It sounded like ‘breaking news’ from Kabul: “The Taliban have been offered posts in the new Afghan government, but have turned them down, the BBC understands. The offer came from new President Ashraf Ghani in a bid to end the insurgency that threatens the recovery of the country.” The BBC report, that came just before the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris, was soon overshadowed by those events, although it received a number of quick reactions on social media. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at the likelihood that such an offer was made, of what it might have hoped to achieve and also briefly looks at recent ideas on how to start a process with the goal of a political solution of the Afghan conflict. The other ones: A Hezb delegation led by Dr Ghairat Bahir meets President Karzai in 2012. Photo: Presidential website.
The BBC report mentioned three names: Mullah Abdul Salam Za’if, a founding member of the Taleban movement and its last ambassador to Pakistan (before that he was Minister of Mines and Industry), Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel, the Taleban regime’s former foreign minister, and Ghairat Bahir, whom the BBC describes as a “a close relative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces are allied to the Taliban.”
It further alleges that three ministries were offered to them: Rural Rehabilitation and Development, Border and Tribal Affairs as well as Hajj and Religious Endowments (Awqaf), also known as ‘religious affairs’. “There have also been negotiations over appointing Taliban governors, it said, to three southern provinces – Nimruz, Kandahar and Helmand.” (1)
“The” Taleban, Taleban or former Taleban?
There are some more inaccuracies in the report. If this offer was indeed made – the president’s spokesman immediately denied that it had –, it did not go to the Taleban movement, ie Kabul’s armed opponents led (at least nominally) by Mullah Muhammad Omar but rather to former representatives of its regime. Za’if and Mutawakel were both officials in the Taleban regime before its collapse in 2001 and have parted ways with the movement since. Bahir is not and never has been with the Taleban.
The then Ambassador Za’if was arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the United States in January 2002 which sent him to Guantanamo where he was never formally charged. Finally released to Kabul in September 2005, he has remained in the Afghan capital and in later years, the Gulf. He declined to actively support the Kabul government’s and their western allies’ attempts at reconciliation and reintegration, ie luring over Taleban fighters and leaders with financial and other offers. (These attempts were sometimes linked to attempts to split the Taleban movement.) However, he has voiced support for a negotiated solution. In 2005, for example he suggested that “they should continue talking to them to find out what they want, and why they are still fighting. Maybe we can find a solution” (a first account by him after his release here). Moreover, he has never criticised the Taleban or Mullah Omar publically.
Mutawakel, in contrast, handed himself in to US forces in Kandahar in February 2002 after some negotiations. He was detained at Bagram for two years and then put under house arrest for another year. After he came to Kabul city [where he spent time of his house arrest] , his name came up in repeated rumours about the possible formation of a ‘moderate Taleban party’. It was unclear, however, whether it was his own idea and initiative (as Kabul-based weekly Cheragh reported on 30 November 2004) or whether he was urged to do so by the US, as reported by Radio Free Europa/Radio LIberty in March 2005 (see also here). It was clear, however, that Mutawakel was, at that time, hoping for a political role in that period. He ran for parliament in 2005 – unsuccessfully; his brother was killed in Quetta during this period and he did not dare to campaign in his hometown Kandahar. (2) Moreover, the party project never materialised. As Za’if has done, Mutawakel also has always stressed that he does not represent the Taleban or their official stance. But he pushed early on for the Taleban to be encouraged to establish contact offices, like Hamas, and for there to be neutral mediators between the Taleban and the Afghan government (see for example here).
Although having been publicly disowned by his former Taleban ‘colleagues’ (as all others who left the armed struggle option behind; after the BBC report, the Taleban renewed their statement that their former colleagues in Kabul do not represent them, here), (3) this put both close to those in the movement who share the wish for a negotiated solution – a current in the movement that was sometimes more and sometimes (like currently) less visible. This is particularly true for Za’if, with his insistence to still refer to himself as a ‘Taleb’ (as he did during a visit to Germany in [corrected] 2010), (4) a signal that he is not interested in burning all bridges and that he sees himself as a part of the wider Taleban movement which, with a number of former leaders, is not fully represented by the movement’s leadership council (the ‘Quetta shura’) anymore. This is also reflected by Za’if’s, Mutawakel’s and some other of the ‘reconciled’ Taleban’s increased activity in track II and similar meetings since, at least, 2012 (about some of those initiatives, AAN reporting here and media report here and here.) Although it is widely understood that they do not represent the Taleban movement, it is believed they might be able to provide some insight into their thinking or serve as a channel to their former comrades.
Taleban and/or Hezb-e Islami?
The third person named as a possible minister, Ghairat Bahir, is not a Taleb. He is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s son-in-law and represents the armed wing of Hezb-e Islami, the second largest armed insurgent organisation active in Afghanistan, often known as HIG (Hezb-e Islami, Gulbuddin) in the west. (5) Bahir repeatedly visited Kabul for talks with the Karzai government, but they remained inconclusive so far. According to an Afghan media report, two of Hekmatyar’s sons, Jamaluddin and Habib al-Rahman, also visited Kabul in September 2014, “met with the presidential contender Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai” (or representatives) and discussed “the party’s future possible role in the country.”
Many former HIG fighters (like fighters of other mujahedin groups) have joined the Taleban, beginning in the 1990s, when the new Taleban movement swept through southern Afghanistan towards Kabul. However, Hekmatyar and the party never did – they were rather rivals during that period. HIG only came out at the side of the Taleban after 9/11. Since the insurgency started, some local cooperation between HIG and Taleban fighters was reported. But more often than not, the two groups have fought each other for dominance in a number of Afghan provinces, including in Baghlan and Wardak.
Both, the Taleban and HIG have been – with a few individual exceptions – implacably opposed to the presence of western troops and the post-Taleban Kabul set-up from which they were excluded at the 2001 Bonn conference. HIG, however, has wavered occasionally on political issues. On the issue of the 2014 presidential election, for example, it switched several times between taking part, tolerating or even boycotting it (see our reporting here). Most importantly, Hezb-e Islami also has a political wing which is right at the heart of the current political establishment in Kabul; it was close to former President Karzai and has a deputy CEO (former Hezb intelligence chief, Muhammad Khan) in the current government, as well as governors, ministers and MPs. To speak of an ‘alliance’ between both groups, as the BBC does, goes too far, therefore, despite their political overlaps.
Earlier attempts of political ‘integration’
If the offer of cabinet posts has indeed been made, it would also not represent the first attempt to integrate former high-ranking Taleban officials into the post-Taleban political system. All attempts have failed. Until 2008, the end of George W Bush’s presidency, any such initiative was vetoed by Washington on the grounds that ‘we don’t talk to terrorists.’ This veto was circumvented a few times, but also hampered by the Bush administration’s policy. In 2006, for example, President Karzai appointed Abdul Hakim Munib, a former Taleban deputy minister, as governor of Uruzgan. He made it for only less then 18 months. Apart from other issues, international support for him was hampered by the fact that it was impossible, at that time, to take him off the UN Taleban sanctions list. (He subsequently served as deputy minister for religious affairs, in the last Karzai government.)
Karzai himself, known to be opposed to a strong role for political parties in his country in general, came up with the idea in mid-2012 of offering the Taleban to open an office in Kabul as an official opposition party. (Ghani is more open to political parties; see here.)
During this phase – between the 2005 parliamentary elections and the end of the Bush administration –, the ‘reconciled’ Taleban in Kabul lost hope that they could play a role in bridging the gap between Kabul and the armed insurgents. During regular meetings with some them, this author found them frustrated because their ideas for a negotiated settlement were not taken up (see their 2008 7-step plan described in this AAN report, p 28) and felt instrumentalised for the official ‘reconciliation and reintegration’ policy they found wrong and which was often more intelligence-led then political. This was reflected by Mutawakkel’s and Za’if’s rejection of offers to join the High Peace Council (HPC) which was founded by Karzai in October 2010.
Other former Taleban, mainly from the Khuddam ul-Furqan group, that – with Pakistani support – had already tried to establish a ‘moderate’ Taleban party at the end of 2001, did join the HPC. (6) Arsala Rahmani, a former deputy minister both under the mujahedin (in the post-1992 Rabbani government) and during the Taleban and the most senior member of that group, who was a prominent member of the HPC, was assassinated in mid-2012. This division on whether or not to join the HPC also reflected the fact that ‘reconciled’ Taleban in Kabul were never a unified group, being roughly divided (although not antagonistically) between the southerners, Za’if and Mutawakel, and those from the Khuddam group whose members all come from the wider south-eastern region, including Ghazni and Logar, and tended to have been members of Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami during the jihad era.
Given this long story of half-hearted and late efforts at ‘political integration’ of former Taleban officials, this author would assume that, even if an offer to Za’if & Co had been made, they might indeed have declined, fearing it was an attempt to showcase them again. Such an offer could only work if, and when, the new Afghan leadership took a definite decision about a negotiations strategy with the Taleban (talks with HIG have been held and never widely been opposed by the Afghan public). The appointments could then be seen as a first step towards a more serious approach to negotiations and a confidence-building measure. (The question remaining, of course, whether the insurgents would be much impressed.)
In the short term, such appointments would most likely not lure away any significant members of Taleban fighters from the battlefield, as – with the withdrawal of most NATO combat forces – the military option still seems to prevail in the movement’s strategy and thinking. There would also need to be trust that a serious political solution was being pursued. Such trust could have been built up in the early years, but was squandered to a very large extent when, with Mutawakel, Za’if and the others left the insurgent movement and came to Kabul, almost a decade ago, when the insurgency had not reached its current extent and strength yet.
On what the insurgents think, Sami Yousafzay, of Newsweek and its The Daily Beast blog, sounded correct in his 9 January tweet: “do you think taliban [sic] whole struggle was for three ministries[?]”
It also should not be forgotten that offers of ministries, governorships and the like was originally very much pushed by western actors, both military and civilian (in the mentioned intelligence-driven approaches to ‘reintegration’), an idea that enraged many Afghans, not least President Karzai, who was absolutely opposed to anything that looked like handing over sovereignty even of the slightest piece of Afghan territory to the insurgents. This was shown early on by the 2006/07 Musa Qala episode (my take on this, in a contemporary paper, for SWP Berlin, in German only, here; a short rendering in English here, p 9) and continued right to the end of his tenure. When, in May 2014, the Pakistani national security advisor, Sartaj Aziz, suggested that the Taleban should have a role in the coming government, including governorships of some provinces and other unelected appointments. This suggestions, of course, referred to representatives of the armed Taleban movement, not to the ‘reconciled’ ones in Kabul. Aziz received an official slamming from Kabul. There is no indication that the new president and CEO differ from that position.
(1) The BBC’s explanation that, with Border Affairs, that particular minister would control the Afghan customs, a lucrative resource, is wrong: customs comes under the finance ministry.
(2) Parallel to Mutawakkil’s run for parliament, former deputy Taleban interior minister Muhammad Khaksar also did so. However, he was shot dead during the campaign, presumably by former comrades, serving as an early warning by the insurgents or their backers against individual Taleban joining the Kabul government or collaborating with its western allies. (It also had become known that he had been in contact with the Northern Alliance before the fall of Kabul and, therefore, was considered a traitor.)
(3) In October 2003, a Taleban spokesman stated that Mutawakel “does not represent our will.” In 2009, for example, the spokesman was quoted as saying (on Afghan Ariana TV, 12 April 2009) that Za’if and Mutawakel “cannot” represent the Taleban. In August 2012, the IEA’s website Shahamat stated the same about Agha Jan Mutasem, former Taleban finance minister and head of their Political Commission (in the latter position he was close to the Taleban leader, Mullah Omar) who started favouring a political solution around 2010 and was the victim of an assassination attempt in Pakistan in 2012 which forced him to flee to Turkey, from where he continued to push for negotiations:
Agha Jan Mostasim was dismissed from his post by the leader of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the year 2010 for stepping over his bounds and for lacking transparency in his work. He currently does not hold any posts with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and neither can he represent the Islamic Emirate in any of his statements and actions.
One member of Mutasem’s group, the ex-Taleban minister for refugees, Abdul Raqib was assassinated in Pakistan.
(4) He was invited as part as a group of former Taleban (including Mutawakel and Mujahed) by a mainstream German political party foundation that addressed a round of parliamentarians and experts in the Bundestag building.
(5) There is also an officially registered wing has been part of the Karzai government, as we repeatedly reported (here, here and here, for example).
(6) This group included Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, former Kabul University president under the Taleban Mawlawi Pir Muhammad Rohani,
deputy vice and virtue minister Mawlawi Kalamuddin, Na’im Kuchi, the Taleban’s unofficial representative at the UN, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Mujahed, Mawlawi Khudaidad and
Qari Habibullah Fawzi. Also Rahmatullah Wahidyar, a former minister and deputy minister both under the mujahedin and the Taleban, who facilitated (apparently in good faith) the assassin of HPC chairman Borhanuddin Rabbani in 2011 (and may still be in detention uncharged) belonged to this group.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020
Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel