The Taliban sanctions

THE initiation of the intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha has raised optimism about achieving political reconciliation in Afghanistan. The stakeholders are apparently aware that this could be a patchy and lengthy process, and that they may need to review their positions from time to time during the whole discourse.

One critical issue, which has factored in both the US-Taliban deal as well as the commencement of intra-Afghan dialogue, is the Afghan Taliban’s relationship with foreign militants in Afghanistan. There are indications that the Taliban have begun a review process to address this concern of Afghan and external stakeholders.

Former Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan, who escaped from custody a few months ago, surprised many last week with a tweet in which he claimed that an Afghan Taliban delegation was negotiating new terms with the TTP for the latter’s stay in Afghanistan. According to him, the Taliban have come up with 27 rules for foreign militant groups, including Al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and the TTP. These conditions also include not using Afghan territory against any other country.

Ehsan also claimed that the Afghan Taliban have made it mandatory for foreign militants to register themselves with full identification with them. Foreign militants have also been asked to pledge to not recruit new fighters, stay in the places designated by the Taliban, and inform the latter about their movements.

One critical issue remains the Taliban’s relationship with foreign militants in Afghanistan.

The TTP has reportedly rejected these terms, but both sides have decided to continue talks.

Though independent sources have not verified the claim, it is understandable why the Afghan Taliban would issue such instructions to foreign militants. They made a commitment in the Doha deal, reached on Feb 29, that they would not allow any terrorist individual or group to use Afghan soil against the US and its allies.

The foreign militants issue will certainly come under discussion in the intra-Afghan dialogue at some point, and the Afghan Taliban may share some plans, including granting foreign militants citizenship if they commit to living there peacefully. The Taliban’s recent conditions for foreign militants also seem to indicate this may be a possibility. Such a proposal echoes the Dayton Accords, 1995, between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. At the time of the agreement, the total number of foreign fighters in Bosnia — who had entered the country from 1992 to 1994 and fought along with the Bosnian civil defence forces — was estimated to be as many as 5,000. Many fighters were integrated as a separate battalion within the Bosnian Armed Forces. These fighters were required to leave the Balkans under the Dayton Agreement’s terms, but the majority stayed there and a third were granted Bosnian citizenship.

It is not certain if the Taliban’s potential offer would work for all foreign militants — the TTP’s accepting to stay peacefully under the Afghan Taliban’s patronage is especially highly doubtful — but the experiment produced mixed results in Bosnia, and only a few had continued their militant activities. After 9/11, pressure on the Bosnian authorities increased; as a result, more than 1,000 citizenships were revoked.

However, it will be hard for the TTP to accept the Afghan Taliban’s conditions, as the group would not want to abandon its stance against Pakistan. Meanwhile, the TTP might try to relocate its infrastructure in Pakistan. However, there is very little probability that it would be able to hold any territory inside Pakistan for long or run its operations effectively on the ground. If it changes its strategies and splits the group into small circles and cells, it could sustain terror operations for a while, but in the long run its organisational structure will weaken and internal differences will ultimately create a crisis within the rank and file. In that case, sectarian groups could take more prominent leadership roles.

The second option the TTP will consider is to operate as a proxy of nations hostile to Pakistan. In that case, it would stay in Afghanistan, but maintaining its relationship with the Afghan Taliban would become complex. The TTP’s nexus with IS in Afghanistan could become a probability, but both have a history of accusing each other of being proxies of their enemies. Even their nexus would not create a big impact, as IS is a weak organisation and not in a position to provide any financial, politico-ideological or operational support to the TTP.

From the TTP’s angle, the least promising option would be to accept a possible surrender-and-reconciliation option offered by Pakistan; the Afghan Taliban could help such a deal. The chances of such a deal are, however, very bleak, as the TTP’s leadership has not accepted such offers even in the past. Nonetheless, the Afghanistan situation has brought the TTP at a crossroads once again. On the one hand, its leadership is trying to unify its factions to fight against Pakistan, and on the other it has the fear of losing the patronage of the Afghan Taliban.

Al Qaeda’s case is different. It may show more flexibility to the Taliban conditions. During the Doha talks between the US and Taliban, reports appeared that the Taliban had consulted Al Qaeda’s leadership before signing the deal. It is not possible that the US would not be aware of it. The US, Afghanistan and Nato countries will not have serious concerns if Al Qaeda’s leadership guarantees that it is going to live peacefully in Afghanistan. The recent statement by the Al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued on Sept 11, 2020, did not mention the US and Afghan Taliban deal. Analysts perceive it in the context of increasing pressure on the group by the Taliban. Secondly, Al Qaeda’s leadership wants to remain calm unless they find another place to relocate. Al Qaeda will not try to sabotage the peace process in Afghanistan and will hope that the Taliban come to power, which may change all the equations for the group again.