Talks with ‘the’ Taliban

The US wants talks with the Taliban in order to end the violence in Afghanistan. But experts say “the” Taliban do not exist as a single grouping and that this will hamper the peace process.

US President Barack Obama and now also his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai are in favor of talks with the Taliban at their office in Doha, the White House said in a statement on Tuesday, June 25. But Washington is hoping for is a designated partner, one that is seen as legitimate by all sides. The Taliban in Doha have shown interest in playing this role.

“The Taliban are united,” Wahid Mozhda, political analyst in Afghanistan and former employee of the old Taliban regime’s foreign ministry, told DW. “There is only one group under the command of the central council [Shura] of the Taliban.” This is a statement other experts do not agree with. They fear that the talks and the peace process as a whole might fail because not all Taliban groups are represented by the one in Doha.

“The” Taliban do not exist

Taliban experts in Europe and in Afghanistan believe there is a dominant, assertive Taliban group but that it does not speak for all other Islamists, some of whom also loosely call themselves Taliban.

“One can assume that the emissaries in Doha are closer to the Quetta Shura, led by Mullah Omar, which claims to be the true leadership of the Taliban,” said Afghanistan expert Conrad Schetter. The council of the Taliban, which is also referred to as the Quetta Shura, as it is based in Quetta, Pakistan, has claimed the sole responsibility for negotiating with the US.

But there are quite a few other parties. Schetter, who is a professor of peace and conflict research at the University of Bonn, said that in addition to the Quetta Shura, there were also other Taliban groups based in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, near the Afghan border. There were also the Haqqani Network and the Hezb-e-Islami (“Islam Party”) as well as a number of other splinter groups near Afghanistan, all of which have their own demands and claims.

Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, director of the Regional Studies Center in Kabul, added the Pakistan and Uzbek Taliban as well as international jihadists, especially from Chechnya and Arab countries, to the list. “All of these groups form and break alliances amongst each other. It is impossible to really know the exact connections and the extent of them,” he said.

A general view of the Taliban Afghanistan Political Office in Doha June 18, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous)“So it would be surprising if this complex network were represented by the office in Doha,” said political scientist Jochen Hippler of the University of Duisburg-Essen. He said he did not believe that all Taliban groupings felt represented by the office in Qatar’s capital. “There are many regionally and also locally oriented factions.” He said there was therefore no clear chain of command.

Doha office and new image

The inauguration of the Doha office mid-June was meant to convey political unity, strength and international recognition, said Jawed Kohistani, politician and head of the “Afghan Freedom and Democracy Movement” in Kabul. The Taliban in Doha “do not want to be seen as a terrorist group. They want to be taken seriously as a political power engaging in talks with international players and they want to carry out the talks with their new image.”

The goal in the end, he said, was to eventually assume power in Kabul and once again call out the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” And those plans do not include sharing power with any other factions or cooperating with the Karzai government, according to Hippler. “The Taliban no longer think that would be necessary because they believe they have already won the war in political terms.”

So in addition to Karzai and his government, other Taliban groups and the Haqqani Network along with Hezb-e-Islami have to worry about being marginalized. “Those who cannot speak in Doha will make clear, either openly or behind closed doors, that they have their own demands when it comes to political offices, resources and especially recognition,” Schetter told DW.

“Talks will not lead to peace”

But what is important right now for the US is that there is no longer a terrorist threat in Afghanistan. So, in its search for a peaceful solution to the conflict, it is courting mainly the Afghan Taliban, represented by the Quetta Shura. “In the last two years, Washington has, on the one hand, been signalling that it is distancing itself from Karzai. On the other hand, it has also clearly distanced itself from portraying the Taliban in its own media coverage as the ‘bad’ guy,” Schetter has observed.

Hippler said the war in Afghanistan was already lost because President Karzai was losing support. “NATO was not able to win the war against 30,000 people armed with Kalashnikovs, many of whom are illiterate, and now it is important for the US to keep face. The Taliban have the option to wait and see whether the US offers them a share of power and then try to push Karzai out of office. Or they can just wait.” Either way, the Taliban believe they will win in the end, according to Hippler. “The Taliban office in Doha is just one way of allowing NATO forces to leave while political talks in Afghanistan continue. The talks will not lead to war nor to peace.”

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