Can Taliban Founder’s Release Spark Afghan Peace?

Carmen Gentile, Defense One
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Carmen Gentile, Defense One
Oct. 3, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

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.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from De­fense One. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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