Region

Just about over the First Hill: Pakistan’s Release of Afghan Taleban


The release of a number of Afghan Taleban by Pakistan, as announced on 14 November, may prove crucial for an urgently needed breakthrough on a political settlement in Afghanistan. It is also the first big personal success for Rabbani Junior at the helm of the Afghan High Peace Council. But too much optimism would be inappropriate. The possible integration of some released leaders into a Taleban negotiation team is only the first of many hills to be overcome on the long run towards meaningful negotiations. First and foremost, the Taleban leadership is yet to be persuaded to enter into direct talks with the Afghan government. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at this and other open questions.

Pakistan’s agreement announced on Wednesday that it would release a number of leading Afghan Taleban sounds like a breakthrough. It certainly removes an important hurdle for future talks with the Taleban about a political solution in Afghanistan. Pakistan has finally given in to Afghanistan’s long-standing demand to release (some of) those it has held in various conditions across the country.(1) And as a Pakistani foreign ministry official has told the dpa news agency that ‘they are accessible to anyone who wants to contact them,’ Afghanistan’s demand for access to them also has been recognised by Pakistan for the first time.
Both sides have further agreed to ‘facilitate safe passage to potential negotiators to advance the reconciliation process’ and to ‘work closely with other international partners to remove the names from the UN sanctions list of the potential negotiators amongst Taliban [sic] and other groups to enable them to participate in peace talks’ (read the full statement here).

This agreement comes after a series of setbacks earlier this year, in particular the failure of a US-Taleban prisoner exchange and subsequent suspension by the insurgents of bilateral talks in Qatar as well as the recent statement by a high-ranking Afghan official that ‘no breakthrough is expected before 2014’. Therefore, the release of some Afghan Taleban leaders may prove an important step towards building some urgently needed trust between the two neighbouring and often squabbling countries.

Notably, too, Pakistan’s decision came during the first Islamabad visit of Salahuddin Rabbani, the new chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) who has succeeded his assassinated father, Burhanuddin Rabbani, to this position (read our 5 blog series on the issue starting here). Rabbani’s trip, originally planned for summer had been postponed following repeated Pakistani cross-border shellings of Afghanistan. The HPC chairman met not only President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, but also, significantly, Army Chief General Ashfaq Kiyani who has the last word on his country’s crucial decisions on Afghanistan. Although many leaders of Jamiat-e Islami – the party the Rabbanis have been heading since 1971(2) – hold family or property in Pakistan, bilateral relations have been strained for many decades. In the 1980s, during the fight against Soviet occupation, Pakistan chose Rabbani’s arch-rival Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as its favourite Afghan mujahedin leader. Jamiat has likewise not forfeited many chances to lash out against its unloved neighbour. Significantly, therefore, Pakistan’s goodwill gesture may be read as pertaining to Rabbani personally, and by extension to Jamiat and the Afghan Tajiks the party claims to represent. After years of alienation, it is possible that Pakistan may be seeking to broaden its relations with different political forces across its western border.

The joint Afghan-Pakistani press release published after the Islamabad meetings says simply that ‘in support of [the] peace and reconciliation process and in response to the requests of the Afghan government/HPC, a number of Taleban detainees are being released’ [our emphasis]. Meanwhile, a list of names of people said to have already been released has emerged, but reports are still contradictory.(3) The Afghan side has reportedly submitted a list with 40 names.

Members of the HPC told the media immediately after the agreement had been published that three prominent Taleban are among the released: their former justice minister Mulla Nuruddin Turabi, former deputy minister for communications Allahdad Tabib (or Tayeb, as in some reports) and a former personal aide of Mulla Muhammad Omar, Mulla Abdul Ahad Jehangirwal. ‘We have asked Pakistan to release them because they were the policy makers of the Taleban and close aides to Mullah Omar’, Habibullah Fouzi, a former Taleban diplomat and now HPC member confirmed. But the news of Turabi’s release has been retracted in a BBC report meanwhile, while the name of Mowlawi Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahed came up instead as ‘the most senior’ one. He is the son of late Mowlawi Yunos Khales, the leader of one of the major mujahedin factions of the 1980s,Hezb-e Islami (Khales), to which Jalaluddin Haqqani – of Haqqani network fame – belonged as well.(4) Amendment on 16 Nov: The release of Anwar-ul-Haq has been confirmed by his family now.

The other names publicly discussed so far are: former Baghlan governor Abdul Salam, former Kunduz governor Mowlawi Muhammad, two former government officials, Haji Kutub and Mowlawi Matiullah, and a former senior commander and deputy minister, Sayed Sa’duddin Agha.(5)

The most important name among those mentioned by the HPC is Jehangirwal who, together with Tayyeb Agha, the Taleban’s chief negotiator in Qatar, served in the Taleban Emirate’s Administrative Office (similar to the current edara-ye umur in Kabul, a quasi-prime ministry). Jehangirwal also sometimes acted as the Taleban’s spokesman in Kandahar where his office was based. Allahdad is listed as a Popalzai on the UN sanction list, the tribe to which both President Karzai and Mulla Omar’s former Number Two, Mulla Baradar (arrested in Karachi in early 2010), belong. Turabi must be considered as a Taleban hardliner; when in office, he refused not only to meet foreign women (a behaviour common to many Taleban ministers) but no foreigners at all, including the head of the UN political mission (despite the fact that the latter’s office and Turabi’s accommodation were next to each other). It may therefore not expedite matters if he were to be included on the Taleban negotiating team.

What remains unclear is under what conditions for the releases have been agreed. Where will the released be permitted to go – to Afghanistan or to Qatar where the Taleban have established their ‘political office’ (although for talks with the US)? Or will they be required to stay in Pakistan where the army and ISI will ensure that they are kept on course and under their control? It cannot be expected that Islamabad will readily relinquish its control, which it has cultivated over many years.

What also remains unclear is whether the released Taleban will have sufficient independence from Pakistan in any talks and whether they will still be able to count on much support among the Taleban ranks. Some of them have, after all, been out of the fight for years and their former positions subsequently replaced. This thought is shared by another Afghan official quoted in the media: ‘We aren’t too certain whether they can play an important role in peace negotiations but it is a positive gesture from Pakistan in helping peace efforts’.

It is in fact perfectly possible that Pakistan has made this gesture to relieve itself of the pressure to play ball in the ‘reconciliation’ game. At the same time, it will be difficult for long-hesitant Pakistan to once again step away from this promise. After all, the world will be watching – and in particular those countries that are withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and want talks to begin as proof that the situation is calming down. There are clear indications that the US has applied some pressure, not least through a new trilateral Afghan-Pakistani-US working group inaugurated on 6 September this year. Its first session discussed safe passage arrangements for Taleban negotiators and set up another trilateral group in New York to work on removing reconcilable Taleban from the UN sanctions list (see here and here). Both issues have been picked up in the HPC delegations’ talks with the Pakistani leaders.

That the former Taleban deputy head, Mulla Abdul Ghani, better known as Mulla Baradar, who has been confirmed as being on the Afghans’ wish list but has apparently not (yet) been included in the latest releases, is another sign that Pakistan is not ready to play all its cards at once. Who can blame it in the context of its uneasy relationship with its western neighbour, which has been fluctuating for years between assurances of brotherhood and expressions of open hostility, including mutual accusations of support for each other’s armed opponents? This problem is recognised in the Afghan-Pakistani statement: ‘The two sides stressed that talking to and maligning each other through media leaves little space for serious dialogue. Therefore, all government officials and spokespersons should refrain from making hostile statements and avoid [the] blame game.’ (The statement also mentions that ‘the issue of cross border incursions and shelling’ has been addressed: ‘It was decided to discuss ways and means to create conducive conditions and initiating bilateral mechanisms that would completely end the cross-border shelling.’)

It has been heard unofficially in Kabul that another HPC delegation is to travel to Pakistan soon. This delegation, which is said to include some of the higher-ranking ulama in the body (including leading former Taleban), may work out more specific details about the releases and the way towards talks with the Taleban. But their trip also appears to be a reflection of latent tensions within the HPC between Rabbani and some of the older members, who tacitly considered the chairman to be too junior but see him reaping the results of what they consider is their good networking in Pakistan.

There are two more major hurdles. Firstly, the Taleban leadership still has to be persuaded to enter into direct talks with Kabul. As the above quoted sceptical Afghan official added in his 9 November statement, there have not been any ‘face-to-face talks’ between the government in Kabul and the Taleban above the ‘provincial level’ and beyond local issues such as not attacking schools (see a discussion of this issue also here). When for the first time after 2001, an official representative of the Taleban leadership publicly laid out his movement’s authorised positions (at a conference in Kyoto, Japan in June this year), he underlined that they are not against talking with Karzai, but won’t do so before ‘all’ Western troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan: ‘The Islamic Emirate has repeatedly said that the Afghan issue is two dimensional with internal and external dimensions. The external dimension, which should be dealt with initially, concerns America and the Islamic Emirate’. The Taleban’s initial reaction to the new trilateral mechanisms was to reject them as an attempt to ‘create schisms’ in their ranks and as not representing their viewpoints. Mulla Omar, in his latest Eid message in October, underlined that there will only be talks through the Taleban’s political office in Qatar, an indication that he also does not want to talk directly under the ISI’s listening devices. It remains to be seen how strong Pakistan’s powers of persuasion vis-à-vis the Taleban will turn out to be.

At the same time, a recent report that Mulla Omar had sacked the Taleban’s operations chief Mulla Abdul Qayum Zaker, only to be reinstated – although with more limited authority – by the Quetta Shura confirmed that an internal dispute about its future course is also continuing within the Taleban.

Secondly, the Taleban see the 2 May US-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement as a no-brainer because it pre-empts what they want to discuss with the US, namely a full withdrawal of all foreign troops. Washington’s latest statements that a post-2014 US military presence is just a matter of which option is chosen and that US-Afghan negotiations about a Bilateral Security Agreement have started on 15 November will likely harden their position. Even so, it is difficult to envisage Kabul and Washington dropping that agreement, which they see as central to safeguarding their particular interests, purely for the sake of talks with the Taleban.

On the other hand, it is also necessary that the Afghan government clarifies whether it really does want to talk, and if so, what its agenda would be and whether everyone at least in the government is fully on board. Recent statements such as that made by Vice President Qasem Fahim that talking with the insurgents ‘endlessly’ was ‘meaningless’ and that they ‘must be suppressed until all their nests are destroyed so that they could be forced and persuaded to join the peace process’ (BBC Monitoring, 22 September 2012) sound more like a preference for a military solution rather than for talks.

All in all, one should not be too optimistic and instead, approach the Taleban releases with a degree of interpretive caution. On the Pakistani side, it looks like controlled cooperation at best. One sign that Islamabad is truly serious would be if journalists were really allowed unrestricted access to the released relatively soon.

At the same time, it needs to be repeated that Kabul-Taleban talks alone, even if concluded successfully one day, are too narrow an approach necessary for the reconciliation and settlement of Afghan conflicts (plural!) and moreover, that even the current approach is much too intransparent. Just listen to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s chairwoman Sima Samar who again recently criticised ‘that there is no transparency’ in the work of the HPC. In the best case, bilateral (or trilateral) talks would be a part, and first step, of a much broader, inclusive process into which other relevant political and social forces would be integrated (after having been convinced that it makes sense) and that most likely would continue well beyond 2014 (read our latest blog on the role of women in such a process here).

In this context, UN special envoy Jan Kubiơ’s underreported 9 October announcement that his organisation ‘has developed a roadmap’ for an ‘inter-Afghan track two dialogue, trying to engage and provide platform for Afghan people, representatives of different groups, civil society, political parties and also those that are fighting the Government, a platform on which they can discuss their future’ can make sense – only that the security situation will make such a dialogue difficult in many areas and that the UN and its member-countries currently allow the Afghan government to push for a closure of more and more UNAMA offices even on the provincial level.

It would be helpful if the main actors – the Karzai government, the US and the Taleban themselves – publicly clarify their positions. As long as this fails to happen, we had all better prepare for a marathon. With some Taleban leaders finally released by Pakistan, we just have crossed the first of many hills on this course of recurrent ups and downs.

(1) It is far from clear under which circumstances individual Taleban leaders – and their list is long – are or have actually been held in Pakistan: are they in jail or in ‘guest houses’, ie under less harsh conditions of house arrest, or even just said to be under arrest while actually moving freely in and sometimes out of the country? Most likely, it is a mix of all of that; there were credible reports of sightings of high-ranking Taleban in Quetta, for example, and of others living freely in Peshawar as well as reports that some Taleban are being held under extremely harsh conditions, including torture.

(2) Jamiat-e Islami first emerged during the protests of parts of the Afghan clergy, led by Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, against the visit of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in early 1960. It resurfaced after the 1964 constitution was passed and leftist political parties sprung up from 1965 onwards, as a loose umbrella movement for most Afghan Islamist. This movement split in 1975 when Hezb-e Islami broke off and differentiated further during the fight against the Soviets.

(3) There are reports about eight, nine, ‘less than a dozen’ and 13 Taleban already released.AP reported on 14 November that a handful of ‘low to mid-level’ militants were already freed on Wednesday, quoting a Pakistani official anonymously.

(4) Anwar-ul-Haq leads what seems to be a semi-autonomous insurgent network in eastern Afghanistan (his family comes from Khugiani, Nangrahar province) called De Tora Bora Nizami Mahaz (Tora Bora Military Front) that had allied with the Taleban by early 2007. His father, who had called for a jehad against the US troops as early as November 2004, had died in 2006.

(5) Mulla Salam had been reported as killed in 2009 by Kunduz governor Eng. Omar, a report Salam had immediately denied. Both Mulla Salam and Mulla Muhammad (Baghlan) were among those reported to have been arrested in Pakistan during the 2010 arrest wave when Mulla Baradar was also captured. Matiullah is possibly the former head of the Kabul Customs House who is on the UN Taleban sanctions list. Sa’duddin, also according to the UN sanctions list, was a former Taleban deputy minister for work and social affairs and mayor of Kabul.

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Thematic Category: Region