Although post-Omar Afghanistan has seen sudden escalation of the conflict, it may also possibly be the best time for the U.S. and other stakeholders to reach a negotiated solution to the war. There are many indicators that tend to signify the said possibility. Chief among them may be the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s increasing internal disunity. On the other hand, the U.S.’ “good relations” with Iran and the Taliban’s newly established “good relations” with Iran can also be a very useful link in helping to bring all the warring parties i.e., Afghan Government, the U.S. and the Taliban, to the negotiating table.
Most importantly, it is the Taliban’s internal disunity that the stakeholders and peace- brokers in Afghanistan can utilise to win over, at least, the pro-dialogue Taliban factions. That the Taliban are mainly divided over the question of Mulla Omar’s accession is quite evident from the developments taking place since the announcement of Omar’s death. The most important of them all may be the resignation of Tayyab Agha, the chief of the Taliban’s political commission and the most prominent moderate in favour of peace talks. It is important to note that Tayyab Agha resigned due to the newly appointed Akhtar Mansour’s decision to step back from peace talks and intensify his battlefield efforts—hence, Kabul bombings.
Some efforts to re-unite the Taliban were certainly made; however, all ended in failure. In the middle of August, the mediators between two Taliban groups, each led by Mulla Yaqoob and Masour, announced their failure due to lack of co-operation by the Mansour group. If such a situation persists and the Taliban fail to re-unite, it is quite possible to see the Taliban completely splitting into two groups, and consequently led by two different “ameers”—Mansour and Yaqoob.
The extent of this division can be assessed by the fact that Mansour held meetings with Mulla Yaqoob and Mulla Abdul Mannan, the son and the younger and lone surviving brother of Mulla Omar respectively. He reportedly offered senior positions to both. Yaqoob was offered the job of head of the military commission. Mannan was given the offer to head the Dawat-i-Jalb wa Jazb Commission, which is tasked with contacting and luring the government soldiers, policemen, employees and others to defect and join the Taliban. However, the offer was not only rejected plainly, but threats of counter-movement were also conveyed by the anti-Mansour faction.
On the other hand, the pressure of the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan and its overtly anti-Taliban position has further added to the problem the Taliban are facing since Omar’ death. The death of Omar, in this particular regard, is not merely the death of Taliban’s supreme leader. As a matter of fact, he held the symbolic office of “Caliphate” which is now being claimed by ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi. The death of Mulla Omar is, therefore, a positive development, as far as ISIS is concerned; for, Omar was not only a declared “caliph”, but he also served as an important obstacle between Afghanistan and the Islamic State.
Assessing these developments, the U.S. policymakers might now see some choice between promoting further fracturing of the weakened Taliban leadership to enable their own military gains, or pursuing a political settlement with whatever coherence remains within the new Taliban leadership, or at least win over the pro-dialogue Taliban faction(s). As a matter of fact, Mansour himself was pro-dialogue until the news of Mulla Omar’s death was revealed. He stepped back from dialogue only to re-unite the Taliban commanders under his command. However, now that the division in expanding within the Taliban ranks and that they are being attacked by ISIS too, it is high time that all stakeholders (Afghan government, the U.S., Pakistan and Iran) struck when the iron is hot. Mulla Mansour, who has so far failed to re-unite the Taliban under his command, may still find it useful to negotiate with Afghan government and the U.S.
On the other hand, if this opportunity is lost, Afghanistan may further descend into chaos and the plight of Iraqi and Syrian people may also come to visit the common people of Afghanistan, who are generally in favour of political settlement with the Taliban than continued conflict.
That the Taliban are week and that they are trying to create new avenues of support is evident from their (so far successful) efforts to re-build their relations with (an erstwhile enemy) Iran. Taliban-Iran rapprochement has been possible mainly due to ISIS’s emergence, which is equally opposed to both Shia-Iran and Hanafi Taliban.
On the other hand, that the Taliban and Iran are closely working to meet the common enemy is also evident from the various statements of Afghan officials who continue to express their concerns regarding Iran’s increasing influence within the Taliban rank and file and its possible consequences in the future.
Not only does Iran have some influence within the Taliban groups, but within the Afghan government too. As a matter of fact, during controversial presidential polls in 2014, in addition to the role played by the U.S. and Pakistan, it was Iran’s power of mediation that made the opposition group led by Abdullah Abdullah sit down for negotiations and pave the way for the establishment of a national unity government.
Given such particular developments, It seems that the outcomes of the nuclear deal between Iran and the West and reduction of tensions in Tehran-Washington relations can be and will be demonstrated more rapidly and more notably with respect to Afghanistan’s affairs than other areas of cooperation. Officials in Kabul, who have been trying to keep a balance between their relations with Tehran and Washington, welcomed Iran nuclear deal before officials in other countries.
With the Taliban increasingly on the defense (due to their internal disunity) for the first time perhaps, and with the triangle thus developing between Tehran-Washington and the Taliban, there is ample reason to believe that the Taliban are, today, a much more moderated force compared to what they were initially were and compared to the Islamic State would bring to Afghanistan in the wake of its ascendance. The Taliban are already in conflict with the Islamic State, and the Afghan government have at least some common interest with the Taliban in opposing the Islamic State’s inroads into Afghanistan.
The threat ISIS is now posing to this part of the world thus may just turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It all depends upon how efficiently stakeholders can translate this threat into a platform of common action. The biggest question mark, in this behalf, remains on the U.S. which may, by going against the tide, try to turn the situation into an altogether different direction i.e., allow ISIS to grow in Afghanistan and use it as a threat against Central Asia States, China and Pakistan.
Such a situation can, however, be pre-empted. This can only be done by a concerted effort by all regional states. Together they can not only face the challenge of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, but also tackle ISIS’s growth. Most importantly, regional players can force the U.S. into changing its position. It is quite clear that the U.S. can no longer play its double role i.e., as a mediator and co-belligerent. If Iraqi debacle is any guide, the U.S. must use all political options to reach political settlement before Afghanistan further descends into chaos and the ground becomes even more fertile for ISIS to gain recruits.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”