FEATURED | An Afghan Game of Thrones by Joy Mitra
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FEATURED | An Afghan Game of Thrones by Joy Mitra

By Joy Mitra

Ever since the all important news of Mullah Omar’s death has broken in, the strategic equations in Afghanistan have visibly and significantly altered. The news of Mullah Omar’s death was almost as important, strong and impactful event as his actual death. While there had been earlier unconfirmed reports about his death, it was only on 31 July 2015 that Taliban officially admitted that their leader Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahed had died (Taliban, 2015). Almost simultaneously the successor to Mullah Omar had been chosen as Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur (Taliban, 2015). According to a report by Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN), Mansur was earlier Taliban’s aviation minister, who later went onto become the head of the Taliban leadership council (Quetta Shura) and second in command to Mullah Omar (Ruttig, 2015).

 Mansur’s election to the highest position was accompanied with the appointment of Haibatullah Akhunzada and Mullah Sirajuddin Haqqani as the deputy heads (Ruttig, 2015). Appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani is interesting because many analysts believed that the Haqqani network was separate from the Taliban (Stanford University, 2013), and therefore the appointment implies that Haqqani network said to be ‘a veritable arm’ of the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) is now installed in the highest leadership of Taliban (Dawn , 2011). That would also suggest that Islamabad is on board with the election of the new leader and perhaps has benefitted with the rise of the Haqqani’s within the Taliban.

The Rift Within

However a quick announcement of succession could not prevent what Mullah Omar’s death meant for Taliban, demise of ‘the amir ul-momenin’ who had hitherto kept the movement a unified force even after having not made a public appearance for years (Harrison & Rasmussen, 2015). With Mansur’s election the cracks have started to appear within the Taliban leadership. A bitter power struggle could ensue between Mansur and Omar’s eldest son Mohammad Yaqub (Yusufzai, 2015). AAN report also mentions that Yaqub is purported to have the backing of a many field commanders including Abdul Qayum Zakir who was earlier dismissed by Mansur, although Mansur himself is an experienced leader and has lead some very successful Taliban military campaigns (Ruttig, 2015). In fact the first armed clash within the Taliban has already taken place in the western Herat province resulting in the death of some nine insurgents including one senior commander (Khaama Press, 2015).

That is however not the end of troubles for Taliban whose cadres have off late been defecting to IS (Saul, 2015) and also sometimes have had to battle IS for control of territory (Khaama Press, 2015). In fact some very senior commanders of Taliban have also defected to Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, an extremist group which has pledged its allegiance to IS (Goldstein, 2015).

Ghani’s Gambit Failing

The announcement of Mullah Omar’s death amidst infighting regarding the succession has meant that the peace process seems to be in jeopardy with the next round of scheduled talks postponed by Pakistani authorities (MFA Pakistan, 2015). But more importantly it has upset President Ashraf Ghani’s calculations, who had invested enormous political capital in pursuing reconciliation with Taliban. Ashraf Ghani had earlier correctly identified the conflict as an interstate-conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan (Indian Express, n.d.), and took some bold confidence building measures to elevate the relationship with Pakistan which included withdrawing a request for lethal military hardware from India, ordering Afghan army to battle insurgent groups that were hostile to Pakistan and agreeing for unprecedented levels of ‘cooperation’ between the two countries’ military and intelligence agencies (Rubin, 2015). The strategy involved using China as the lever to nudge Pakistan to put pressure on Taliban to come to some sort of accommodation. Pakistan though claimed that it did not control Taliban but finally were on board to prod the Taliban they had ‘some control over’ which translated into the Urumqi talks. According to Barnett Rubin these were “Mullah Abdul Jalil, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rahmani, and Mullah Abdul Razaq who had formerly served as deputy minister of foreign affairs, governor of Kandahar, and minister of the interior respectively, but they had no connections to the Taliban’s Political Commission and no current influence in the Taliban hierarchy” (Rubin, 2015). This was even as the Taliban’s spring offensive was underway and there has been intense fighting on the ground especially in provinces of Kunduz, Faryab and Badaskhan (Habib, et al., 2015). Eventually Taliban are said to have yielded to Pakistani pressure who sent a senior delegation for the Murrey talks which included Mullah Abbas Akhund, who headed the delegation, Abdul Latif Mansur, and Ibrahim Haqqani. Abbas and Latif are said to be members of the Taliban’s liason committee with the ISI (Rubin, 2015). But again no member of Taliban’s political office attended the talks, which has been officially designated as the only body to engage in negotiations (Rubin, 2015). Articles have earlier appeared on Taliban related websites stating that “the much hailed talks between Taliban officials and Ghani-administration officials in Islamabad will be revealed as nothing more than Pakistan delivering a few individuals from the Islamic Emirate to speak in their personal capacity” (Rubin, 2015).

Mansur had earlier been authoring the statements published in the name of Mullah Omar that supported the negotiations as long as ‘the foreign occupation of Afghanistan ends’ (Taliban, 2015). AAN reports that Mansur apparently had been supportive of many pre-negotiation initiatives like the Pugwash conference and establishing the Qatar office (Ruttig, 2015). He also endeavored to make the political committee independent of his own Quetta Shura. It is probable that Mansur is trying to lessen the influence of Pakistan on Taliban with the ramification that the political committee will engage in negotiations only if the talks are independent of Pakistan, which apparently has not gone down well with some anti-talks elements within Taliban. But the proclivities within Taliban are mixed. Mansur’s seems to be a proponent of talks as long as they are held in a manner where Pakistan does not dictate terms, there are those Talibs who support the talks under Pakistan’s supervision these include those attended the talks earlier in Urumqi and then Murree and finally those who are opposed to any talks which include field commander Zaker and likes who back Yaqub against Mansur. But Mansur will face difficulties now that Omar’s death has been revealed and Tayyeb Agha chief of the Qatar political office has resigned over Mansur succeeding Omar (Khan, 2015).

Whether or not Taliban will splinter remains to be seen, but either way it seems to have put Ashraf Ghani in a difficult position. On the ground fighting has been as intense as ever. Taliban fighting forces on the ground do not believe they have reached a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ and are fighting to gain an upper hand in the negotiations, which would imply that possibly Ghani has initiated channels for communication even before the conflict was ‘ripe’ for such a process. If Taliban must remain unified its incentive to come to the table will possibly see a reduction, if it does splinter it would mean an even difficult negotiation process with multiple factions, which will be difficult for Ashraf Ghani to sell to his domestic audience considering that anti-talk factions will try to ensure a surge in violence. Considering that Afghanistan at this point faces threat from IS, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and numerous other groups in addition to Taliban,  Ashraf Ghani seems to be headed for a lot of firefighting and perhaps his overtures towards Pakistan could fetch zilch.

Role of Pakistan?

Amidst all this Pakistan seems to be the dark horse, nobody really knows what its interests are and where its loyalty lies. Pakistan has been trying to facilitate the talks. But many would doubt if Pakistan credibility as a facilitator of the talks since they consider it very much an actual party to the conflict with considerable stakes involved. After 2001 when the insurgency regained momentum Omar had appointed two deputy leaders one of whom was Mullah Barader (Ruttig, 2015). But Barader was arrested in 2010 by Pakistan after he met the representatives of Karzai government without their consent (Ruttig, 2010). He was subsequently removed from the position of deputy. Karzai government repeatedly sought meeting with Barader with the help of Pakistanis. In 2013 when the High Peace council finally was permitted to see him, it is said he was so heavily sedated that he could not speak a single word (Clark, 2013). It is quite evident that ISI is trying to control the outcome of the negotiations, and therefore those with whom Kabul government had engaged until now were not really in position to deliver an accord with the Taliban. With the Haqqani’s now high up in the hierarchy within Taliban it seems whatever negotiations will happen Kabul government will essentially be engaging a Taliban which is basically a front for Pakistan. It may not necessarily be a bad thing unless that implies a ceasefire on the ground is unlikely to happen. One does not know at this point how the Mansur-Pakistan equation will pan out.

Game of Thrones

There are signals that both factions within Taliban are trying to seek reconciliation (Geo TV, 2015) but it is difficult to imagine how the turf war can be brought to an end considering that Mansur was intelligent enough to make the first move, and having officially declared his ascendency to the throne he can ill-afford to backtrack. What possibly can Mansur offer other than giving up his position in the Taliban hierarchy that can assuage his rivals? One does not know, but even after considering the spate of statements that have been made by various commanders to preserve unity it looks like some permanent damage done to the organization will be on display in the coming months. Both Kabul and Islamabad will be monitoring the events closely, Islamabad looks in slightly better position to influence and control the situation, but it should be mindful of its own long term security. It must keep a watch on IS which is fast gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, in fact as far as IS goes Pakistan must know that Afghanistan is its first line of defense. One thing is for certain however that the Afghan ‘game of thrones’ is heading for some serious, intricate politics and a lot of deception.

About The Author:

Joy Mitra is a research professional and geopolitical analyst with expertise in international relations, strategic (game) theory, conflict analysis, conflict diplomacy and negotiation. His primary regions of focus are South Asia (the Indian subcontinent), and major power strategic relations but his interests span the world and has several publications to his credit. He is also a researcher with Wikistrat.