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Talks Divide Taliban, Herald An End To Its Relationship With Islamabad

Years without any video or audio recordings have led to growing speculation that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar may be seriously ill, or dead.
Years without any video or audio recordings have led to growing speculation that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar may be seriously ill, or dead.

The Afghan Taliban largely remained united through more than two decades of internecine civil war and nearly 14 years of insurgency against NATO and Afghan forces.

But the first direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government that took place in Pakistan this week appear to have divided the hard-line Islamic movement. Pressure from Islamabad seems to be turning some Taliban members against Pakistan, which has remained their main foreign backer since the group's emergence in the mid-1990s.

The Taliban issued a vague statement on July 8 to emphasize that its political office in Qatar has the "sole responsibility" to "conduct or postpone, in light of Islamic principles and national interests, negotiations with internal and foreign parties."

Almost simultaneously, however, the Taliban's media and political machine began to indicate displeasure with the talks. The negotiations in Murree, a mountainous resort near Islamabad, began on July 7 and continued till the wee hours of the next day.

"When the dust settles, the much hailed talks between Taliban officials and [Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani-administration officials in Islamabad will be revealed as nothing more than Pakistan delivering a few individuals from the Islamic Emirate [formal name of the Taliban] to speak in their personal capacity," read a hard-hitting English-language commentary published on the Taliban's website on July 9.

The piece, titled "A Pakistani Roulette: Pakistani-Brokered Peace Talks" warned that "the high stakes gambit" could prove "catastrophic" for Pakistan.

"Its failure to persuade the Islamic Emirate on peace talks has already shown the limits of its influence over the Talban leadership," the article said. "In order to compensate for this shortcoming, the Pakistani establishment has had to rely on 'mid-level' Taliban officials who can only speak in their personal capacity and have limited decision making capacity."

(The piece was taken down inexplicably nearly four hours after it was posted on the Taliban's official website, Voice of Jihad.)

A story that appeared in a pro-Taliban website late on July 8 quoted Mohammad Naeem Wardak, the Taliban spokesman in Qatar, reiterating that the three negotiators -- Abdul Latif Mansur, Haji Ibrahim Haqqani, and Mullah Abbass -- who participated in the Pakistan-sponsored talks did not represent the Taliban movement.

"Pakistan has attempted to either negotiate with the Afghan government on behalf of the Taliban or control such a process," the article said. "But it seems that the Taliban do not want to include Pakistan in their foreign and domestic affairs."

The story alleged that Mansur, the nephew of prominent anti-Soviet mujahedin commander Nasrullah Mansur; Haji Ibrahim, the brother of longtime Pakistani ally and former Taliban cabinet member Jalaluddin Haqqani; and Abbass, a former minister of healthcare in the Taliban regime, were all "hostages" of Pakistani intelligence service.

In an e-mail sent that same day to "The New York Times," an unnamed member of the Taliban Qatar office said the meeting was "a step in the wrong direction." The official said that Islamabad had "hijacked" the peace talks by arranging a meeting with unsanctioned Taliban representatives.

Pakistani and Afghan officials, however, hailed the meeting as a success. A statement by Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Ministry on July 8 said the Taliban representatives were "duly mandated" and expressed their desire to "bring peace to Afghanistan."

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif termed the talks "a major breakthrough" and said he hoped "there will be a positive outcome which will certainly be very helpful for peace and stability in Afghanistan."

Afghan officials who talked to the three Taliban leaders in Pakistan were also optimistic.

"The people that we talked to [in Pakistan] had permission from the Taliban leadership. I will go a step further and tell you they came with the permission of [Akhtar Mohammad] Mansour," Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai told journalists in Kabul on July 9.

Mansour became the de-facto leader of the Taliban after Pakistan detained his predecessor, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in 2010. Mansour and his close confidants retain overall control of Taliban diplomacy and Taliban fighters by regularly releasing statements in the name of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who has not been seen since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Omar's long absence and the doubts about whether he is still alive -- as well as the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and a complicated power struggle within the Taliban leadership council itself -- have tested the Taliban's unity and perhaps their clandestine alliance with Pakistan's powerful military establishment.

Islamabad began patronizing the Taliban soon after its emergence in southern Afghanistan in 1994. The Pakistani military and the country's Inter-Services Intelligence helped the ragtag militia to gain control of most of Afghan territory by 1998. Pakistan persuaded Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to recognize the Taliban government.

According to former Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf, Islamabad cultivated the Taliban following the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001 to counter perceived growing Indian influence in Afghanistan.

After assuming office in September, Ghani has attempted to remedy Pakistan's concerns and establish a cooperative relationship with Islamabad. He has pushed Pakistani military leadership to deliver Afghan Taliban leaders to the negotiation table.

Pakistani pressure on the Taliban in turn has strained their unity and alliances with other jihadists. The erstwhile Taliban military commander Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, whom Mansour sacked in 2014, is now emerging as his main rival. He reportedly opposes negotiations with Kabul.

The Taliban's longtime jihadist allies are now calling on the leadership to prove that Omar is alive. In a strongly worded statement in November 2014, Usman Ghazi, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, questioned Omar's long absence.

"To disappear for many long years is the act of a treacherous coward from whom Allah will not accept an excuse," he said. "We have never had nor will we ever have hidden leaders among us," he added. "We implore our brothers not to smear our bright history with dirty politics!"

Such pressures are putting a strain on the Taliban leaders who have mostly focused on fighting and have largely failed to win popular support for their efforts to reestablish their regime as an Islamist utopia.

Many are now questioning their relations with Pakistan. The commentary that the insurgents removed from their website said the Taliban will only negotiate if there is "consensus" between the "leaders and members."

The piece concluded with a daring warning to Islamabad.

"At most some leaders will be jailed and others forced underground. However, the hatred it bread [sic] will have long-term repercussions far out-weighing any possible short-term political benefits," it said.

"Pakistan needs to carefully examine the political calculus that its policy entails. Any minor oversight could trigger changes that might prove impossible to undo," the Taliban warned.