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Veteran Observer Sees The Taliban Divided Over Peace Talks

Anders Fange
Anders Fange

PRAGUE, Anders Fange, a former Swedish journalist, aid worker and UN adviser, has dedicated most of his professional life to Afghanistan. The 68-year-old, who has worked in Afghanistan through the Soviet occupation, Taliban rule and the ongoing unrest, sees the Afghan Taliban as divided over the prospects of a negotiated solution to their violent struggle to restore their rule.

RFE/RL: The Afghan national unity government's leaders have made some optimistic statements about holding peace talks with the Taliban. Are they going to begin anytime soon?

Anders Fange: There has been some talk -- official statements and stuff -- for quite some time, but I still haven't seen someone sitting down at the table and starting a discussion. So it is obvious there are some problems. You don't enter into negotiations on a banana peel.

Both the Afghan government and the mainstream Taliban have problems. Within the Taliban, the questions is to what extent the leaders who are in favor of talks represent the movement and to what extent they represent the leadership. These are the questions that should be asked.

We can also presume that within the Afghan political elite there are people who aren't necessarily interested in peace because any peace -- the end of armed conflict in Afghanistan -- would mean a big step in the direction of a better functioning state and that would diminish these people's prospects. The opportunities for the narcotics trade and corruption would certainly be diminished.

RFE/RL: Even if the Taliban talks with the Afghan government, what is it actually that the two sides will be haggling over?

Fange: I doubt the Taliban itself even has a single view on these things. I can imagine that if the talks become a reality it will start with things like the exchange of prisoners and other trust-building measures. The other question is that it is difficult to know what is going on among the Taliban leadership, but I can imagine that some people who are in favor of talks won't abandon their strategic objective of reestablishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the formal name of the Afghan Taliban regime).

They might go into talks to make the Americans and the government relax into thinking everything is going in a positive direction. You might have people in the Taliban leadership who are genuinely wanting peace to stop the suffering of their people.

RFE/RL: But do you see these pragmatic Taliban leaders abandoning their main objective of reestablishing their regime?

Fange: The Taliban is more fragmented now compared with the 1990s, when it ruled Afghanistan and was a very organized and coordinated movement. I am quite convinced that within the Taliban, possibly among the leadership and definitely out among the field commanders, there are people who are not in favor of any peace talks. They want to continue the struggle until they have reestablished their Islamic emirate.

RFE/RL: How would you characterize this fragmentation within the Taliban? Is it a friction between the fugitive Taliban leadership in exile in Pakistan and the field commanders and foot soldiers operating inside Afghanistan?

Fange: With their leadership in exile and foot soldiers and field commanders inside the country, the commanders have more authority now than they had before. There is also more room for expressing different opinions. Previously, and I suppose now, Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is moving in, and [it] is trying to create links with commanders who oppose the leadership for whatever purpose of trying to control the Taliban movement in a better way.

RFE/RL: You have known the Afghan government leaders President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah personally. I think Abdullah even worked for you in the Swedish Committee in the Panjshir Valley in the 1980s. How different are they, and what is your assessment of their working relationship so far?

Fange: If you listen to these two individuals and what they express publicly, it indicates they have a good cooperation. If you listen to their teams and followers, there are signs of differences and even quarrels. There is reason for hope; there is reason for optimism. Although I must say I was more optimistic in November than I am now. The absolute pre-condition for any success of the national unity government is that this cooperation between Ghani and Abdullah lasts and functions.

In many ways, they complement each other as political figures. Ashraf is the person who wrote the book "Fixing Failed States," and he obviously has ideas on what to do. Both of them are highly intelligent people. They are knowledgeable.

Of course, they have weaknesses, too. Ashraf is slightly impatient and wants to do things fast, and wants to see quick results. Perhaps Abdullah is a product of the old [anti-Soviet] mujahedin elite, which means he will have to do a lot to fend off criticism from that old elite.

RFE/RL: Since taking office, Ghani has made extraordinary overtures to Pakistan. He is trying to transform the Durand Line border between the two countries into an arena of friendship and cooperation instead of hostility. Is he likely to succeed?

Fange: It is too early to make a conclusive assessment. Some things are happening, obviously. Whether they will result in actual talks or even peace talks, it's too early to say. What one can say is that Ghani – and, to quite an extent, Abdullah -- has jointly gone into this new diplomatic approach toward Pakistan, and there is a growing impatience among Afghan political observers and ordinary people. They want to see results. So I would say the unity government is playing cards with very high stakes, and it is still uncertain what kind of cards they will finally throw on the table.

RFE/RL: Finally, after working in Afghanistan for decades, how optimistic are you about the future of the country?

Fange: I was very optimistic after the emergence of the national unity government. I said that cooperation between the two leaders is an absolute must. If that can work, then I am more optimistic. If it doesn't, then I will be less optimistic. These two individuals have the potential of lying the foundation and creating the possibilities for a new Afghanistan.