Prospectively, the Taliban unity will hinge on whether or not it wants to integrate into a peaceful political process, writes Andrey Kazantsev, Director of the Analytical Center of the MGIMO University’s Institute for International Studies. Paradoxically, it will be of more use for its internal unity if the Taliban just attempts to seize power under the pretext of imposing peace (which means continuing the civil war in a different guise).
Afghanistan is witnessing a complex drama that involves two overlapping, if different, processes. One of these is the signing of the US-Taliban peace agreement, and the other is the final vote count in the Afghan presidential election.
As is common knowledge, Kabul hosted two presidential inauguration ceremonies, with one for the incumbent president, Ashraf Ghani. The function was attended by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, the commander of the US forces and NATO ambassadors. But Ghani’s opponents believe the elections were rigged and inaugurated Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah as president. The vote itself was held in September, but the results could not be announced for a long time because of ballot-counting problems (as well as numerous accusations of procedural violations). Eventually Ghani did announce the results, with the US administration promptly declaring that it was opposed to “parallel governance,” a clear sign of support for Ghani. In fact, however, the Afghan government is paralyzed by the standoff between Abdullah (backed primarily by the Afghan Tajiks) and Ghani (who represents the Pashtuns).
A parallel drama unfolding in Afghanistan is linked to an element in the US-Taliban agreement. Ghani was refusing to release Taliban prisoners (a provision in the agreement), something that, in principle, could even torpedo the arrangement. It is easy to understand Ghani: the agreement seals the pullout of US troops, whose presence is the basis of his government. After the US withdrawal, the Taliban’s integration may follow the scenario that played out during the final act of the Najibullah presidency, when the mujahideen seized power and started slaughtering their enemies. Ghani is in power as the main representative of the Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. But if the Taliban represent the Pashtuns, Ghani’s political clout will certainly shrink. Abdullah, for his part, positioned himself as a supporter of the agreement (but in reality things are much more complicated, because he is backed by the former Tajik field commanders from the Northern Alliance, who have the potential and will oppose the Taliban in the event of a resumed civil war).
The important question is whether or not the deal will work, if efforts to uphold it succeed? This begs yet another question: Is the Taliban as monolithic as it seems to be and will it be possible to keep in check field commanders displeased with the US deal?
Regrettably, the Taliban is not monolithic at all, which makes it difficult for any agreements negotiated with them to succeed. Tentatively, the movement could be divided into three groups. One of these groups consists of the Taliban governing echelon located mostly in Pakistan and the field commanders under their control. It is this group that boasts the best organization and held talks with the Americans. The Taliban governing echelon has had close ties with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from the start, although it cannot be claimed, as some Afghan critics of Pakistan do, that the ISI exerts full influence over Taliban policies. Properly speaking, it is this group that is often referred to as the Taliban. The Americans have been negotiating with them for years, always with the aim of driving a wedge between the moderate Islamic nationalists and the international terrorists and jihadists with an international agenda.
The second group is a totality of armed militants headed by field commanders, who have local interests and sources of funding (largely criminal, such as control over the production and trade of opiates). This group is generally apolitical and will pursue its own local agendas.
The third part comprises groups (including non-Afghan ones) that are in contact with both the Taliban and various international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda . In Afghanistan, there are many groups that, depending on their source of funding, switched allegiance from the Taliban to ISIS (ISIS-Khorasan) and back. If the peace agreement with the Americans is perceived as a “betrayal” by a part of the Taliban, this wing may be reinforced considerably not only by those seeking new foreign sources of funding but also by committed “radicals.”
It must be mentioned that Al-Qaeda has always collaborated with the Taliban rather closely, a factor that basically led to the US invasion of Afghanistan, and it has proved impossible to sever that link to this day. On the other hand, the Taliban was involved in a confrontation with ISIS-Khorasan in eastern Afghanistan. But many Russian and Central Asian experts believe that this confrontation was not so obvious in the north, where the “change of flag” phenomena occasioned by reversed sources of funding or a current situation were observed.
No less a problem is the great number of international terrorists from various ethnic groups (such as radicals from post-Soviet Central Asia, militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan , Uyghurs from China, natives of the Russian Northern Caucasus, etc.). More likely than not, these groups will carry on with some form or other of international jihad.
Prospectively, the Taliban unity will hinge on whether or not it wants to integrate into a peaceful political process. Paradoxically, it will be of more use for its internal unity if the Taliban just attempts to seize power under the pretext of imposing peace (which means continuing the civil war in a different guise). Common enemies are a strong unifying factor. But if the Taliban starts to transform into a political force, the likelihood of splits seems even greater.