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.

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