Everyone is a suspect when an ex-Taliban minister who broke with the group to lead peace talks goes missing under mysterious circumstances.
Agha Jan Motasim has a long list of enemies. Taliban hardliners tried to have him assassinated a few years ago and left him with a bullet-riddled body as a reminder.
Motasim, who served in the Taliban’s government before becoming a key voice for reconciliation in recent years, has been missing for weeks now. He reportedly was arrested, though that hasn’t been officially confirmed, and no one is sure exactly why he was taken or who is responsible for his disappearance.
In March, Motasim traveled to the United Arab Emirates to join the Afghan High Peace Council for a round of negotiations. On March 20, according to his son Ehsanulah, UAE security officials raided Motasim’s house in Dubai and arrested him.
Despite demands from Afghan government officials, the UAE has not made any statements about why Motasim was arrested or whether he has been charged with any crimes.
Motasim supporters say Afghanistan’s enemies, who want to keep the country at war, were behind the arrest. There are accusations that Pakistan coordinated the arrest to sabotage the Afghan peace process but no evidence to support that or to suggest an alternate explanation.
And there’s no clear answer, from those pointing the finger at Pakistan, for why the UAE would have volunteered to host the Afghan talks if it opposed a peace deal.
Tanking a peace deal is exactly what some parties in the region want. Although the government of the UAE has maintained total silence about Motasim’s arrest, the hardline Taliban has been publicly celebrating.
The opposite reaction was on display in Afghanistan’s parliament on Tuesday. Politicians described Motasim as a key moderate who was crucial to peace efforts. A number of members of the Afghan parliament suggested that foreign intelligence services were behind Motasim’s disappearance. A specific country was never named, but the references to foreign intelligence services were clearly implicating Pakistan. Afghan political leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, have long accused Pakistan of contributing to violence and subverting the peace process in Afghanistan.
“Agha Jan [Motasim] got about a dozens bullets in his head and chest,” already, said a friend of his and an ex-Taliban commander, referring to the 2011 assassination attempt in Karachi. After Motasim went through that and maintained his commitment to negotiations, the latest arrest “would not harm his mission for peace in Afghanistan,” his friend said.
Motasim’s close ties with the Karzai government since becoming a key figure in peace talks have led some to accuse him of being a front for the government, a charge he has denied.
Since Motasim’s arrest, the future of the fragile peace talks is even more uncertain.
“Agha Jan [Motasim] is key for Afghan peace, and he would be the most probable Taliban representative in the future setup of Afghanistan’s government,” a member of the Afghan peace council told The Daily Beast. The council member, who asked not to be named, said Motasim was important to the talks. “It has taken years to have some strong voices for peace among Afghans, and Agha Jan was one of them,” the council member said, though he added that the talks would go on even without Motasim.
A friend of Motasim’s and fellow ex-Taliban member who is supportive of the peace talks said he was concerned that the targeting of Motasim would deter others from participating in the talks. “Now, if Agha Jan could not defend and protect himself, how can he secure those Taliban that are willing to have be part of peace process?” the friend said.
Members of the Afghan peace council intimated to The Daily Beast that the government of Pakistan, which has signed its own truce with the hardline Taliban, may have pressured the UAE to arrest Motasim.
“Pakistan has lots of influence on Gulf states. The action against Agha is an attempt to upset any peace deal in Afghanistan,” said a high-ranking representative of the peace talks who asked not to be named.
That accusation is based on the belief that Pakistan wants to sabotage the Afghan peace talks so the Taliban will focus their attacks in Afghanistan. None of the sources who made that charge could provide any evidence supporting the allegation, but their claims echo those made Tuesday by Afghan parliamentarians.
According to Afghan diplomats working in the embassy in the UAE, Karzai has spoken to officials in Dubai about Motasim’s arrest and current status.
A key Cabinet minister for Karzai told The Daily Beast that the president is “very shocked and saddened by [Motasim’s] arrest.”
Meanwhile, a popular Taliban website posted a mock classified ad describing Motasim as crazy and reporting that he has gone missing in a luxury Dubai hotel. The Taliban site offers a reward for anyone who finds Motasim “in the lap of foreign intelligence agencies.”