All 10 of the gray-bearded men were wearing white-knit prayer caps and freshly starched and pressed shalwar kameez but were conspicuously unarmed. Some arrived in bullet-proof SUVs, others stepped out of more modest sedans at a luxury house—owned by a wealthy supporter of the Afghan Taliban—located in a posh residential sector near Islamabad. This was an extraordinary gathering, the first ever by the Taliban’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura, to be held so close to the Pakistani capital, far from its usual haunts along the rugged Pakistani border. Pakistan, which has for years lamely denied that it was offering shelter to the Taliban’s leadership and its fighters, now suddenly appears to be giving the insurgents an unprecedented freedom of movement within the country.
The top-secret pow-wow, which was exclusively described to The Daily Beast by a senior Taliban who witnessed the gathering, was attended by the insurgency’s 10 most influential leaders, including Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, arguably the movement’s top military man; Maulvi Hassan Rahmani, a key southern commander; and Abdul Rauf Khadim and Mullah Gul Agha, who are believed to be close to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s leader and founder. Abdul Qayum Zakir was the only senior Shura member who was absent for unknown reasons. A former Guantanamo inmate like Khadim, he is also a rival of Mansoor’s for the insurgency’s leadership.
While Pakistan understandably denies the meeting took place so close to its seat of government, a senior adviser inside Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s presidential palace confirms that the Shura meeting did take place near Islamabad. He told The Daily Beast that the meeting of the entire Shura, far from the dangers of the frontier, was a positive development. “It’s good that the entire leadership felt safe enough to get together to share ideas on how to move forward on peace talks,” he said. “Of course it’s no secret that Taliban leaders are enjoying a happier life than ever these days in Pakistan.”
Indeed, the presently moribund peace talks were the priority item on the meeting’s agenda. Some Shura members had been arguing that as the U.S. and its allies continue to wind down combat operations, which presumably will end at the end of next year, now is not the time for peace negotiations. Rather it is the time to increase the size and tempo of guerrilla attacks even through the coming, bitterly cold Afghan winter. Others held that despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s abrupt and histrionic breaking-off of the peace talks even before they began in Qatar last summer—a move which the guerrilla leadership saw as a serious slap in the face—the pursuit of peace is the only realistic option for the insurgency. They argued that while the Taliban explored peace options the guerrillas in the field should not escalate but continue to wage the low-intensity insurgency as it is now, largely featuring roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
The debate was heated, the senior Taliban official who was at the meeting tells The Daily Beast. But after two days of discussions—one day in Islamabad and the next day at the mountain resort of Murree—a consensus emerged. It was widely agreed that ramping up the pace of the armed struggle through this winter and into next spring would be fruitless, only leading to more casualties without scoring a breakthrough. “We know our strength,” says the senior Taliban official who was at the meeting and is not authorized to speak to the press. “Even the speeding up of attacks would not make much difference on the ground.” There was, the Shura concluded, no military solution. “Most agreed that after more than 12 years of war searching for a political solution would be the best option,” the senior Taliban official went on. “We can’t suddenly gain magical strength that can guarantee our takeover of Kabul.” “Even if we did somehow capture Kabul, it would not end the war,” he adds.
He and other senior Taliban say that Pakistan played a crucial role in the Taliban’s decision. “Pakistan is pushing us to withdraw our high demands and replace them with more reasonable positions,” says Zabihullah, a senior Taliban operative whose information has proved accurate in the past. Zabihullah adds that the meetings, which took place in the middle of last month, importantly helped to restore a large degree of unity among the fragmented leaders. “The leadership seems more united now, which may restore the Taliban’s confidence,” Zabihullah says. At the end of the meeting the powerful commander and Shura leader Mansoor ordered his fellow Shura members and the Taliban media to “stop the character assassinations” of each other that had been going on both inside and outside the council.
A key reason why the Taliban’s leadership decided to meet in Islamabad, and was welcomed by Pakistan, is that it no longer feels totally secure operating along the lawless border. The danger chiefly comes from Mullah Najibullah, a rogue and powerful Taliban commander in eastern Afghanistan who commands a militia that is chilling called the “Suicide Group of the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan.” They have accused the Shura members of being “traitors” to Mullah Omar’s “holy jihad” and therefore targets to be eliminated for their policy of considering a peace deal with the “U.S. puppet” Karzai and the American “infidel invaders.” Najibullah and his men are believed to possess the means to strike out at the Shura and at any Taliban who may support peace process.
The Shura also wanted to meet close to Islamabad so it would be close to its Pakistani handlers at the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency. The leaders wanted to convey immediately and first-hand to the ISI the Shura’s decision in time for the new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s departure to the tripartite summit meeting in London with Karzai and host David Cameron this past week. The summit, held this past Tuesday, does not seem to have made any breakthroughs on furthering the peace process. The three leaders only weakly reaffirmed their commitment to searching for a negotiated solution.
Even so the Taliban’s decision to continue to pursue negotiations was important to Sharif. It was at least something, however insubstantial, that he could offer to Karzai at the talks. But the Afghan president was unimpressed. He doesn’t trust the Taliban and seems leery to engage in talks, say sources within his presidential palace. They say Karzai believes the Taliban are more likely to concentrate on trying to disrupt next April’s presidential election (which Karzai cannot participate in, due to term limits) rather than on beginning serious peace negotiations. He is convinced that Pakistan is the most important player in the 12-year-long conflict, not the Taliban. Karzai keeps insisting that if Pakistan were to withdraw its support and cease providing a safe haven to the Taliban then the insurgency would rapidly collapse. “Without Pakistan the Taliban would not be a problem,” the senior Karzai adviser says. But Pakistan is unlikely to turn on the Taliban any time soon. It sees the insurgency as a strategic insurance policy to maintain and further Islamabad’s interests in Afghanistan.
Still, Sharif—more than his predecessors—seems keen to somehow cobble together an Afghan peace. One of his campaign promises was to end the brutal homegrown insurgency by engaging in talks with Pakistan’s own Taliban movement that is loosely affiliated with the Afghan Taliban. For the past decade, the Pakistani Taliban have routinely caused an immense amount of death and destruction through ground attacks, roadside bombs and even mass executions, particularly in their northwest Pakistan stronghold. Sharif is all too aware that the Pakistani Taliban will not negotiate a peace—any commander who tries is labeled a traitor—until the Afghan Taliban are part of a peace agreement on the Afghan side of the border. The Afghan peace must come first. As a result Sharif is hoping Karzai will begin showing some flexibility, given the Afghan Taliban’s cautious commitment to more talks in the wake of last month’s Islamabad meeting.
But it’s only a hope. “Peace is the only option for both the Taliban and Afghanistan,” Karzai’s senior adviser says. “But I don’t see any good news coming in the near future.”