The Taliban Comes to the Table: Could the Afghan War Finally Wind Down?
Earlier this month, representatives of the Afghan Taliban and Kabul government met in the Pakistani resort town of Murree in preliminary peace talks described as “breakthrough” by Pakistani officials. While there is ample basis for being cautious about the prospects of a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war, the Pakistan-hosted talks offer reason to be hopeful, particularly after receiving the tacit endorsement of Taliban founder and leader Mullah Muhammad Omar.
Last Wednesday, a statement attributed to the reclusive Taliban chief, alluding to the talks with Kabul, stated that “meetings and even peaceful interactions with the enemies is not prohibited” in Islam, including in times of war. The purported Mullah Omar statement significantly reduces the ambiguity surrounding the official Afghan Taliban position on the Murree dialogue. However, being merely a written message, it falls short of completely eliminating doubt about Mullah Omar’s views as it fails to provide proof of life. Speculation is growing over whether the Taliban founder, who has not been seen or heard publicly in years, is even alive.
What is clear is that there have been, and probably continue to be, differences within the Afghan Taliban’s ranks over the Murree talks and the overall idea of engaging with the Kabul government. These difference were made public through criticism from unnamed Afghan Taliban officials, as well as an article published on the Taliban website condemning the talks. However, the article was subsequently removed and was followed by a carefully-worded official statement from the Afghan Taliban that avoided endorsement or rejection of the Murree talks, while emphasizing the top role of the Doha office.
It appears that the Afghan Taliban as a whole have decided to give the talks a chance—probably due to the nudging, if not pushing, of the Pakistani military. The Afghan Taliban have made significant military gains across the country and have been in no mood to engage Kabul. But the Pakistani military managed to secure the attendance of representatives of the Peshawar and Quetta shuras as well as the so-called Haqqani Network. The talks, Afghan officials claim, have the backing of the Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, while the Taliban’s Qatar office and, according to some reports, commanders like Abdul Qayyum Zakir oppose the talks.
The Kabul government has been eager, if not desperate, over the years for validation from the Taliban; so its claims should be taken with a grain of salt. But at the same time, having been burned in the past by outreach to the Taliban that ended in disaster, officials in Kabul are unlikely to oversell the prospects of the current round of engagement.
Keeping the internal Taliban divisions in mind, Pakistan may have gambled in pushing a reluctant Taliban toward the negotiation table, risking the group’s fracture or a backlash against Pakistan. But Pakistan’s desire to err on the side of risk signals the sense of urgency its strategic planners have toward securing peace in Afghanistan and bolstering ties with the Kabul government. Indeed, the Murree talks are evidence of a good faith effort by Pakistan, especially its military leadership, to facilitate an Afghan-led negotiated settlement to the war.