Can Taliban Founder’s Release Spark Afghan Peace?
Now that Pakistan has released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy commander and founding member speculation is growing over whether Afghanistan's most notable militant would finally come to the negotiating table for peace talks.
Islamabad says it released Baradar on Sept. 21 to prompt further talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. His release was heralded by some Afghan officials as the key to getting talks back on track. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was a vocal advocate for Barader's release for more than a year in hopes that it could end decades of bloodshed.
While Karzai attempts to re-engage the Taliban, however, Washington appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach on whether Baradar will play any role in future talks. James Dobbins, Washington’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently said that future talks should take place "principally between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban," and that the United States would like to “see Doha become a forum for negotiations about peace in Afghanistan." Whether Baradar would be invited to such meetings is still uncertain.
After being captured three years ago and held in Pakistan, Baradar's clout among Taliban commanders and fighters has diminished, according to Afghanistan analysts. The group is fractured, they say, among commanders like Baradar that want to negotiate peace and those that would rather continue the fight.
For now, the Taliban office in Doha appears more concerned with the release of five additional Taliban commanders from military detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The group has all but written off Baradar as a player in future talks due to his extended detainment in Pakistan, essentially relegating him to the scrap heap of has-been commanders unfamiliar with the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.
But Pakistan, outraged by Baradar’s decision to negotiate peace with Kabul, still fears his influence. Islamabad was instrumental in creating the Taliban following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan as a way to prevent Afghanistan from reforming its strong ties with India.
"One of the problems is we don't know where he (Baradar) stands now and we don't know where his status is in the movement," said Boston University professor Thomas Barfield, author of several books on Afghanistan and whose current research focuses on problems of its political development. Barfield questioned whether Baradar still held sway over Taliban leaders after his long incarceration since many within the Taliban and the Pakistani government are adamantly opposed to peace negotiations with Kabul, and in particular with Karzai.
Baradar may also have garnered the wrath of Pakistan because he wanted to move ahead with talks without Islamabad's direct involvement, said Barfield, a position which lead to Baradar’s capture and imprisonment in Pakistan. He also questioned whether any future talks would bear fruit considering recent and historical failures to negotiate with Afghan militant leaders. The Soviets couldn't reach a peace settlement with the Mujahadeen because of the fractured leadership in that movement. Once the occupying forces left Afghanistan, civil war among the fighters divided along ethnic and tribal lines and created the conditions -- with ample support from Pakistan -- for the ascendency of the Taliban and the creation of a totalitarian Islamic regime.
"There has never been a power-sharing government in Afghan politics," said Barfield. "Those people play a zero-sum game."
Ahmad Majidyar, an Afghanistan scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is even more skeptical of Baradar's value to any future peace talks and the value of those discussions toward ending the violence in Afghanistan. Majidyar noted there are "some fractions in the Taliban leadership council" that would make a consensus on peace talks extremely difficult. Even if some members like Baradar were to participate, their influence on the movement would be limited in terms of potential ceasefires or a final end to hostilities. "He has lost that power and legitimacy he once had.”
The greater question is whether future meetings in Doha would lead to sustainable peace. Any talks would have to address political power sharing with the Taliban and having them entering the electoral process as a party, not an armed militant movement. "When it comes to elections, the Taliban don't believe in them," said Majidyar.
The mere mention of power sharing and peace talks is making many Afghans nervous. Afghanistan's warlords, primarily of Uzbek and Tajik descent, are already ramping up for a potential civil war against the Taliban once the U.S. military sends most of its U.S. forces home by the end of 2014. Afghan civilians also are worried that a civil war is inevitable once Afghan National Security Forces assume full responsibility for security, fearing that rank-and-file of the country's soldiers and policemen will splinter into their respective tribal and ethnic affiliations, taking their arms and training with them.
In that event, the Taliban will surely absorb the majority of Pashtun defectors, further strengthening their ranks and bolstering their case for either a power-sharing agreement with Kabul or an outright return to leading a hardline, Islamic theocracy – in effect erasing whatever security gains the Pentagon could claim from waging the decade-long Afghanistan war.
Peace talks, whether they happen or not, play on every Afghan's growing concern about the future, said Majidyar, though the hysteria around them is most advantageous to party least desirable to the West.
"The only ones that benefit from peace talks is the Taliban," he said.