‘Former Taliban’ in the Afghan peace puzzle

Frequently propped up as potential mediators, can former members of the Taliban government influence the peace process?

taliban minister
Karzai’s peace process has been in disarray since the killing of his chief negotiator, former President Rabbani [EPA]

For months, Burhanhuddin Rabbani, the elderly statesman charged by the Afghan president to explore peace talks with the Taliban, communicated with a man he thought was an emissary for the armed movement’s senior leadership.

Abdul Hakim Mujahed, Rabbani’s deputy and the highest ranking “former member of Taliban” in the peace council, perceived as an important interlocutor in the talks, had not been consulted about the commutations.

The emissary turned out to be a suicide bomber, detonating the explosives in his Turban when Rabbani opened his embrace for a customary hug, killing the former president, and derailing the peace process.

“For four or five months, Rabbani was communicating with those people who became the reason of his death,” Mujahed, the deputy head of High Peace Council, set up by president Hamid Karzai in September 2010, and a former Taliban ambassador to the UN, told Al Jazeera. “As the first deputy of the peace council, I only became aware that they were pursuing dialogue with him after Rabbani’s death.”

Whenever reports of peace talks with the Taliban or the possibility of opening a political office for them make the headlines, the names of four “former Taliban” – Mujahed being one of them – inevitably come up. They are considered  possible mediators who can bring the three sides- the Afghan government, the international coalition, and the armed Taliban – closer together for a political settlement to end the decade-long conflict.


These individuals have exposure to the outside world, the reports suggest, having respectively served as the Taliban regime’s foreign minister, their ambassador to Pakistan, ambassador to the UN, and their minister of education. Uninvolved in the military side of the group, they understand diplomacy, and are “relatively moderate” voices who can bridge the divide. But perhaps, most importantly, they maintain close relations with the leadership of the Taliban, a movement without a clear address. Surely, they must be at the heart of the existing peace process.

But in interviews conducted with these individuals, government officials, western diplomats, and analysts, a different picture emerges – that perhaps, the notion that these former Taliban are playing an instrumental role is misguided.

Having been based in Kabul for most of the past decade – as they were either arrested by coalition forces and then released, or they broke away from the Taliban in the early stages – many doubt their closeness to the armed movement, which has changed significantly in its make up over the past decade, embracing younger, more autonomous factions. From the former Taliban’s own perspective, they have not been provided an opportunity with appropriate conditions to work towards a settlement. From the government’s perspective, President Karzai does not trust them enough because he believes they have edged closer to the UK and the US.

Eide, the former UN special envoy to Afghanistan [EPA]

Nevertheless, western analysts say the four individuals play an important consultative role, helping them understand what might be driving the armed opposition.

“I maintained a regular dialogue with them throughout my time in Kabul and I have continued to see them after my return to Norway,” said Kai Eide, the former UN special envoy to Afghanistan, and the author of upcoming book Struggle over Afghanistan

During his term, Eide insisted that a military solution in Afghanistan was impossible. He is credited for promoting the idea of a political settlement, and beginning the process to establish some contact with the Taliban leadership.

“To me, their views were important inputs in order to understand the other side, what drives the Taliban and what were the opportunities and constraints of a possible peace process.”

Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Kandahar-based researcher who has studied the Taliban extensively, said the media focuses on these individuals because they are well known faces – even if they might not carry as much influence.

“I wouldn’t completely discount them. Yet at the same time, I feel that every time this discussion comes up, the media focusses on these four names partly because they are familiar with these people. And their willingness to talk to the media encourages that.”

Ideology vs influence

Neither of the four individuals, now deemed “former Taliban”, are apologetic about their views, politically or religiously – a reason, perhaps, for why the Taliban do not regard them as sell-outs despite their opting out of armed resistance. They have consistently spoken out against the military presence, claiming the war was forced on the Taliban.

The extent of the influence each one of the individuals carry varies, analysts say.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, is perhaps closest to the movement’s leadership, both because of the consistency of his views, and because immediately after the US invasion, he was arrested in Pakistan and sent to Guantanamo. His time in Guantanamo – described vividly in a book he wrote subsequent to his release – has helped him maintain his credibility as someone who did not capitulate, van Linschoten said.

“There is a quote in Zaeef’s book which reads ‘I was a Talib, I am a Talib, and I will always be a Talib’. That sums up Zaeef there.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera Zaeef said: “In political terms, when a friend from a group sits at home – whether willingly, or forced – he remains friends with the group until he joins another. I have maintained my stance, and I have not joined any other party or group.”

A second “former Talib” who has maintained a similar position to Zaeef is his former boss and foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil. Unlike Zaeef, who frequently speaks to the media and attends international conferences, the soft-spoken Muttawakil has kept a low profile.

“Those people who are sitting in Kabul, they are no longer members of the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] and cannot represent our views.”

– Taliban spokesman

Responding to whether the Taliban might actually consider them as sell-outs for opting out of the resistance, Muttawakil told Al Jazeera:  “Even during the Taliban government, my efforts were diplomatic, and not military. I worked for them because I believed in the goal they were pursuing. I have no reason to fear, because I still believe in those goals, and pursue them on a personal capacity.”

The armed Taliban have made it clear that these individuals no longer represent them, yet they shy away from condemning their actions.

“Those people who are sitting in Kabul, they are no longer members of the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] and cannot represent our views. They are individuals, on their own capacity,” Zabiullah Mujahed, a spokesman for the Taliban, told Al Jazeera.

“Some are there because they were jailed, and some went on their own will. Today, Afghanistan needs a unity against foreigners. What these guys did or did not is not much of an issue for us.”

Analyst van Linschoten says not everyone in the active Taliban senior leadership in Karachi and elsewhere are happy with these  former Taliban for being in public so much.

“They feel like these guys aren’t fighting or making the sacrifices. But if there were these harsh feelings, there would statements, action. There would a stronger effort to discredit them, or even target them for assassinations.”

Muttawakil and Zaeef, under government protection, have been running their own foundation for promoting Islamic education. On the side, they have also been monitoring the conditions of Taliban prisoners, and facilitating between the Afghan government and their families for better care, or even the release of some of the prisoners.

The two other prominent former Taliban – their UN envoy Mujahed, and their education minister, Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani – have been closer to president Karzai’s government from the outset, and therefore their influence with the Taliban might be much less, says Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst who was a senior official in the Taliban foreign ministry.

Lack of trust?

“Rahmani and I re-established our own political party very early into the new government and we no longer speak under the Taliban name,” Mujahed told Al Jazeera. Zaeef and Muttawakil did not distance themselves from the movement’s identity, Mujahed said.

President Karzai picked Rahmani as a senator – as part of a quota that the Afghan constitution allows the president. Both men were also announced as members of the High Council for Peace in September 2010, with Mujahed being appointed as deputy head of the council.

Muttawakil and Zaeef are not part of the peace council, and have not participated in the two grand assemblies that Karzai called to rally support for mechanisms of reaching out to the Taliban.

“They don’t trust President Karzai’s ability to bring the Taliban to the table. That is why many of them opted out of the High Peace Council and the recent Jirga,” a former senior official close to the president told Al Jazeera. 

“And President Karzai does not trust them much, and sees them as playing the hands of the Americans and the British. He thinks they are particularly close with the British.”

Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan

Nevertheless, they have been consulted on the sidelines of a peace effort that seems to be purused on multiple tracks, rather than through a transparent, unified process.

“We have discussed the matter in international conferences, in private meetings, and with our president as well. But the way they want to use us in this process is a bit difficult for us to accept,” Zaeef says.

“They have asked us to put forward some proposals to the Taliban. But that is using us in a way that will not help us reach to the ultimate goal of peace.”

Zaeef says he does not believe that the government’s efforts to try to peel away lower and mid-level Taliban as part of a “reintegration programme” will work.

“This will never solve our problem. The alternative, a reconciliation which involves compromise, in my view, the Afghan government has not invested in.”

The Iran angle

In his last trip abroad just before his death, Rabbani attended the Islamic Awakening Conference hosted by Iran’s Supreme Leader in Tehran.

Among the guests, invited by the Iranian government, was an official Taliban delegation, including Tayeb Agha, the man purportedly leading the Taliban side of talks.

“Tayeb Agha was in the list of people invited to the Iran conference,” said analyst Muzhda, who attended the conference with Rabbani.


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Former Taliban leaders, some of whom also attended the conference, confirmed that an official Taliban delegation was there, but said Tayeb Agha was not part of that delegation.

“What is important is not the individual, but that they had invited them as official representatives of the movement,” said Mujahed, the former envoy to the UN. “Tayeb Agha might be alive today, and dead tomorrow. But the movement was represented, that’s important.”

Muzhda claims that Tayeb Agha has been based in Iran for some time now, after escaping arrest in Pakistan when Mullah Baradar, the deputy head of the Taliban, was picked up by Pakistani authorities in February 2010.

He says both Tayeb Agha and Baradar were edging closer to Iran, which made Pakistani authorities uncomfortable. Tayeb Agha fled to Iran and has most likely been operating on an official basis there, he says.

Al Jazeera could not independently confirm his claim. Taliban sources said they had heard of such rumours, but had seen no substantial evidence to back it. A senior former Afghan official aware of the matter said it was unlikely that Tayeb Agha was based in Iran, or that Taliban had an office there, but confirmed that Iran has had relations with the Taliban.

“There has always been a line of contact between [the] Taliban and Iran. Always,” he said.

A spokesman for the Iranian government could not be reached for comment. The Afghan embassy in Tehran did not respond to interview requests.

Most recently, the British ambassador to Afghanistan claimed that they had evidence that Iran was sending weapons to the Taliban, which if true, would suggest some level of political presence in Iran to coordinate that effort.

“Iran wants to have some ability to project its influence inside Afghanistan, against the American forces.”

– van Linschoten

“The weapons thing doesn’t seem to be happening in any large scale way. Otherwise they [western officials] would hold up these weapons, and we would have these accusations much more often,” van Linschoten. But he agrees that Iran is maintaining some level of relationship with the Taliban.

“Iranians are hatching their bets in the events that anything happens inside Iran – let’s say America makes some attacks on nuclear installations. Iran wants to have some ability to project its influence inside Afghanistan, against the American forces.”

Once an interpreter at the ministry of foreign affairs, Tayeb Agha is from the younger generation of the Taliban who rose up to be a close confidant of the Mullah Omar. In the past couple of years, his name has come up repeatedly, as leading the Taliban side of talks for the possibility of opening a political office for the movement. He has reportedly met with western and Afghan officials in Qatar and Germany.

But whether Tayeb Agha is the person responsible for the talks – as reported by the media – is in doubt. Mujahed says the person leading the Taliban’s response has changed often, “from Tayeb Agha, to Mullah Mohamed Hassan, to Agha Jan. It keeps changing”.

A former senior government official aware of the talks also said Tayeb Agha might no longer be the designated representative of the Taliban because he was “compromised by ‘jealous and nervous’ elements in Kabul which felt left out from talks”.

Most recently, in reports that an office was being opened in Qatar – which was met with anger by the Afghan government – another name was thrown around. Some suggested that Mullah Jan Mohamed Madani, a former Taliban chargé d’affaires to the UAE, might be poised to lead the office when it is set up. But Mujahed ruled out the reports.

“Madani is a poor soul, both intellectually and diplomatically. I doubt he is playing an important role.”

Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter: @mujmash

Source: Al Jazeera