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Former UN Adviser Talks Taliban's Future

Michael Semple
Michael Semple

Michael Semple, a former UN and EU adviser in Afghanistan, has studied the Taliban since their emergence in the 1990s. The Irish academic sees the Pakistani Taliban fragmenting into armed criminal gangs while the organizationally strong Afghan Taliban is likely to find peace with Kabul because of their fear of irrelevance.

RFE/RL: What is your assessment of Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP) Pakistan after they claimed this week's horrific attack in Peshawar, massacring some 150 schoolchildren and teachers?

Michael Semple: The TTP in December 2014 is much weaker than it was before the North Waziristan operation began back in June. As well as having lost its bases, it has suffered multiple leadership challenges and fragmentation. However, most of the key TTP commanders are still in business. They say they are still determined to wage their version of jihad, and the dreadful attack in Peshawar is an expression of that. It is an attack from a position of weakness rather than of strength.

RFE/RL: There is no TTP presence in the tribal region of Waziristan, where it originated in 2007. Do you see the group surviving in Malakand?

Semple: The TTP of a year ago, when [its leader] Hakimullah Mehsud was alive, seemed a major force across FATA, able to carry out operations in many parts of Pakistan. It was a serious, serious force. The TTP of Mehsud simply no longer exists. There are, again, multiple armed groups, each with a hold in one of the tribal agencies [or districts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas - FATA] or areas like in Malakand [in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province]. Some still recognize Fazlullah as the Amir (leader), but they are not a united force.

RFE/RL: Many former TTP commanders have now pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Do you see them forming a nucleus for the emergence of IS in Pakistan?

Semple: I believe it was a logical and predictable development that some TTP veterans ended up making statements of support for IS. I think the TTP’s impulse has been to promote and live a life of jihad, without necessarily ever really achieving anything. They're like a solidarity organization with the mujahideen anywhere. And DAISH (ed: Arabic name for IS) is currently the most inspiring, headline-grabbing manifestation of the global jihadi movement. Therefore, given they're not actually going to achieve anything in Pakistan, better they should set themselves up in solidarity with the latest, greatest thing in global jihad.

RFE/RL: What kind of future do you see for the TTP?

Semple: The commanders who formed the TTP have not disappeared. Their armed groups still exist, and so I'm sure they will reconfigure and we will see this playing out over the next few years. Possibly they'll end up looking like "primus inter pares" – or "first among equals" – in the different armed criminal gangs which span tribal areas and the urban environment. Possibly DAISH will progress a bit more. The one thing for certain is the old TTP is no longer with us.

RFE/RL: Do you agree with the assessment that Pakistan has chosen to go after militants and not the militancy?

Semple: It’s very important to ask why, for a decade, it has been possible for jihadi recruiters to find young men – particularly in the tribal areas but also in other parts of Pakistan – and persuade them to take Fidayee (eds: suicide bombing) training and go and detonate themselves against targets in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: The Afghan Taliban have largely survived the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan and are still broadly intact as an organization. Where do they stand now?

Semple: We should see what is happening in Afghanistan at the moment as, in part, a contest of organizations. The Afghan Taliban have proved themselves to be an effective organization; they have both a hierarchy in which the center takes decisions which are respected by members of the movement throughout, but also those members, their field commanders, are inspired to act on their own. This combination of centralized and decentralized has made them an effective organization.

At the moment, we see one organizational model — that of the Taliban — pitted against another organization, that of the Afghan state, which has been supported by the U.S. over all these years. The Afghan state has received vastly larger resources than the Taliban in the course of the campaign, but the Taliban are still effective.

RFE/RL: The Haqqani network has operated independently of the Taliban, which is controlled by its leadership council, called the Quetta Shura. How relevant are they still as the Taliban’s main military muscle?

Semple: What is known in the West as the Haqqani network mainly consists of people who occupy posts inside the Islamic Emirate — the Taliban movement. We know sociologically they sort of come from a different place and have different links, but they are a part of the Taliban movement. Certainly, they are responsible for a significant part of its military muscle. They're not actually working at cross purposes; they are part of the same movement, part of the same military campaign. They do different things from the people operating over in Kandahar and so on.

RFE/RL: We know from Taliban literature they are committed to a struggle within Afghanistan. But, in the past, they’ve had good relationships with a range of jihadist organizations. How do you see those relationships now?

Semple: The more I’ve studied the Taliban movement, the more I've been convinced their leadership thinks very carefully about these things. When they were in power, they could be quite frustrating to deal with – you know, seeming not to listen to things. They do try to reconcile exactly these issues; they know if they are perceived, in Afghanistan and internationally, as linked to international terrorists, it will create problems for them and win more enemies. Yet some of them do indeed value those old links. So they want to maintain the links in such a way that they don't get labeled as being part of international terrorism.

RFE/RL: It is said that, since 2008, there has been no verifiable communication with Mullah Omar. But he is still the lynchpin figure holding the Taliban together. How do the Taliban run their organization in his absence?

Semple: Mullah Omar, the Amir al-Momineen (leader of the faithful) for the Taliban, remains a very important symbol, and he commands tremendous respect across the movement. When people make decisions, when they give communications about the movement’s strategy, they do so in his name. Despite what you say about Mullah Omar not having been able to send out any audio messages since 2008, this formula has worked very well; people can write statements on behalf of the Amir al-Momineen, they can make appointments, they can make sackings, they can make decisions in his name, and this is respected inside the movement.

RFE/RL: Is he alive? If he's dead, what's going to happen?

Semple: Mullah Omar can't die. Symbols don't die.

RFE/RL: If the conflict in Afghanistan continues, where do you see the Taliban in 10 years?

Semple: If the conflict continues for several more years, it is a dangerous option. The Taliban’s current leadership would lose control over their members. What IS offers is appealing and inspiring to some of the younger fighters who feel their leadership may be compromised.

Trying to continue an open-ended conflict for another five or 10 years would be an extremely dangerous option for the Taliban leadership – forget about what it does for Afghan society, but the Taliban leadership would find themselves irrelevant and displaced if they fail to find a solution to this conflict.

RFE/RL: Does this gives you hope they will choose reconciliation with Kabul?

Semple: I don't think we should just trust on their wisdom, but it would be the wiser thing for them to do.

Editor's note: The headline for this interview has been amended to more accurately reflect its contents.