As it enters a 16th year of hostilities, Afghanistan stands at a crossroads. The country’s opposing parties, the government and its Nato allies, and the Taliban can either continue along a destructive path that threatens to plunge the country into the kind of chaos that prevailed after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Or they can pre-empt it by endeavouring to find enough common ground to bring about a mutually acceptable process of political reconciliation that would deny space to miscreants, whether they be the regional states that are using Afghan territory as a proxy battlefield for their competing geopolitical interests or the regional ISIL franchise, which is steadily growing into a serious threat to all parties involved.
“The key issue is trust,” according to Rafiquddin, a veteran Taliban special forces commander. “As matters stand, we believe there is barely a two per cent chance of successful peace talks. But we have to try or everything that we have fought for will be lost. Already, matters are moving in reverse.”
That realisation has prompted the Taliban to undertake an exhaustive process of internal consultations since October, when preliminary contacts were re-established with the Afghan government.
The current Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada has dispensed with the secretive top-down decision-making style of his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.
His failure to disclose the 2013 demise of the movement’s founder Mullah Mohammed Omar and to seek a consensus on his assumption of leadership were viewed by many as unforgivable acts of treachery.
Cognisant of the threat of fragmentation, Akhundzada has engaged 45 prominent personalities representing the kaleidoscope of opinions within Taliban with the aim of forming the strategy on future political engagement.
So far, the Taliban’s internal consultations have generated at least three interesting proposals that could become part of the agenda of future talks, participants based in Pakistan have told The National.
The first has already been made public. Earlier this month, the Taliban issued an unsolicited assurance that it backed “all national projects which are in the interest of the people and result in the development and prosperity”. It directed its fighters “to help in the security of all national projects that are in the higher interest of Islam and the country”.
The second proposal calls for a truce between the Taliban and the Nato-backed Afghan security forces in areas where either or both are engaged in military operations against domestic and foreign militants who have joined ISIL, which has established a beachhead in several eastern provinces.
This proposal was readily agreed to by Taliban leaders because of a Quranic edict issued in 2014 by the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, and subsequently confirmed by religious authorities around the Muslim world, which declared ISIL as hypocrites and apostates.
Consensus among the Taliban on the proposal for a partial truce was reached on the basis of there having been a precedent in the history of Islam.
The third proposal deals with the tricky issue of participation in the governance of Afghanistan while foreign troops remain deployed in the country. That remains a red line that most Taliban opinion makers are not prepared to cross.
Instead, the movement is considering the possibility of nominating mainstream Afghan politicians “who share most of our ideological goals” as proxy members of a new interim government, according to an aide of Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy chief of the Taliban and leader of the notorious Haqqani Network.
To take the process forward in a manner that does not create internal divisions, the Taliban leadership has created a 30-member vetting council.
The proposals generated by the Taliban’s internal consultations tally with parts of a 19-point peace plan for Afghanistan drafted by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a non-government organisation, after a series of meetings this year attended by Afghan politicians, leaders of mujahideen factions that fought the Soviets and former members of the Taliban.
The Taliban’s promise to protect development projects directly responds to point 13 of the Pugwash draft, which proposes that both sides “welcome international cooperation for economic development”. However, that is little more than a confidence-building gesture.
The primary challenge is reaching an agreement on a ceasefire, a precondition set by president Ashraf Ghani. The major stumbling block for Kabul is the Taliban’s sanctuaries in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid last month claimed that the movement’s leadership council had moved from Pakistan to an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.
However, my sources have confided that only its top military commanders have so far been relocated, mostly to rural areas of southern Helmand province seized over the last year.
Another emerging hurdle is Kabul’s anger at the willingness of foreign powers to independently engage with the Taliban, based on the premise that it alone is in a position to prevent the spread of ISIL from Afghanistan. Russia has recently admitted to such direct contacts, facilitated by the government of Tajikistan.
The Taliban has claimed that similar dialogue has been undertaken with Iran, which members of the Afghan parliament have accused of providing funding and arms to the insurgents. Tehran denies both charges.
The Taliban’s diplomatic outreach campaign has also infuriated the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, general John Nicholson, who earlier this month spoke against the “malign influence” of external actors.
“We’re concerned about the external enablement of the insurgent or terrorist groups inside Afghanistan, in particular where they enjoy sanctuary or support from outside governments,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
However, were the Taliban’s proposal of an ISIL-specific partial truce to become a formal offer, it is likely to find favour with US president-elect Donald Trump.
“I imagine the Trump administration, with its fixation on destroying ISIL, would welcome a truce like this in a big way,” said Michael Kugelman, senior South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, a Washington think tank.
“This initiative, should it come to pass, would be a remarkable development. It is clear that there is no military solution to the war, and so a truce between Kabul and the Taliban – and one preceded by no formal peace process to boot – would be a tour de force. It would also be a powerful stabiliser. ”
Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad