Taliban Civil War Looms as Peacemaker is Shot

A Taliban minister tries to negotiate with the Afghan government, and ends up dead—maybe at the hands of his fellow militants.

02.19.14 10:45 AM ET

Taliban minister Mulvi Abdul Raqib was assassinated in Peshawar, Pakistan on Monday. And the most likely suspects are other, hardline members of the Taliban.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for Raqib’s killing. But according to both Taliban and Afghan government sources, the assassination was in retaliation for Raqib’s attempts to make peace with the government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai. That’s something many Taliban factions vehemently oppose—perhaps with lethal force. In other words, Raqib’s slaying could signal an internal war within the Taliban, with those supporting a negotiated end to the 13-year conflict in Afghanistan on one side, and the Taliban’s most hardcore elements on the other.

The American, Afghan, and Pakistani governments are all making efforts to find a way to come to some sort of political settlement with the Taliban and its allies before U.S. troops begin leaving Afghanistan later this year. If the Taliban is indeed at the early stages of some sort of civil war, that wouldn’t just complicate the peace process. It could render it useless.

Before he was killed, Raqib was working with Aga Jan Mohtism, a former high-ranking Taliban minister, who has been engaged in informal talks with the Afghan government’s peace council in Dubai. Official negotiations are expected to begin soon. Mohtism has been involved in previous peace talks and was himself shot in Pakistan in 2010 in an unclaimed attack.

Though Mohtism claims to represent the Afghan Taliban, his relationship to the Taliban’s official leadership is unclear. In a statement to the Associated Press, Mohtism said, “I can say that generally [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar has never disowned us. I am sure we have his support,” while also acknowledging that Omar had not expressed any public support for the peace talks or for Mohtism’s efforts.

A Taliban sub-commander from Northern Afghanistan who goes by the name Qari Nusrat spoke with The Daily Beast about Raqib’s killing and the question of the Quetta Shura’s possible involvement.

“The killing of Mulvi Abdul Raqib is a big blow for the Taliban,” Nusrat said. “We will ask Quetta Shura to make clear its position” Nusrat said referring to the Taliban’s high leadership council headed by Omar. If it is confirmed that Raqib was killed by a Taliban hardliner acting under orders from the Quetta Shura, “it would be disaster for Taliban unity” Nusrat said.

He also expressed a wish that “there was a way to get in touch with Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar” directly rather than speaking with Quetta Shura representatives.

An Afghan intelligence officer, who works undercover and asked not to be named, suggested that the ISI, Pakistan‘s intelligence service, might have had a role in Raqib’s killing. “Hardliner Afghan Taliban and ISI have zero tolerance for those Taliban raising their voice for peace in Afghanistan,” the intelligence officer said.

He believes that “Pakistan is playing the worst game with future of Afghanistan and the assassination of Raqib was jointly decided by the ISI and hardliner Taliban.” U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused the ISI of supporting both al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Multiple Taliban members and one government official spoke with The Daily Beast about a rift in the Taliban between Afghan and Pakistani factions; they describe Afghan groups as favoring peace talks while the hardcore elements in Pakistan refuse to negotiate.

According to multiple sources, the reason this rift hasn’t grown into an open fight—yet—is the uncertainty about the official Taliban position towards the peace talks. The Taliban has many different factions, some with competing aims and incompatible visions of the future, spread out over both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The difficulty of communicating with the isolated central leadership, which is hiding out in Pakistan, allows schisms to emerge between different Taliban groups without a clear authority to quickly arbitrate between them.

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On the question of the peace talks, the Taliban’s official position remains unclear even to some members of the organization.

“The absence of Mullah Omar is a big problem” said a high-ranking Taliban official, who spoke with The Daily Beast while attending the peace talks in Dubai. “A group of people hijacked the movement by using his name, while they by themselves really don’t even know where Mullah Omar is.”

The Taliban official said that the group claiming to speak for Omar, “tried to isolate famous and influential clerics and commanders and separate them from the mainstream” but this only alienated them, and they “took shelter in Mohtism’s camp.”

The Afghan government has fully endorsed peace talks with the Taliban and called them a pre-condition for any future resolution and for signing a security agreement with the United States. Kabul’s support for the talks was clear in the treatment of Raqib, whose body was flown back to his hometown in Afghanistan in official state helicopters. Hundreds turned out at Raqib’s burial on Tuesday including both government officials and Taliban members and a statement was issued by the president’s spokesman’s office. “Maulvi Abdul Raqib Takhari, formerly the minister of refugees during the Taliban regime, was supportive of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan,” the statement read. “He embraced martyrdom on return from Dubai, where he had participated in a meeting convened by Mullah Agha Jan Mutasim to discuss peace.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Qari Nusrat, a Taliban sub-commander, did not question Mullah Omar’s direct involvement in the killing of Mulvi Abdul Raqib; he questioned the involvement of the Taliban’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura, which is led by Mullah Omar.