Friday, July 31, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Aug 1, 2015

Peace prospects The hopes aroused by the first round of peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul government, hosted by Pakistan in Murree on July 7 and attended by China and the US, seem to have been enshrouded in uncertainty since the revelation and confirmation of Mulla Omar’s death two years ago. Although varying accounts of how and where he died are still doing the rounds, ranging from the Afghan government’s claim that he died in a hospital in Karachi to the Taliban’s statement that he never left Afghanistan for the last 14 years and in fact died and was buried in a village in southern Afghanistan close to the Pakistan border, no one is disputing the fact of his death any more. Once the Taliban themselves confirmed the death, the next set of burning questions centred on the future of the movement in the absence of a binding force like Mulla Omar, possible deepening internal divisions over the leadership succession and support or opposition to the peace process, and the new factor of Islamic State’s (IS’s) entry into the Afghan quagmire. The immediate fallout of the announcement was the postponement of the second round of talks that were scheduled for July 31 and the uncertainly surrounding their revival. The postponement came at the behest of the Pakistan Foreign Office, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has invested considerable political capital in the peace talks, urging Islamabad to reconvene the dialogue at the earliest. Reports say the Taliban Quetta Shura met to elect Mulla Omar’s successor. They chose, unsurprisingly, his long time deputy, Mulla Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, himself a successor in that position to Mulla Baradar, who was arrested by the Pakistani authorities some years ago and is believed to be still held. Mulla Mansour’s deputies in turn have been named as Siraj Haqqani and Maulvi Haibatullah. This combine appears to suit Pakistan as being amenable to influence and supportive of the peace talks. However, whether Mulla Mansour will be able to fill Mulla Omar’s big shoes and become the kind of universally acknowledged leader and authority that Mulla Omar was, remains uncertain. Mulla Mansour has rivals and challengers amongst the Taliban, not the least of whom is Mulla Qayum Zakir and the hardline group that has coalesced around him in opposition to the peace talks. They were backing Mulla Omar’s son Yaqoob, a 26-year-old graduate from a madrassa in Karachi, to succeed him. For the moment at least then, the pro-talks faction seems to be dominant, but that is no guarantee of smooth sailing in the future. Pre-existing divisions in the Taliban’s ranks may grow worse in the absence of Mulla Omar’s legitimising presence. They could revolve around pursuing the peace talks or continuing fighting to oust the Kabul government. Second, the new factor of IS in Afghanistan may accelerate and be taken advantage of by dissident Taliban to switch loyalties to a group that has proved highly successful in Iraq and Syria and is reputed to be flush with resources, two pluses that may prove irresistible to many Taliban. While those who have invested in the peace process such as President Ashraf Ghani, Pakistan, China and the US may wish to see the process proceed, it is only when the dust raised by the belated announcement of Mulla Omar’s death settles that the scenario will become clearer. The US has urged the Taliban to stay engaged with Kabul. Whether that will be possible or transpire depends crucially on Mulla Mansour’s ability to rally the Taliban ranks behind him despite questions being raised about whether and why he hid the facts about Mulla Omar’s demise for so long. One extreme view amongst his Taliban rivals is that he himself may have done away with Mulla Omar to seize control of the movement. Whatever the truth, and it may well never be fully known, on Mulla Mansour and the new leadership of the Taliban rests the heavy burden of carrying the peace process forward in the interests of a settling of the decades-old conflict in Afghanistan and its deleterious fallout on Pakistan and the region (not to mention further afield all over the world).

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