James Fergusson, a British journalist who has written books on Afghanistan, says he is not pessimistic about the prospects of peace in Afghanistan. He says that despite delays and uncertainty created by the news of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's death and the apparent leadership crisis among the insurgents, the Taliban will eventually join the current Afghan political system.
RFE/RL: Mullah Omar has been reportedly dead for nearly two years. Why do you think the news is out just now?
James Fergusson: It’s a very important time for the Taliban, with NATO forces now withdrawn, and it’s a new era we are looking at: a possible time of peace. You never quite know what is going on in Afghanistan because there is so much disinformation flying around, and it’s hard to make real sense of it. But it is clearly a politically timed piece of news.
RFE/RL: Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour is reportedly replacing the Taliban leader. Is he in a position to lead the group?
Fergusson: Mansour is a very senior figure in the civilian side of the group. He’s said to be close to the Pakistanis; he is pro-Pakistan in the sense that some of the Taliban are. He is clearly going to be important because Pakistan is important. There will be no peace in Afghanistan without Pakistan being involved in those negotiations.
RFE/RL: The news of Mullah Omar's death was officially confirmed by the Afghan government, and this comes at a time when the Afghan government has already started formal negotiations with the group. Do you not think the very announcement by Kabul sabotages the peace process at this stage?
Fergusson: I don’t think so, because we’ve not just started the talks. Kabul has wanted to be talking to the Taliban for a great many years. I think this piece of news is being used to ratchet up the pressure, if you like. There may be some temporary upsets to the ongoing process, but it is not going to stop. It is true that Mullah Omar has been dead for two years; in all that time I haven't noticed that Taliban has been imploding or anything else. It’s a remarkable thing that the Taliban is actually an organization; it’s a well-organized organization that has managed to go on operating without anyone noticing that the founder or the leader is dead.
RFE/RL: The news has already created a leadership crisis within the Taliban. What fate will the group face in the future?
Fergusson: I don't think there’s been any change in what the Taliban ultimately wants in Afghanistan. They formed a government in the 1990s. They think it was quite successful, and it was cut short by NATO intervention; they wanted to kind of wind the clock back to those times and carry on with their mission as before, which is to establish their version of an Islamic State within Afghanistan according to their own rules.
RFE/RL: U.S. officials have already said that Islamic State (IS) militants are in the recruiting phase in Afghanistan. To what extent will the death of the Taliban’s leader embolden Daesh (Arabic name for IS) in the country?
Fergusson: It may do so because it’s already reported that one of the reasons Daesh has been doing quite well in Afghanistan in terms of recruitment has been the Taliban's inability to prove that Mullah Omar is alive. There have been rumors that he was dead for quite some time, clearly, in Afghanistan, and when it was not clear who’s in charge, Daesh has been able to say well, we are the new force on the block, come and join us. But still I think Daesh will recruit people in Afghanistan. But I do think the Taliban is a different kind of organization. It is a Pashtun nationalist organization. It offers something to the rural heartland of Afghanistan, which a foreign organization like Daesh cannot. To ordinary Afghans, Daesh is like Al-Qaeda, and Al-Qaeda has never been popular in Afghanistan among Pashtuns. Even back in the '90s there was a great rivalry between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and I think that’s carrying on now between the Taliban and Daesh. I very much doubt that Daesh will ever have the popular appeal that the Taliban had in the '90s. I’d be surprised if Daesh will make much headway actually in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Given all this, how do you see the prospects of peace talks?
Fergusson: They’ve been going for so long with no results. It’s quite easy to be cynical about them. But I do think that the Taliban -- whatever you think of them -- does represent a genuine constituency in Afghanistan, particularly in the southern Pashtun heartland, and I think that constituency needs to be included in some way in the political process. I think Kabul has accepted that and the West has accepted that. I think the death of Omar is not going to make a big difference to that ultimate outcome. But it is all down to what Kabul is prepared to offer the Taliban. There is going to be some sort of negotiated settlement eventually that includes that Taliban in the body politics of the country. I hope they will, they have to be, because without them there will be no peace.