KABUL: Talks last week between Afghan and Taliban negotiators were hailed by officials as a major breakthrough, but insurgent commanders on the ground have responded far more skeptically, highlighting the huge challenges facing the embryonic peace process.
Members of the Afghan High Peace Council sat down with Taliban cadres last week in Murree, a tourist town in the hills north of Islamabad, for their first official talks to try to end the militants’ bloody fight, now in its 14th year.
They agreed to meet again in the coming weeks, drawing praise from Kabul, Islamabad, Beijing, Washington and the UN.
But while some commanders voiced optimism, many others interviewed by AFP were deeply wary.
The split in responses, with some commanders openly questioning the legitimacy of the Taliban negotiators in Murree, underscores the potentially dangerous faultlines within the movement, particularly between the older leadership and younger, sometimes more hardline frontline fighters.
Haji Hazrat, a Taliban leader based in Helmand, a province in the movement’s historic heartland of southern Afghanistan, said he “strongly backed” the talks and was optimistic about the outcome.
But in the eastern province of Kunar, a hotspot for fighting in recent years close to the Pakistani border, commander Ershad Gazi dismissed the Murree delegation as puppets of Islamabad.
“These Taliban leaders were not truly representing the Taliban group — they were brought to the meeting by Pakistan. The real Taliban who have influence on the talks are based in Qatar,” Gazi, who leads hundreds of fighters, told AFP.
The Taliban set up an office in Qatar in 2013 to begin talks towards a peace deal to end their insurgency.
The missing mullah
At the official level the insurgents have maintained a studied ambivalence this week about the authority of the delegation in Murree, perhaps hoping to take the temperature at the talks without committing themselves prematurely.
The Taliban high command, known as the “Quetta shura” after the southwestern Pakistani city where they took refuge after being ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001, has neither welcomed nor condemned the talks.
Their main spokesman issued a somewhat opaque statement saying simply that the “political commission” had the authority to discuss peace.
And there has been no word from Mullah Omar, the enigmatic Taliban chief who has not been seen in public since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The death of the one-eyed warrior-cleric has been rumored several times in recent years but never confirmed.
This silence has disgruntled frontline commanders, desperate for confirmation their leader is still alive and also a clear signal on the group’s position on peace talks.
“Taliban decided to attend the meeting unofficially, but not to own it publicly, this policy will continue in near future,” a senior militant source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The leadership is very careful and we are not in a hurry.”
Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan expert at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, said the command’s refusal to unequivocally own the talks weakened the process.
He also said the absence of a “visible charismatic leader” in Mullah Omar was hurting the Taliban.
In the absence of a clear lead from the top, some fighters fall back on the Taliban’s traditional position, that there can be no meaningful talks until all foreign forces leave Afghan soil.
NATO ended its combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of December but a smaller residual force remains in the country to train Afghan forces, due to leave altogether by the end of 2016.
“We come to the negotiations table only when the entire foreign troops leave Afghanistan,” said Minhaj, a commander of about 200 men in the southern province of Kandahar, said.
“As long as the occupying forces are in Afghanistan peace talks will not have a positive outcome.”
Divides within the Taliban between those for and against talks has been made worse by the emergence of a local branch of the Islamic State, the Middle Eastern jihadist outfit that last year declared a “caliphate” across large areas of Iraq and Syria that it controls.
The Taliban warned IS last month against expanding in the region, but this has not stopped some fighters, inspired by the group’s success, defecting to swear allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi instead of the invisible Mullah Omar.
US drone strikes over the past week have killed dozens of suspected IS-linked cadres in Afghanistan, including the group’s Afghanistan-Pakistan regional chief Hafiz Saeed.
The notoriously uncompromising IS has shown no desire to negotiate — and if the Taliban faultlines widen, there is a danger the talks process could drive more of its hardline fighters into the arms of the Middle Eastern jihadist group.