The Taliban’s renewed cohesion and its impact on peace talks

With Mansour’s role as leader finally recognized by many who had previously contested his appointment, the Taliban have retrieved their usual cohesion and are again a united front. How is this going to impact the possibility of peace talks?

The past ten days have been rich of events for the Taliban group and its internal dynamics.

First, there was the publication of a handwritten letter in which Mullah Zaker — who is one of the most renowned and powerful figures within the Taliban — pledges allegiance to the group’s leader Mullah Mansour. Since the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar last Summer, Zaker had in fact maintained a neutral stance, refusing to leave the Taliban (as many other leading figures did) but, at the same time, denying his open support to the new leader Mansour. However, late last month Zaker made his final decision and eventually sided with Mansour.

Then, a few days later, another major event occurred as Mullah Muhammad Yaqub – Mullah Omar’s eldest son – was appointed head of 15 provinces in the Taliban’s Military Commission and Mullah Abdul Manan – one of Mullah Omar’s brothers – was appointed head of the Taliban’s Preaching and Guidance Commission.

After months marked by internal divisions and power struggles between Mullah Mansour and many among Mullah Omar’s family and long-time loyalists, the allegiance pledged by Zaker and the new roles reckoned to Omar’s son and brother are of particular importance. They indeed reveal that Mansour’s legitimacy is on the rise, that his position as Taliban leader is getting stronger by the day, and that an inner reconciliation is eventually taking place within a Taliban front that many observers had thought (and hoped) was irredeemably fractured. This means that – even if a number of former members have left the Taliban for good and have constituted in the Eastern province of Nangarhar a group affiliated to ISIS known as ISIS-Khorasan that is now fighting against Mansour for power and influence – the group of the defunct Mullah Omar is slowly retrieving its traditional cohesion.

This recovery of cohesion, far from being a merely internal matter with no relevance or significance for the out-group environment, has crucial implications for the prospect of future negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban and therefore for the entire Afghan security scenario.

After a first round of talks held in Murree (Pakistan) last Summer, the internal fragmentation of the group that followed the confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death has since been a major obstacle to any further talk. The division emerged within the Taliban, in fact, has up to now made it impossible for the Quadrilateral Group represented by Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China to identify among the Taliban interlocutors who could be reliable and – above all – legitimate enough to sit down, take decisions on behalf of the entire group, and implement them.

However, after the latest events that have interested the Taliban organization and power structure, that obstacle might be falling down. With the Taliban leadership now rallied around the figure of Mansour, in fact, identifying the interlocutors with whom the dialogue has to be sought and pursued has finally become possible.

This does in no way mean that the Taliban’s inner reconciliation makes negotiations likely. It just means it makes negotiations imaginable (which in a country ravaged by war as Afghanistan is not something to be taken for granted).

The possibility of engaging in talks with the Taliban has now more possibilities of becoming reality than it had yesterday, but most will depend on the moves of the Quadrilateral Group.

If they want Mansour’s group to approach the negotiating table, the four countries will need to convince the Taliban of the convenience of those negotiations. In the specific, they will need to stress how the group – despite the territorial conquests made in 2015 in some parts of the country – can achieve through negotiations more (and more durable) power and influence than that it can hope to achieve through war (especially in a moment in which ISIS-Khorasan is opening a new front against Mansour’s group).

If, on the contrary, the four countries of the Quadrilateral Group fail to present negotiation in this terms to the Taliban, then it is unlikely that talks will ever take place and the recent reconciliation within the Taliban will translate into a stronger, united, and more confident Taliban front ready to initiate the 2016 Spring offensive against its enemies. Enemies that in this case would comprise not only ISIS-Khorasan but also the Afghan national forces (and – inevitably – Afghan civilians).

It has thus come for Kabul, Islamabad, Washington and Beijing the time to engage in the most important and most difficult match with the Taliban: that of convincing them that without peace talks there is no future in Afghanistan for neither side.

China’s Role in the Match between Kabul and the Taliban

While the dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban has entered a phase of stalemate, China continues to be one of the most important actors involved in the efforts of pushing the parties to talk. But what are the reasons and the implications of such Chinese policy?

 

 

Of the various regions with which China shares its borders, the area known as AfPak always had a major importance. Yet, it is especially over the past few years that this region – that spans across Pakistan and Afghanistan and borders China’s Xinjiang province – has seen its relevance increase even more in the strategic calculations of Beijing in South Asia.

Since the ‘80s – with the Soviet-Afghan war and the advent of jihadist terrorism – the area has emerged as source of instability and insecurity for the whole region, and it is such a volatility that is giving it priority in China’s geopolitical choices (and worries).  In the eyes of Beijing, in fact, the instability of an area that is at its south-western borders represents a double threat with which it necessarily has to deal – and in front of which it cannot delay an effective response.

 

On one side, there is the threat posed to China’s national security. This threat mainly takes the form of the influence that Afghan and Pakistani terrorist groups exert on extremist groups of Uighurs active in the Xinjiang which in more than one occasion have resorted to terrorism to express their opposition to Beijing.

On the other side, there is the threat posed to China’s economic interests. Due to its geographic position, the AfPak region plays a primary role in the trade relations that China maintains with the Central Asian countries from which it imports oil and gas. In addition, it is vital for the implementation of the silk road economic belt – a crucial development and economic project elaborated by China in and for Eurasia.

 

The stability of the AfPak region is therefore a priority for the Chinese government due to economic and security reasons.

It is for these reasons that over the past few years Beijing has deepened its role in the region’s dynamics and it is in this context that we shall place (and explain) the strategy followed by China with respect to the issue of the dialogue between the Taliban and Kabul.  Since the beginning of last year, China has proposed itself as key player in that delicate and complex process aiming to seek a direct negotiation between the two conflicting parties. In the specific, it has intervened by exploiting its influence over Islamabad (explained by the numerous trade agreements and investment plans that bind Pakistan and its economic growth to China) to convince the Pakistanis to review their afghan policy and encourage the Taliban to talk.

 

Such a direct intervention on China’s part is especially meaningful as it represents a turning point in the Chinese foreign policy and has relevant implications at regional level.

Traditionally resistive to any direct involvement in the political and diplomatic landscape of South Asia, China is now facing a phase of re-definition of its afghan policy: firm to protect its economic and security interests, Beijing has elaborated an approach centered on a greater political direct involvement. This new approach on the Chinese side has favored the emergence of new dynamics in the game of alliances in the region: under President Ghani Afghanistan has abandoned the traditional line followed by Karzai and has moved away from the Indian ally while getting closer instead to China and Pakistan.

Equally important is then the fact that China’s decision to avoid unilateral interventions and join the Group of Four signals a renewed cooperation with the United States in the AfPak area. In Afghanistan – after all – the strategic interests of Washington and Beijing point in the same direction, with the consequent overture of cooperation opportunities that might impact positively on the negotiation possibilities.

 

However, the efficacy of the new afghan policy implemented by Beijing will depend on a series of factors.

First of all, there is the relation between China and the United States. As said, the more the two countries will be able to take advantage of and work on their common interest in the AfPak’s stabilization, the more China will have in its hands the right cards to play a decisive role.

Secondly, there is the issue of the relationship between China and Pakistan. Beijing’s role, indeed, will largely depend on its capacity of using its political and economic pressure to have Islamabad to moderate its afghan policy (traditionally based on the support given to the Taliban in an anti-Delhi key).

Furthermore, much will depend on the consistency of the Taliban front. Since last summer, when the death of Mullah Omar was confirmed and Mansour became the group’s new leader, the Taliban are internally fractured and this fracture represents the main obstacle to dialogue. The success of negotiations will thus depend on the capacity of the Group of which China is part of identifying reliable interlocutors.

 

Moreover, it is to underline how this new Chinese involvement will not come without risks.

The main risk lies in the fact that an excessive involvement of Beijing in its support to Kabul and – more broadly – in the whole issue of the regional fight against terrorism might exasperate even more the tensions within Xinjiang and strengthen the Uighur radical groups’ hostility to Beijing.

In addition, intervening ever more in the Afghan issues, China risks undermining its friendly relations with many of the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, each of which has in Afghanistan its own political and economic interests that they are more than determined to defend. Among the SCO countries, indeed, the Afghan issue has always been a major source of tension because of its undisputable relevance, and the Chinese intervention might widen differences and diffidence and slow down cooperation also in other areas and on other matters.

Finally, there is to consider the element of the USA and NATO presence in Afghanistan. The more the presence of Western forces is reduced (both in terms of actual numbers both in terms of the tasks and missions to be carried out), the more China – due to its new foreground role – risks finding itself exposed to pressure as far as the possibility of a future ground intervention is concerned. Beijing’s credibility as regional actor might risk being compromised if China did not prove capable of finding a successful balance between its desire of stabilizing the region and its rejection of any military intervention.