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Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death
Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death
Keeping Intra-Afghan Talks on Track
Keeping Intra-Afghan Talks on Track
Op-Ed / Asia

Taliban Factionalism Rises After Mullah Omar's Death

Originally published in The Interpreter


The recent confirmation of the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the symbolic leader of the Taliban, has added fresh uncertainty to Afghanistan's fledgling peace process. 

There were already signs that Taliban unity was under stress, and the internal disagreements that have emerged since the announcement of Omar's death have raised concerns that the insurgency could further dissolve into warring factions. These developments raise the daunting prospect of trying to broker peace with a movement at war with itself. 

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani enjoyed a minor breakthrough in his long efforts to negotiate an end to the insurgency when his team sat down with Taliban officials for talks in Pakistan on 7 July. His government went into those negotiations knowing that some in the Taliban rejected peace talks and would probably break away from the main group.

Earlier this year, Afghan intelligence estimated that 10% might switch their allegiance to ISIS or other hardline factions if they saw their leaders negotiating. Some Western analysts guessed an even higher percentage would defect, refusing to die on sun-baked battlefields for leaders who talked in air-conditioned hotels.

In fact, the talks may have had an even more profoundly destabilising effect. The Taliban published a statement supposedly signed by Omar in support of peace negotiations on 15 June, but internal opponents of the talks tried to undermine the process by questioning its authenticity. They complained that the process had been 'hijacked' by Pakistan and demanded that Omar back up his statement with proof of his existence.

The top Taliban leadership was eventually forced to confirm suspicions that its reclusive leader had died. Omar's former deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, was appointed to succeed him on 31 July. Though the Taliban arranged displays of support for Mansour in the following days, and many field commanders have pledged allegiance to him, the movement seems divided. Tayyeb Agha, head of the political commission, resigned on 4 August due to tensions with Mansour and reports are emerging of fighters quitting en masse to join more extreme groups.

This latest turmoil in the insurgency comes after months of escalating conflict between militant factions. Two databases maintained by Western security analysts show that armed clashes between insurgent groups have tripled or quadrupled since 2013, as infighting has spread to more than half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

In previous years, the internecine battles were largely over money or historical grudges, often involving old feuds between the Taliban and the armed wing of the Hezb-e Islami political party which fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s. This year the conflicts have been concentrated in eastern Afghanistan, frequently pitting the Taliban against a variety of more extreme militants who seem less willing to entertain peace talks.

While battles against self-declared ISIS factions have grabbed most of the headlines, the Taliban have also fought Lashkar-e-Taiba (a Pakistan-based militant group), parts of the Pakistani Taliban and smaller groups such as Fidai Mahaz. A tiny faction such as Fidai Mahaz poses no military threat to the Taliban, but such groups are spreading propaganda – including a claim that Omar was poisoned – that could further undermine insurgency unity.

The dissent often focuses on the Taliban's recent forays into politics, and the degree to which some groups feel the movement's hardline ethos is being undermined. The Taliban is discovering that it's easy to rally fighters with a battle cry, but more difficult to transform an insurgency loosely based on opposition to the status quo into a coherent political organisation with a vision for the future. Shortly after the Taliban admitted Omar's death, the central leadership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an occasional ally, formally swore allegiance to ISIS.

Such losses seem likely to escalate in coming weeks as field commanders decide where their loyalty rests. Before this recent leadership crisis, Pakistani intelligence had been telling Western diplomats that Mullah Mansour commanded about 40% of insurgent fighters in Afghanistan. His biggest rival, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a senior member of the leadership council, held sway over perhaps 20%, with the remainder controlled by lesser commanders. Those percentages almost certainly involved many guesses, and probably reflected an inclination to exaggerate the importance of Mullah Mansour, who is considered an ally of Pakistani intelligence

Whatever his actual degree of authority, Mansour has been pushing to consolidate his hold in recent days. Mullah Zakir has formally disavowed any conflict with him, and the first public statement from the new leader was carefully lukewarm on the peace talks, an apparent effort to mollify all sides. 

Mansour has the advantage of controlling power levers such as the Taliban media and intelligence apparatus; the latter selects assassination targets and allegedly coordinates with Pakistani security. If he succeeds in uniting the main factions and fending off challenges from rival insurgent groups, it could eventually help with peace negotiations by giving the Afghan government a single major interlocutor.

But nobody knows how much of Taliban logistical support in the field comes from the central leadership. One theory is that most fighters operate close to their homes and depend more heavily on illegal taxation and other local revenue. If correct, the field commanders may have some latitude to decide to support Mansour, shift their allegiances to groups such as ISIS or break away completely and start new careers as bandits or warlords.

For peace negotiators, the nightmare scenario would be a splintering of the insurgency into a thousand sharp pieces.

During a rare ceasefire in 2018 in Andar, young Afghan men and boys fly both the flags of Afghanistan and of the Taliban. CRISISGROUP/Fazal Muzhary
Commentary / Asia

Keeping Intra-Afghan Talks on Track

The peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban offer a genuine opportunity for peace although obstacles abound. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue pushing for a more inclusive peace process, specifically in terms of women’s representation in the negotiations, avoid singling out the Taliban as responsible for obstacles for peace, and reassure the Afghan government by continuing aid into the future.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Autumn Update.

September saw the start – at long last – of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban. The U.S. had been trying to kick off such negotiations for most of 2020, since signing its own agreement with the Taliban on 29 February. Yet the onset of talks stalled for months; the Afghan government resisted the release of Taliban detainees to which the U.S. had committed, while the insurgents continued to carry out acts of violence, defying President Ashraf Ghani’s long-sought request for a ceasefire before commencing peace talks. The intra-Afghan talks offer a genuine opportunity for peace although obstacles and risks abound. The continued violence first and foremost: although the Taliban scaled back attempts to seize territory and monitors reported fewer combat deaths than in previous years, targeted killings rose, and the civilian casualty toll remained among the world’s highest. On the government side, Afghan leaders have spent the year deadlocked over political appointments, rendering governance increasingly dysfunctional. As for the U.S., its approach seems guided by the desire to disengage its troops as soon as possible. Many Afghans and international observers are concerned that a hasty settlement could result in degradation of civil liberties and human rights, especially women’s rights, as well as regression into state fracture and full-fledged civil war. 

To help avoid those outcomes, the European Union and its member states should: 

  • Continue pressing for a more inclusive peace process, particularly in terms of women’s representation in the Afghan government’s negotiating team and affiliated bodies. Europeans should also provide support to civil society initiatives that complement the formal negotiation process and promote peace at grassroots level.
     
  • Call upon all Afghan political figures to uphold the May agreement between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and encourage Ghani to respect provisions specifying Abdullah’s authority.
     
  • Ensure unified messaging among member states so as to best use Europe’s principal sources of leverage – financial assistance and economic engagement with a future government – to nudge negotiations forward.
     
  • Avoid singling out the Taliban as responsible for threats or obstacles to peace; instead, make clear that any action destabilising the peace process, including by the government, deserves condemnation. Brussels should balance its support for the Afghan government with acknowledgment that the Taliban will be a major political force in any post-peace Afghan order.
     
  • Reassure the Afghan government by committing to continue aid into the future. European leaders could qualify such reassurances and align them with EU principles by allowing for re-evaluation in the event of changes to the government in a peace settlement, as the EU did in its May Council conclusions.

The Hard Road to Talks

An atmosphere of nervous anticipation prevailed in Afghanistan when the U.S. and Taliban signed an agreement in Qatar’s capital Doha on 29 February, laying out a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for anti-terrorism guarantees and a promise to commence intra-Afghan negotiations. A historic week of reduced violence across the country preceded the accord. Though not technically a ceasefire, this period saw a significant drop in fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces. It was the insurgent movement’s first major gesture of good-will toward Kabul since its ceasefire declaration during Eid al-Fitr in 2018. 

Any positive feeling quickly dissipated, however, as the Afghan government publicly rejected the terms of the prisoner exchange to which the U.S. had committed in Doha and the Taliban responded by announcing a resumption of hostilities. Fighting picked up across the country, albeit at a lowered intensity that seemed tied to the Doha agreement (although it was not spelled out in the public text). The Taliban carried out fewer high-profile attacks in cities than in previous years and limited their large-scale assaults on government forces. The insurgent group made none of its traditional annual attempts to overrun provincial capitals and did not announce its usual spring offensive. Afghan security forces maintained a largely defensive posture, which officials claimed was a demonstration of the government’s commitment to peace, but almost certainly also owed to the near cessation of U.S. airstrikes after 29 February. Those strikes contributed to record levels of civilian casualties in 2019, and observers hoped that casualty figures would plummet in 2020. The war continued to take a high toll, however, as the rates of targeted killings and small bombings climbed in many parts of the country. These included two attacks on prominent women’s rights activists in Kabul.

The U.S. waded into Kabul politics when contestation of the 2019 presidential election results escalated into full-scale dysfunction.

Meanwhile, the U.S. applied pressure on both sides, dragging the prisoner exchange forward, as the government and Taliban let prisoners go in small batches. The releases stretched into September before reaching the 29 February agreement’s promised totals. The U.S. also waded into Kabul politics when contestation of the 2019 presidential election results escalated into full-scale dysfunction. Just days before 29 February, President Ghani was declared winner by the narrowest of margins, without official clarity on multiple vote recounts and audits. His chief challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, and allied politicians threatened to not only protest the results but also establish a “parallel government”. Abdullah’s staff refused to vacate Presidential Palace grounds (where they had been working as part of a power-sharing deal struck between Abdullah and Ghani after the previous election in 2014). The standoff prevented politicians from agreeing on the composition of a negotiating team to represent the government in intra-Afghan talks – which donors, including the EU and member states, had repeatedly urged Ghani to do – until late March. Perhaps in part due to acrimony over appointing the negotiators and powerbrokers’ jockeying to place loyal representatives on the team, only four women ultimately were included in a team of 21. Abdullah and Ghani did not reach a governing compromise until late May. Since then, the two leaders and their allies have repeatedly disagreed on appointments of officials and delineation of authority, reminding Afghans of the disputes that plagued the power-sharing government of 2014-2019. 

This deadlock coincided with the spread of COVID-19 across Afghanistan. The virus appears initially to have been transmitted primarily by migrant workers returning from the global hot-spot of Iran. The Afghan government struggled to check what became an unfettered spread. In August, health officials announced that random sampling – actual testing was minimal – suggested that the virus had infected more than 50 per cent of Kabul residents and over 30 per cent of the national population. Lack of reporting made it impossible to measure the death toll with any accuracy. The severe economic impact of lockdowns, however, was evident within weeks, leading many Afghans – including many officials – to ignore restrictions in most of the country outside Kabul. The Taliban publicised a number of COVID-19 initiatives in areas under their control, but many of these reportedly lacked enforcement or follow-up. The group continued to reject international calls for a ceasefire, even in the name of a “humanitarian pause” to enhance the public health response.

By the start of intra-Afghan talks in September, high-level sources told Crisis Group that the Afghan government was considering arming and funding new networks of militias across the country, outside the security forces’ hierarchy and only loosely controlled by the Afghan intelligence agency. Such reports, which have circulated widely among Afghans, amplify fears many already have about the potential impact of peace talks on human rights: not only could talks herald a return to political power of the Taliban, whose abuses many Afghans recall all too well, but they might also lead to the proliferation of government-affiliated militias, who have their own terrible track record. Fears of predation by armed groups of all stripes are hardly new – the EU Council addressed them in its May conclusions. But they have grown amid increasing unclaimed attacks on activists, the U.S.’s announcement of further troop drawdowns and political infighting in Kabul that some worry could create space for extrajudicial action by the security forces. 

Amid these many concerns, the first days of talks between the Taliban and the government-appointed negotiating team already give a taste of the hurdles that lie ahead. While negotiating the rules and procedures to govern the talks, the two sides tangled over what Islamic legal interpretation should be used to mediate future dis­agreements (the government team insisted on acknowledging Shia Islam and non-Muslim minorities’ existence in the framework of the talks, which the Taliban have rejected). The Taliban have yet to fully articulate what they believe a future Afghan state should look like, as Crisis Group has noted. It is far from clear that the Taliban’s vision will be acceptable to other parties and the many Afghans who fear the Taliban may wish to curtail rights and freedoms. What the insurgents have made clear is their stance on a ceasefire. They reject any discussion of a lasting and comprehensive one until, as their spokesperson said, “the root causes of the war” – ambiguous language that could mean anything from the West’s influence, to the exclusion of parts of population from power, to the abuses of government-allied strongmen – are addressed. With current levels of violence having climbed throughout 2020, this may be the most immediate potentially destabilising factor as talks progress.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

As the intra-Afghan talks proceed, the EU can exert a positive influence. First, it should expand its support for civil society. Given Afghanistan’s contentious politics and its weak formal institutions, civil society's participation in the peace process will be vital to ensure the representation of popular interests and preferences. The EU has already affirmed its commitment to the protection of human and women’s rights and encouraged strong representation of women in intra-Afghan talks, but it should promote efforts that go beyond the structure of formal negotiations to lay grassroots groundwork for lasting peace. Afghanistan’s National Action Plan for implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security is regarded by experts as a “top-down” approach, which should be balanced by EU support to local initiatives such as local councils that advocate for peace. This approach could involve greater cooperation with the UN mission in Afghanistan, with its infrastructure and networks of field offices capable of extending peacebuilding’s reach. The EU should review and report on earlier civil society and development efforts in Afghanistan to support peacebuilding, some of them initiated more than a decade ago, to identify effective initiatives.

Secondly, the EU can help steady the Afghan government’s negotiation approach by offering its good offices to ensure a smoother, more streamlined dialogue to implement the political compromise between President Ghani and Abdullah. Disputes between Ghani and opposition leaders have already hampered governance and they will almost certainly bleed over into the negotiating team’s internal deliberations during talks. The peace process cannot succeed without genuine inclusion of a broad range of political elites in both the talks and the tasks of governance while negotiations are ongoing. Moreover, the political wrangling among elites has reportedly hamstrung civil society efforts to engage with the peace talks: different political factions are now competing for authority over every aspect of the process, which could have the effect of impeding civil society participation. By ensuring that Ghani and Abdullah continue to communicate on and implement their power-sharing commitments, the EU can help mend relations that in turn will improve the negotiators’ effectiveness.

The EU should seek to ensure that member states deliver a unified message.

The EU should seek to ensure that member states deliver a unified message. As the EU stated in its May conclusions, it can use the prospect of financial assistance to and economic engagement with a future government to nudge negotiations forward. But that leverage is only as strong as member states’ unity. Since issuing those May conclusions, European governments have diverged in their reactions to prisoner exchanges, and uncertainty lingers about their views on a major planned donor conference in Geneva. Several European diplomats told Crisis Group that although public unity on Afghanistan policy has been maintained, member states’ own diplomatic engagements have softened or strayed from the common line.

The EU’s influence over the Afghan peace process, and any outcome that may result, depends in large part on whether Afghan parties – including the Taliban – perceive it as a fair interlocutor. Almost any successful settlement will include the Taliban’s re-entry into Afghanistan’s political system. The EU’s current conditions, in particular its explicit rejection of the Taliban’s concept of an Islamic Emirate and its several public disapprovals of Taliban actions, without similar recognition of the Afghan government’s stalling ahead of talks, have been characterised by the Taliban as interference in Afghanistan’s sovereignty. As talks proceed, the EU and European leaders should make extra effort to appear to be more open to a greater Taliban role.

Most importantly, the EU and member states should commit to continue aid and development support to the Afghan government. They should do so before the end of 2020, in spite of the uncertainties surrounding the peace process and U.S. Afghanistan policy. They could qualify such reassurances and align them with EU principles by making clear that aid would be subject to re-evaluation in the event of changes to the government as part of a settlement, as the EU did in its May Council conclusions. This pledge would be the greatest possible show of support for the Afghan government as it negotiates an end to the war, and it would demonstrate to the Taliban that Afghanistan’s international partners remain invested in the post-2004 constitutional order and the gains it has won. It would be another incentive for both sides to reach an agreement.