought.

US special envoy Blanc is hopeful that the two countries would be able to address their mutual security concerns and find a way forward. Mr Haroun Mir believes that there could be no peace process without engaging Pakistan.

The way things develop on the Pakistan-Afghanistan front over the next few weeks will be crucial for the resumption of the reconciliation process for which the Pakistan government and army are very keen to play a role.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr