Can the Taliban Avoid Fracturing Over the Qatar Peace Talks?

EXCLUSIVE: Afghan insurgent leaders struggle to keep their men aboard for negotiations with the U.S. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on unrest in the ranks.

02.23.12 2:07 PM ET

The Afghan Taliban’s highest leaders sent out an urgent order a few weeks ago. The group’s shadow governors—the men in charge of administrative affairs at the provincial level—were to assemble their top commanders and officers immediately at designated towns and cities along or near the Afghan-Pakistan border for briefings on an issue that has threatened to tear the movement apart: the Taliban’s pursuit of peace talks with the Americans. The turbaned guerrillas, with blankets wrapped around their shoulders against the cold, arrived via SUV, motorcycle, even bicycle at mosques, urban dwellings, and mud-walled village compounds for mandatory six-day “teaching” programs. Each session was led by teams of political officers and senior mullahs who had been dispatched by the Political Committee of the Afghan insurgency’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura.

To make sure no one underestimated the importance of the sessions, the governors themselves were ordered to attend no fewer than five of the six days. According to a ranking Taliban intelligence officer who visited several meetings, most were attended by 25 to 30 militants, but one gathering in the southeast drew 100 commanders from Kandahar, while another in the same region hosted 100 from Helmand—the two most strategic and contested provinces in Afghanistan. Still, getting everyone together on such short notice was easier than it would have been later in the year; most of the commanders and shadow governors were already sheltering along the border, waiting out the cold months.

The basic theme was deceptively simple, says the intelligence officer, who declines to be named for security reasons: “It’s not against the rules of Islam to have a peace deal with our enemies and end the bloodshed,” he summarizes. “Even the Holy Prophet talked to and had ceasefires with his enemies at Mecca and Medina.” Nevertheless, the Political Committee’s teams had all they could do to calm the commanders’ darkest suspicions. Many fighters—more incensed than ever by reports of Quran burnings at the Bagram detention facility—are convinced that the talks will undermine their long struggle to restore Sharia and Mullah Omar’s defunct Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. “We will be firm in our demands,” one senior mullah told his audience. “There will be no question of compromising our Islamic religion.”

These “peace awareness” sessions (as the organizers call them) are the clearest evidence so far that the Taliban’s senior leadership is deadly serious about the nascent peace process. And yet the very fact that such assemblies are necessary shows what a serious risk it poses to the insurgency’s unity. “Many Taliban, particularly the fighters, are worried that they will lose at the negotiating table everything they have won in the field with their guns and sacrifices of blood,” says Zabihullah, a senior Taliban political operative whose information has proved reliable in the past. “They want to be satisfied that they will win the fruits of their struggle: a nation under Islamic law, a total foreign troop withdrawal, and all Taliban prisoners released.”

That’s a tall order. Even so, the intelligence officer believes the meetings have succeeded in getting the participants to give the negotiations a chance. He says hardline commanders seemed to buy the idea of pursuing the peace option, as long as the armed struggle continues to keep the pressure on the Americans and Kabul’s forces. “I think the commanders came away with a better awareness of our commitment to uphold Islamic teachings, and of what we are trying to accomplish by talking to the Americans,” says the intelligence officer.

The mullahs’ strong support and fiery rhetoric played a big part in swaying the commanders, according to the intelligence man. “All Taliban have confidence in and are impressed by big mullahs.” Several of the mullahs who participated in the various sessions run large militant madrassas that have fed many recruits into the insurgency. “The commanders are not interfering,” says Zabihullah. “They are leaving the talks to the Political Committee.” In the end, the mullahs ordered the commanders to spread the word among their fighters. “It’s easier to convince the commanders to support the talks,” the intelligence officer says. “Now it’s the commanders’ job to convince the fighters to trust the leadership.”        

It won’t be easy persuading so many peasant guerrillas, steeped as they are in ultra-orthodox Islamic teachings. Some fighters are already sensing they’re being sold out, and there have been defections in the past few weeks, as news of the talks with the Americans has spread among the rank-and-file combatants. The commanders will have to work fast before morale sinks any lower. They need to do more than raise their men’s spirits and convince them that the leadership will hold true to their ideals; they also have to get their fighters ready to retake the field when fighting season begins again. “It’s crucial that the commanders earn the fighters’ trust and support for the talks right now, convincing them that the resistance won’t be compromised,” the intelligence officer says. “We need them to return to the fight with renewed energy this spring.”

Will the effort succeed? In the past couple of weeks, Mullah Omar’s former secretary and English translator, Tayyab Agha, sent out another roving three-man team. Agha is the head of both the Quetta Shura’s Political Committee and the Taliban delegation that has been negotiating with the Americans in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, and the team went to one of the insurgents’ main safe havens along the border to consult with senior Taliban political operatives there.

This time the main task was not to lecture but to listen. In more than one session, the three men were warned that keeping the fighters on board and motivated during the talks could be an even tougher challenge than the negotiations themselves. “The fighters are the backbone of the jihad,” one senior Taliban logistics officer says he told the visiting team. “You are not giving them money, food, or shoes—yet they are fighting and dying. Make sure you cover their interests in these talks.” Agha’s men assured him that nothing was being done in haste. “These negotiations will go on, not for a few rounds but perhaps hundreds of rounds, taking many months, even years,” the logistics officer quotes one team member as saying. “Both sides are going slowly.”

Meanwhile Agha is reaching out to former senior operatives like himself who still support the resistance, even though they’ve been inactive in the past few years. Recently he was able to recruit an old friend who once worked alongside him in Mullah Omar’s Kandahar office. In recent years the former colleague has gone into business, working in the Afghan provinces, but he and Agha have remained close. Agha tapped his old friend to contact as many former ranking Taliban as possible inside Pakistan and get their support for the peace talks.

Agha has also asked him to make the rounds of militant madrassas in Pakistan, explaining the insurgency’s new fight-and-talk strategy. The businessman, who requested anonymity for security reasons, says he’s got news that everyone needs to hear: in the past six months, he says, Mullah Omar himself has been actively directing the movement’s political and military strategy. If so, it’s the first time the Taliban leader has surfaced since his mysterious disappeared into the Kandahar mountains on the back of a motorcycle in late 2001. “Tayyab Agha’s presence in Qatar shows that Mullah Omar is onboard and in charge,” the businessman says.

Omar was the driving force behind the Taliban’s decision to give peace talks a chance, according to the businessman, who says he’s been told this by Agha and others in the movement. “Mullah Omar has changed,” the businessman says. “He is no longer insisting that war is the only way to achieve our Islamic goals.” Although he hasn’t seen the Taliban leader himself, he insists it’s all true. “Mullah Omar is telling his very limited inner circle: ‘I am trying to get at the negotiating table what we have tried to achieve by fighting’,” he says. He speaks of rumors that Mullah Omar may have had plastic surgery to disguise himself, for safety’s sake. It could be so, although such drastic measures hardly seem necessary. Even among the Taliban, few Afghans know what the Taliban leader really looks like. Omar has always stood firmly by his belief that the Quran forbids photographs of any human being, heads of state included.

According to the businessman, Omar regards prisoner releases as a crucial confidence-building measure. He says the Taliban leader is particularly keen on getting five of his top military commanders freed from Guantánamo Bay, where they’ve spent the past 10 years. He specifically names Mullah Fazil Akhund, a brutal former chief of army staff under the Taliban regime, who surrendered in northern Afghanistan in late 2001. Omar hopes that even if Fazil and the others are transferred to house arrest in Doha, Qatar’s capital, they still will be able provide military advice to the insurgency.

Also high on the list is Omar’s brother-in-law and former second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. He was arrested by Pakistani security forces in Karachi just over two years ago, and Omar regards his political advice as essential for the negotiations, according to the businessman. Unfortunately for Omar, Pakistan seems unlikely to free Baradar anytime soon. The Pakistanis have little reason to assist the peace process, since they feel they’ve been ignored and sidelined by the bilateral talks in Qatar. At the same time, the Taliban are more desperate than ever to get men like Baradar out of Pakistani custody. Only a couple of weeks ago, Pakistan finally disclosed that Omar’s former defense minister and confidant, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, died in a Karachi prison in 2010.

Zabihullah, nevertheless seems surprisingly upbeat about the Taliban’s political prospects—if a peace deal can ever be hammered out. “I’ve told the political committee not to be afraid of peace and an election in the future,” he says. “Mullah Omar will get more votes than anyone.” That prediction is certainly a stretch, but it’s also a positive sign. At least some important members of the insurgency are arguing vigorously that peace could work to the Taliban’s advantage. And that might just keep them talking.