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Since the revelation of the death of Mullah Omar in mid-2015, the Afghan Taliban have been in turmoil. Mullah Mansoor has come out on top as leader. However, the opposition to him has not accepted his selection and has organised itself in a sort of parallel structure under the leadership of Mullah Rasool. In a recent interview, Rasool sheds light on the current situation and the implications for reconciliation efforts.
The two factions led by Mullah Mansoor and Mullah Rasool have battled each other in various provinces throughout Afghanistan. The sides declared a ceasefire at the end of December, which collapsed in mid-February, leading to renewed infighting. While Mansoor, the new leader of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, and the Quetta Shura were expected (at least according to Pakistani promises) to start talking again to the Afghan government in early March, there is a question as to the strength of Mansoor’s following among the Taliban. There is controversy over how many Taliban Mansoor actually represents – US diplomatic sources recently asserted in private conversations that he has 80–90 per cent of the Taliban supporting him, while Taliban sources across the spectrum of Taliban groupings suggest a much more limited reach: around 55–60 per cent of the movement formally endorses him as leader. Rasool’s new outfit, what some Taliban refer to as the ‘New Quetta Shura’ – to distinguish it from the organisation under Mansoor’s leadership – is allied with other Taliban factions in Mashhad and Peshawar. Together, these account for 40–45 per cent of the diverse group.
Whatever the exact numbers of supporters on either side, little effort has been made to understand what Mansoor’s avowed rival, Rasool, might think about the prospect of reconciliation with the National Unity Government. In the wake of the splits within the Taliban towards the end of 2015 when he set up an alternative Quetta Shura, Rasool has been pushing to establish his own nationwide base. This analysis is an initial attempt to parse the prominent insurgent’s views of the current prospects for reconciliation, drawing on an interview with Rasool himself conducted in Pakistan at the end of February.
Rasool predictably condemns attempts to negotiate with Mansoor as doomed to fail because he claims, rightly or wrongly, that Mansoor does not have the majority of the Taliban behind him. Moreover, he is not a legitimate leader of the Taliban but just the boss of one of several factions. Finally, he questions his motives, claiming that he is pursuing personal interests and not peace-making. It should be noted that Mansoor has been accused in the past of having amassed considerable personal wealth while controlling much of the Taliban’s finances. More specifically, Rasool argues not only that several key components of the Taliban, like the Peshawar Shura and the Mashhad office, have yet to endorse Mansoor, but also that many Taliban who have endorsed Mansoor are not ready to follow him through his reconciliation approach towards Kabul, if that meant sacrificing the values and beliefs for which the Taliban have fought.
Rasool explains that he is not opposed to reconciliation in principle. What he opposes is Mansoor’s hegemony over the process as far as the Taliban are concerned:
Earlier we were thinking that the Afghan Government wanted peace talks with all Taliban, but when we saw that it is interested only in making peace with Mullah Mansur because of the dictates of the Pakistani Government, we decided we cannot start peace talks with the Afghan Government.
He says clearly that he will not sit in the same reconciliation meetings with Mansoor, whose claim to leadership he considers spurious, nor will he start a separate reconciliation track. He will negotiate only when Mansoor abandons plans for reconciliation or is excluded from them.
Rasool also positions himself as a more genuine defender of Taliban principles than Mansoor: he would not compromise on demands which would insert more elements of Sharia into the Afghan Constitution (whatever that might mean in practice), nor on the preliminary withdrawal of Western military forces, both points on which Mansoor had seemed willing to compromise or even to drop during the July meeting in Murree, Pakistan, that brought together the Taliban and the government in Kabul for the first time. Rasool also hints that power-sharing with the Taliban must involve substantial concessions to the Taliban; when asked to quantify this he mentioned a 50-50 power-sharing agreement as his own target. It is not clear how far this proposal is from Mansoor’s demands.
During the interview he raised the issue that the quadrilateral approach (involving US, Chinese, Pakistani and Afghan diplomats working together to re-launch negotiations with the Taliban) does not sufficiently represent the variety of regional interests; excluding Iran, in particular, will in his view result in the failure of reconciliation efforts.
Inevitably, says Rasool, reconciliation and power-sharing will not lead to an inclusive post-settlement coalition. Rasool considers some elements of the current Kabul regime to be irreconcilable and should be marginalised before formal talks can start.
The fact that Rasool felt the need to signal his availability for talks under certain conditions is significant, because it is probably somehow encouraged by the Iranians, even if Rasool denies this. Significantly, Rasool seems to argue that Tehran should be brought into the picture, otherwise peace cannot be achieved. He considers the participation of those Taliban linked to Iran in the peace process as essential. Ideally, he argued, the Taliban should all come together and have a new ‘election’ process to select a leader acceptable to all groups, with clearly agreed rules about who has voting rights among the group’s notable figures.
While a sensible point, this idea is undermined by his claim that he and other Taliban linked to Iran would not accept negotiating with Kabul at least until the Afghan government talks to Mansoor. Rasool positions himself slightly closer than Mansoor to what the bulk of the Taliban cadres and commanders would seem to consider their preferred option: negotiating only in the presence of major concessions from Kabul. Rasool also states that the Taliban have no reason to compromise on their positions, since the military situation favours them. If Kabul will not accept the Taliban’s concessions, they are going to strike hard and score some prominent battlefield successes in a show of strength. Overall he gives the impression of wanting to leave the door open to talks, but also of being mostly interested in competing with Mansoor for the support of the Taliban’s rank and file.
Antonio Giustozzi is a RUSI fellow and Silab Mangal is an Afghan journalist based in Kabul.