Afghanistan Analysts Network
Two men sit next to an Afghan national flag at the Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop overlooking Kabul on 1 September 2020. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/ AFP
The talks were supposed to start several times since the US-Taleban agreement was signed on 29 February. Six months have passed since the first date was set for 10 March with both the Taleban and the Afghan government accusing each other of delaying the process. The main obstacle was over prisoner release (5,000 Taleban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 prisoners held by the Taleban). The last batch of 400 fighters (deemed especially dangerous by the government) held things up, as did the slow establishment of a central body of the government’s peace architecture, the High Council for National Reconciliation (see a recent AAN analysis here). The first session is expected to be “an icebreaker”, according to sources in Kabul. A contact close to the Taleban in Doha said that they expected the meeting to “set conditions and procedures for the next ones.”
Time to look at a few central questions regarding the process ahead.
Who is sitting at the table?
The government side
The Afghan government has two entities charged with forging peace: a “negotiating team” of 21 members which will largely be at the table, and an unwieldy supervisory structure which is meant to guide the negotiating team, the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR).
- The negotiating team
The Afghan government set up its “inclusive” negotiation team consisting of 21 people in March (for details and critical reactions from civil society and Taleban see this earlier despatch; for the full list with some biographical details see footnote (1)). Many members are current and former officials as well as representatives of factions and parties. While there are some senior figures included, there is a notable imbalance in the makeup of the team as compared with the more senior list of the Taleban (elaborated on further below), who even included members of its leadership council into their negotiating team.
The negotiation team is led by Masum Stanekzai, a Ghani stalwart, who also sits on the HCNR. He has significant – and diverse – experience dealing with the Taleban. He previously headed the country’s intelligence service, the National Directory of Security (NDS), and was acting Minister of Defence. However, before leading the fight against the Taleban, he led peace efforts, serving from 2009 as CEO of the (now mostly defunct) High Peace Council. In that role, Stanekzai saw numerous attempts to achieve a breakthrough fail. He was also severely injured when, in 2011, an envoy of the insurgency ignited a bomb reportedly hidden in his turban, killing the head of the council, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani (see AAN reporting here). Stanekzai hails, by the way, from the same tribe as the Taleban deputy chief negotiator, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai. Both are from Logar province.
Others on the team notably include political figures who are close relatives of many of the most powerful politicians and warlords of the country: Matin Bek, son of the assassinated north-eastern Afghan mujahedin commander Mutaleb Bek (also presidential advisor and former head of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, IDLG); Bator Dostum, son of Jombesh party leader Abdul Rashid Dostum; and Khaled Nur, son of former Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur. Fatema Gailani is the daughter of former mujahedin leader Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani (with a prominent role herself as one of the early few women politicians and former head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society). Ghairat Bahir is a member of Hezb-e Islami and son-in-law of leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (AAN was told on 4 September that Bahir and Gailani may not travel to Doha.)
To exclude these political factions would have been to risk derailing the talks with the Jihadis and the Taleban claiming that the negotiators team was not ‘representative’ or heavyweight enough. Another motivation may have been to ‘keep them close’, as some jihadi circles have been known to switch sides. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar already claimed in an interview that “parties” had started their own negotiations, as there was “no consensus between government and political parties on the Afghan peace process.” International observers confirmed that these talks have been ongoing for months. Whatever the reason, the jihadi factions end up with double the influence on the peace process, with some of the most powerful elders also sitting on (or at least invited to) the HCNR.
Among the negotiators there are only four women – including some outspoken characters known for being very critical of the Taleban, for example Fawzia Kufi, a politician linked to elements of the former ‘Northern Alliance’ and a leading women’s rights activist. She was attacked by unknown men while on the road near Kabul and slightly injured mid-August. Some claimed this happened in order to derail the peace process (though it comes amid a wider trend of increased targeted attacks by the Taleban). The Taleban denied responsibility for the attack. Another attack hit and injured HCNR member, First Vice President and outspoken Taleban critic Amrullah Saleh on 9 September, killing ten civilians. The interior ministry pointed fingers towards the Haqqanis. Again, the Taleban denied responsibility. US Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad spoke of “spoilers” trying to disrupt the “historic” peace talks.
- The High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR)
The HCNR is supposed to oversee the negotiations, and is headed by President Ghani’s rival Abdullah Abdullah, according to the 17 May power sharing agreement. The agreement put Abdullah in charge of the peace process, meaning the negotiating team will report to him and work “under the guidance of the leadership committee” of the HCNR. The decisions of the leadership committee of the HCNR will be based on a majority of votes and will be final and “binding.”
However, the authority of Abdullah and potentially the HCNR already seems to have been watered down in reality. In earlier reporting AAN discussed whether Ghani would be ready to hand over authority over the peace process to his rival Abdullah. The fact that the council, on 29 August, was appointed by presidential decree, rather than by Abdullah, with Ghani inserting allies into key positions, indicates that Ghani has no intention of ceding power over the process. Abdullah was furious, pointing out that this undermined his role to appoint the High Council. There were also objections from other factions, including former President Hamed Karzai and Hekmatyar (full list of appointees and reactions in this recent AAN analysis).
This is possibly why senior figures around Ghani keep trying to undermine the power of the HCNR. A close aid of the president, National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, told Afghan media on 31 August that the HCNR was not the decision-maker and that any deal with the insurgency would require the approval of the “people” or a loya jirga (grand assembly – which in turn is organised and steered by the government, see this AAN dossier). Chief negotiator and Ghani ally Masum Stanekzai echoed this in a tweet on 3 September which said the recent Consultative Peace Loya Jirga had provided the “roadmap for direct peace talks.” (See the salient points of the final resolution of the jirga in this despatch). Between the lines, Stanekzai was basically saying there was no real need for the “guidance” of the HCNR.
There is more at stake in these disputes than the usual scramble for positions and power. Many of those at the negotiating table or on the High Council see these formations as potential precursors to an interim government, particularly those who over the past years felt side-lined by the Ghani government. This applies to many of the old jihadi commanders, but also to Abdullah, who has been supporting the idea of an interim government, presumably foreseeing a stronger role within it, even if he’d be sharing power with more factions. But the net result is yet more public discord and a fractured front compared to the Taleban, who look relatively united, at least from the outside.
The Taleban side
Like the Afghan government, the Taleban sent 21 people in their negotiation team, as spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed tweeted on 5 September. Unsurprisingly, all are men. An official full list has not yet been released (spokesman Naim Wardak told AAN this would happen at an “appropriate time”), so some of the membership has been compiled via mentions in official statements (for example here and here) and overlapping versions of the staffing list leaked to journalists and others. (For a list of the confirmed candidates and other likely candidates including some biographical details check footnote (2)).
It seems that overall the selection aims to represent the most powerful families and sub-networks within the movement as well as influential tribes and ethnic groups. The mix also seems well weighted between religious scholars, military commanders and political thinkers. But while the government has dispatched mostly mid-ranking former and current officials to the table, the Taleban are fielding real heavyweights – for example senior commanders and known members of the Leadership Council (‘Quetta Shura’) who were close to the founder of the movement, Mullah Omar.
The head of the delegation is the current Chief Justice of the Taleban, Sheikh Abdul Hakim, a religious scholar and a Kandahari, thus representative of the movement’s main region of influence. Spokesman Mujahed confirmed him as chief negotiator. Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, a former head of the political bureau of the Taleban in Doha, is his deputy.
Other influential members of the group include Mawlawi Abdul Kabir (confirmed), a Taleban official who held a number of previous jobs (for example Governor of Nangarhar province, military commander for the eastern zone and acting Prime Minister). According to AAN research, he is known for his political savviness and management skills. Also on the list is Mullah Shirin (confirmed), a military commander who was once in charge of organising Mullah Omar’s personal security. He has been accused by the Afghan government of being behind the killing of Kandahar’s police chief General Abdul Raziq, who held the Taleban at bay with ruthless methods. Among the representatives of powerful families is Anas Haqqani (reported here and here), brother of current Haqqani clan leader and deputy Taleban chief Serajuddin Haqqani. Anas was in an Afghan jail for five years before he was released in a prisoner swap at the end of 2019.
Also included are some or all of the so called ‘Guantanamo Five’: Taleban officials who were imprisoned by the US in Guantanamo Bay until a prisoner swap in 2014. These are the former Governor of Herat, Khairullah Khairkhwa (confirmed), former Chief of Army Staff Fazl Mazlum (also known as Mullah Fazl), former Northern Zone Commander Nurullah Nuri, and former Deputy Head of Intelligence Abdul Haq Wasiq. There is also Abdul Nabi Omari who at the time of his detention did not play an important role, but who has been catapulted into the leadership sphere through his time in US detention. In October 2018, the whole group of former Guantanamo prisoners was appointed to the Taleban’s political bureau in Doha (see media reporting for example here).
Where these influential men stand in terms of reconciliation and reintegration remains foggy as of yet. AAN’s Kate Clark wrote at the time of their release “they may be useful for negotiations or many years in detention may have hardened them to thoughts of compromise.” However, AAN said that Khairkhwa and Nuri were previously “known as moderates within the movement.”
Khairkhwa certainly made some moderate statements in an interview with Al Jazeera on 12 July, in which he said that the Taleban understood very well that taking power by force will never end the conflicts in Afghanistan (Al Jazeera translation from Arabic, minute 8.21), and acknowledged that Afghan society was not the same compared to 2001 (minute 23.09).
In contrast, a recent paper by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on Taleban perspectives on peace quotes a recording of Fazl, distributed via audiotape to fighters in Afghanistan, in which he assures them that “the movement would insist on three core demands during negotiations: the Taliban is to choose the leader of Afghanistan’s future government, the future government must be an emirate and it is to be based entirely on Sharia.” However, according to the ICG, Fazl had also been instrumental in “persuading the leadership council to accept the final terms in the agreement with the U.S., including its late-stage insistence that the agreement’s formal signing be preceded by a seven-day “reduction of violence”, a move that triggered great suspicion.”
What Will Be On The Agenda?
Neither side has officially disclosed opening demands, but two main points are likely to come up fast – a ceasefire and state formation.
Abdullah Abdullah has said that the Kabul team’s immediate interest is a ceasefire. The government tried to make it a pre-requisite for talks but the Taleban insisted that it should be a topic and possible outcome of the talks themselves. An “immediate and permanent ceasefire” was also a core demand by the participants of the recent Consultative Peace Loya Jirga. There is a pragmatic reason for this focus, as admitted by one government negotiator who told AAN that it is one of the few topics the divided government representatives can agree on, especially on the HCNR. Even on this one issue, though, different options seem to be on the table for the Kabul team: a country wide ceasefire, a humanitarian ceasefire only, or another broader reduction in violence.
For the Taleban, the battlefield is their primary source of power, so for them a ceasefire is a very different calculation. They may determine that the government urgently needs the pause for its severely strained forces and the political success for its legitimacy, and therefore refuse to agree to an immediate ceasefire, instead using the issue as leverage to secure some goals of their own.
The Taleban would certainly be capable of enforcing a ceasefire if it suited them, as the examples over Eid in 2020 and their first ceasefire in June 2018 have shown. However, such a decision would not be without risks for them. The ICG paper cites Taleban concerns that without the threat of violence they’d lose too much leverage, as well as a fear that a ceasefire might cause the fight to lose momentum, with a Taleban source saying that “it is difficult to warm up the mujahidin after cooling them down”. AAN has previously pointed towards the psychological risks of stopping the fighting. During the 2018 ceasefire Taleban fighters were welcomed exuberantly by many in the population, which also allowedfraternisation between Taleban and pro-government fighters. The government claimed that many Taleban fighters quit the movement on that occasion, which may be why during following ceasefires or reductions in violence, the leadership prevented fighters from visiting urban areas.
Ashley Jackson, Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), who has been observing the group’s recent conduct, finds there might be “more openness” to a ceasefire demand than in the past. “They could very well do that and surprise people,” says Jackson, pointing to the “credibility” the group could win. Strategic wording may help bring this about: the Taleban may not agree to a “ceasefire” as such, as it is the government’s term, but possibly to another “reduction in violence”.
- State (re)formation
For the Afghan government, preservation of the current ‘democratic’ system is a priority, along with keeping as much of the current constitution as is possible. The Taleban, though, have said they want an “Islamic” system for years while remaining vague on the details. An international source, who saw 11 or 12 discussion points the group had circulated in Doha before the talks, says the Taleban’s focus seems to remain along these lines for the talks: “Islam was on every line”, the contact said. “Islam and education, Islam and government, that’s how they were framing things. Their vision of an end of the war is to have a very different form of government.”
Another source close to the group claimed that initial demands may include establishing a transitional administration by abolishing both houses of parliament and replacing them by another assembly, as well as modifying the constitution by a comittee consisting of religious leaders and lawyers (this has been reported by media in a similar way, see here).
As far back as 2011, in contacts between Afghan government and Taleban, the Taleban included a demand for the revision of the constitution towards something more Islamic, and changes to the national security and judicial institutions, including the Attorney General’s Office. They also brought up the idea of creating an interim government (hukumat-e mu’aqat). (Their demands at the time also included foreign troop withdrawal and prisoner release, as AAN reported in this analysis.)
In general, Taleban contacts have told AAN that they wanted “reforms” (eslah) of the current government institutions to make them more ‘Islamic’. As AAN has reported, “Taleban representatives have also indicated in various meetings that they largely want changes in the personnel of the security and judicial institutions, but do not want to abolish them – to prevent, they argue, a repetition of events “after the fall of Dr Najib’s regime” when the government’s security forces disintegrated and members joined the various competing mujahedin factions.“ AAN determined from its observations that the Taleban may still be partial to re-establishing an Emirate, but their statements also “recognise the need for some political pragmatism and adaptability. Or at least, they want to pretend that they do.”
The lack of public clarity in the Taleban positions may partly be a negotiation strategy – or indicate a lack of internal consensus. The ICG in its recent analysis comes to the conclusion that the Taleban have “historically avoided the internal debate and risk to cohesion that would come with forging consensus on difficult questions of governance and ideology.“Internally, “the group has left many questions unanswered or permitted maximalist positions to flourish.”
Mixed Messages: Do the Taleban Want Peace?
The Taleban used to be adamant that they would only negotiate with the Americans, dismissing the Kabul government as a stooge. Now that they’ve already secured much of what they wanted from the Americans (withdrawal and prisoner release), it is not clear how committed they are to negotiations with the Afghan government. The ICG writes after talking to an experienced international Taleban interlocutor that the Taleban appear to be equally “poised to pursue political or military tracks as they evaluate adversaries’ actions and their opportunities to achieve their objectives through negotiations.”
The choice of high-level negotiators points to some real interest. Having a religious authority and high-ranking official from leadership circles such as Sheikh Abdul Hakim head the team sends the message that decision will be taken in line with Sharia (see media reporting to that effect also here). This might take the wind out of critics’ sails, since it is possible that there are some factions of the Taleban who remain skeptical about a political solution and some form of power sharing.
However, at the same time the Taleban keep sending mixed messages, resulting in fears among the population and government that the opaque movement may simply be going along with the talks to speed up the continued US withdrawal and then, with the Afghan National Security Forces further weakened and demoralized, take power by force. (US Defense Secretary Mark Esper in August said that troop numbers would be below 5,000 by the end of November – General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, on 9 September even put it at 4,500 by late October).
Mixed messages have come for example from the battlefield. The Taleban did offer a brief ceasefire over Eid al-Fitr in May and adhered to another over Eid al-Adha end of July. They have also ceased their attacks on international forces, as per the agreement with the US, and more or less stuck to a period of reduced violence in the days leading up to the US-Taleban agreement. But shortly after they resumed their fight. In the first half of 2020, they were already responsible for more civilian casualties than in the same time in 2019 (see AAN reporting here). Taleban researcher Ashley Jackson says, “they have expanded their checkpoints in the past six months by a factor of four. That is massive.” It does beg the question, as Jackson goes on, as to “whether this is about increasing leverage at the bargaining table or whether this is about preparing for when talks break down.”
Taleban statements also continue to indicate disregard for the Afghan government – an unfavourable pre-condition for peace talks. On August 15, for example, a Taleban spokesman published a piece on the movement’s al-Emarah website [Arabic for the Emirate], saying that “the Islamic Emirate does not recognise the Kabul administration as a government but views it as [a] western imported structure working for the continuation of American occupation.” The piece went on to say that the movement only accepted talks according to the Doha agreement, “and those are intra-Afghan negotiations that cover all parties to the Afghan conflict.” This framing clearly represents a Taleban view that the Afghan government is not speaking for the country but is merely one of many interested parties.
Is the Afghan Government Committed to Talks?
There are clearly some in the Afghan government who feel they’ve been bullied into these talks by the US, and that they are starting from a point of weakness, with the government’s two main bargaining chips already conceded to the Taleban by the US: Firstly, the presence of US troops – now in the final phase of US troop withdrawal, driven on by President Trump’s hopes that ‘bringing soldiers home from the country’s longest war’ will be a helpful narrative in the November US elections. Secondly, the large number of Taleban fighters in government prisons – almost 5,000 of which have now been released. Given this, there has been speculation that Ghani may hold out hope that the US elections in November remove Trump, and stop the troop withdrawal, giving him a better hand in the talks – or relieving the pressure on him to deal with the Taleban altogether.
To the extent that the factions within the government team are guided by narrow self-interests, the Ghani contingent certainly have disincentives to move towards what seems to be a possible outcome of talks – an interim government, which as mentioned above is something that the president and his supporters vehemently oppose. Cynics would say this is because it would dilute the president’s power. Supporters would say it is because they fear that the reforms and progress of recent years would be threatened in an interim arrangement, or that it would quickly disintegrate into open conflict. Either way, it does mean there are question marks over the degree of commitment from the president’s team.
Conclusion: What Are the Chances That Talks Succeed?
These will be talks between two very wary parties, and there are any number of contentious issues that can halt the process or make either party pull the plug on them altogether. If they don’t collapse quickly, they are likely to be a drawn out affair, with the two parties looking differently at fundamental questions, including how and in whom power should be vested – an emir, or theocracy, versus a ‘democratically’ elected government; what role a constitution should play; which rights citizens such as women or minorities should enjoy, and what the future make-up and leadership of the security forces including the possible integration of Taleban fighters could look like.
Altogether, the glue to this initiative – the US-Taliban agreement from February – is brittle. The Afghan government was excluded from that agreement, feeling forced into some of its key provisions (such as the prisoner release), and neither the Taleban nor the Afghan government much trust the US. By offering the biggest possible incentives to the Taleban – the withdrawal of their troops and prisoner release – the US managed to bring them to a table that for the longest time they did not want to sit at. However, should the withdrawal not be completed as agreed by May 2021, the Taleban might react by pulling away from the agreement.
So far, however, the Taleban have only made significant gains by talking. Afghanistan expert Marvin G. Weinbaum from the Middle East Institute recently observed in a commentary for The National Interest that “the Taliban delegates found that by standing firm they could push the Americans to yield on virtually all key points.” The phrase “giving away everything for nothing“ has been making the rounds among Afghan and international diplomats and politicians. This may well have already set the tone for the talks, making the government’s commitment tentative.
Yet another potential spoiler is the disunity and the competing interests among the Kabul delegates. With the Ghani administration dominating the decision-making of the negotiation team and HCNR and causing friction with Abdullah and jihadi circles, the Taleban have an opportunity to drive more wedges into the government team or peel influential members away. This could even leave the government at risk of facing a majority in favour of an interim government. It is likely that the Ghani administration would pull the plug on the talks if they headed in this direction.
The negotiations, which have great symbolic and emotional meaning for the country, will need some quick successes, if they are not to fail fast. But with the two most obvious subjects for discussion quite differently weighted – with the Taleban possibly defensive on ceasefire and the government defensive on state reform – it is not at all clear where an early breakthrough might be found, that might shore up this fragile beginning.
Edited by Rachel Reid and Thomas Ruttig
(1) The Kabul or ‘republican’ negotiation team
- Masum Stanekzai, head of the delegation, a Pashtun from Logar and the former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) (affiliated with President Ghani)
- Fatema Gailani (a woman), daughter of former mujahedin leader Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani and a former head of the Afghan Red Crescent Society
- Nader Naderi, the head of the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission (affiliated with Ghani)
- Abdul Matin Bek, an Uzbek, President Ghani’s senior advisor on political and public affairs, former head of the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) and son of Abdul Mutaleb Bek, one of the influential jihadi commanders from the north-eastern province of Takhar
- Fawzia Kufi (a woman), a Tajik and former MP from Badakhshan (affiliated with Hanif Atmar)
- Zarar Ahmad Moqbel, former minister of interior (2005 – 2008), minister of counter-narcotics (2009-2013) and minister of foreign affairs (2013-2015). All three ministerships served during Karzai’s presidency. (affiliated with former President Hamed Karzai)
- Attaullah Ludin, a Pashtun, member of the Hezb-e Islami faction led by acting minister of finance Abdul Haid Arghandiwal and former HPC member (Ludin has replaced Arghandiwal of the same faction). He is also acting head of the Ulema Council.
- Muhammad Rasul Taleb, Hazara from Ghazni and currently an advisor to Ghani (affiliated with Ghani and his VP Sarwar Danesh)
- Habiba Sarabi (a woman), a Hazara from Ghazni and former provincial governor and member of the High Peace Council (affiliated with Ghani and his VP Danesh)
- Ghairat Bahir, a Pashtun, a member of Hezb-e Islami and son-in-law of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
- Muhammad Hafiz Mansur, a Tajik and a member of Jamiat (affiliated with Abdullah)
- Ghulam Faruq Majruh, a Tajik, MP from Herat and affiliated with former minister of water Ismail Khan
- Mawlawi Enayatullah Baligh, a Tajik and member of HPC (affiliated with Abdullah)
- Batur Dostum, an Uzbek, the eldest son of General Dostum, acting head of Jombesh-e Melli and an MP from Jawzjan
- Kalimullah Naqibi, a Pashtun and deputy head of Jamiat (affiliated with Abdullah)
- Muhammad Nateqi, a Hazara from Bamyan and deputy leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom led by Muhammad Mohaqeq (affiliated with Abdullah)
- Ayub Ansari, a Pashtun, NDS (affiliated with Ghani)
- Sayed Sa’adat Naderi, Ismaili, son of the Hezb-e Paiwand-e Melli leader and former minister of urban development. He has replaced Shahla Farid (affiliated with Abdullah) and has also been appointed peace minister.
- Sharifa Zurmati (a woman), Pashtun, former MP (affiliated with Ghani)
- Khaled Nur, the eldest son of former Balkh governor and chief of the executive of Jamiat, Atta Muhammad Nur, and a Tajik (affiliated with Ghani)
- Muhammad Amin Ahmadi, a Hazara from Khas Uruzgan, the chancellor of private Ibn-e Sina University. He wrote on his Facebook account on 26 March that “it is natural that each of the members of the delegation has been recommended by one political faction and, as far as I have learned, I have been recommended by Ustad [Karim] Khalili, the leader of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami and the chairman of the High Peace Council as a non-party but, according to him, national individual.”
Altogether, ethnicity-wise there are eight Pashtuns in the team (Stanekzai, Gailani, Nader Naderi, Ludin, Bahir, Zurmati, Ansari, and Naqibi). Four out of eight are affiliated with jihadi factions: the Pashtun dominated factions Hezb-e Islami and Mahaz-e Melli and the Tajik dominated Jamiat faction. Four others are former and current officials or MP who have risen as a result of their roles in the government.
The list also includes six Tajks (Kufi, Moqbel, Mansur, Majruh, Baligh, and Khaled Nur), and two Uzbeks (Batur Dostum and Matin Bek). Four Hazaras (Nateqi, Muhammad, Taleb, Sarabi) mainly represent different Wahdat groups and are affiliated with influential Hazara leaders such as Karim Khalili, Sarwar Danesh, or Muhammad Mohaqeq. There is one Ismaili on the list, Sayed Sa’adat Naderi.
Some of these negotiators have met Taleban representatives in different formal and informal settings before: Masum Stanekzai, of course at various occasions, but also Fawzia Kufi (in Moscow and Doha), Naderi (in Doha), Muhammad Nateqi (in Murree and also informally), Ghairat Bahir and Habiba Sarabi (Moscow and Doha).
(2) The Taleban’s negotiation team
The Taleban have as of yet not released a full list of their negotiators, but have mentioned some in statements (for example here). Other names were part of lists leaked by members of the group to media (see for example here or here). For the most part, the confirmed and likely members of the negotiation team are prominent Taleban officials and commanders, many of which AAN has already researched in depth in the past (see this report on the Taleban’s political office in Doha here, this on the release of the Guantanamo Five here, or this on the Taleban leadership in transitionhere). On others, local contacts, Taleban sources, and UN sanctions records were consulted. However, due to limited sources and decades of notorious secrecy, many Taleban biographies remain patchy or even contradictory, thus work in progress. In addition, the Taleban may still make changes or additions to previously leaked lists. AAN will in this case update the content.
- Sheikh Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai leads the Taleban’s negotiation team. He is the supreme judge and according to a UN overview of the Taleban leadership structure from May 2020 on the judicial commission of the political office. According to media reports, he also sits on the leadership council of the Taleban. He is described as close to Taleban chief Haibatullah. He has been confirmed as lead negotiator in official statements.
- Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekai is a Pashtun from Logar who was head of the Taleban’s political office in Doha between 2015 and 2019 and most recently the chief negotiator for the US-Taleban agreement in February 2020. He was initially expected to be chief negotiator with the Afghan government, but then became deputy to Sheikh Abdul Hakim. His biography is atypical for a Taleb, as AAN has found previously, having been educated at India’s military academy in Dehradun, which in the 1970s was involved in training Afghan army officials. When the Taleban were in power, Stanekzai served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and later Deputy Minister of Public Health, and as one of the few leaders who spoke English, he was authorised to entertain foreign visitors and occasionally give interviews in English. He has been confirmed as deputy chief negotiator in official statements.
- Mullah Shirin is part of the leadership council as well as the political office in Doha. He is an Alizai tribe member from Kandahar who used to be close to Taleban founder Mullah Omar: he was in charge of organising Omar’s personal security, according to Mullah Omar expert Bette Dam. AAN’s Borhan Osman in 2016 described him as being in charge of the war in 19 provinces. In 2018, a UN Security Council report described him as “the Taliban Head of Intelligence for the Southern Region”. The former director of the NDS, Rahmatullah Nabil in October 2018 on Twitter accused Shirin of being behind the assassination of Kandahar’s police chief General Raziq. He has been mentioned as member of the negotiation team in official statements.
- Mawlawi Abdul Kabir is a member of the Taleban’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura. In his UN sanctions committee biographic entry, it says he was Second Deputy for Economic Affairs in the Emirate’s Council of Ministers, as well as a former Governor of Nangarhar province, and military commander for the eastern zone. Kabir is Zadran from Baghlan province in the north, with family hailing from Paktia province. AAN’s Borhan Osman in a 2016 analysis described him as being known for his political savviness and smart management skills, who has been critical of the killing of Afghan civilians by Taleban fighters. AAN learned that around 2012 he was relieved of his responsibilities for acting independently of Quetta, but then got back into leadership circles. He has been mentioned as member of the negotiation team in official statements.
- Sheikh Qasim Turkman is one of the more mysterious appointees to the negotiators’ list. According to media reports (see for example here), he is a member of the movement’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura, based in Pakistan. Sources on the ground came up with conflicting and patchy information (so this entry is work in progress and may be amended). There is agreement that he is Turkmen in ethnicity (as his name suggests) and thus one of the few non-Pashtuns in leadership circles, possibly a token appointment in order to show that the Taleban represent all ethnic groups. Beyond that initial accounts differ. He seems to hail from Jawzjan province (some media have him hailing from Kunduz) and received a religious education in Pakistan. According to one source, one of his former students, Sheikh Qasim has lived for more than 30 years in Peshawar, Pakistan. There, he has been running a madrassa for students mostly from the Turkic community. According another source, in 2004 and 2005, when the Taleban were re-grouping, he was in charge of Outreach and Guidance, which among others meant recruiting fighters and doing some messaging. In 2009, he was allegedly put in charge of this task for 20 provinces.
- Abdul Manan Hotak is the brother of late Taleban founder Mullah Omar and as such part of the Taleban’s leadership circles. A UN leadership overview from May says he is also Commissioner for the Prevention of Civilian Casualties and Complaint in the political office in Doha.
- Mullah Abdul Latif Mansur is a member of the political commission of the Taleban and was in May its Commissioner for Agriculture, Livestock, Ushr and Zakat (taxes), according to a UN Security Council report. A brief bio by the UN sanctions committee says that Mansur was Minister of Agriculture for the Taleban regime. He also was a member of their Supreme Council and Head of the Council’s Political Commission, and is previously recorded as being Shadow Governor of Logar in 2012, and a Ghilzai from either Zurmat or Garda Seray district in Paktia.
- Mullah Muhammad Ahmadzai or Haji Muhammad Zahed Ahmadzai is a long-time member of the political office in Doha who hails from Logar, according to the UN Sanctions Committee. During the Taleban time, he has worked as third secretary at the group’s embassy in Islamabad. He may have lived in Dubai for a long time as a businessman. More recently, he surfaced in media reports on the meetings between the group and US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad on the US-Taleban agreement.
- Qari Din Muhammad Hanif (or Hanafi) was the Taleban’s Minister of Planning and later of Higher Education during the Emirate. He is a Tajik from Badakhshan in the north according to UN sanctions records, perhaps another signal of diversity. He was also a member of the Joint Consultative Committee (a forum where UN, NGOs and donors and Taliban government representatives met in Islamabad to discuss aid). More recently, Hanif has attended international meetings on behalf of the Taleban.
- Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, one of the Guantanamo Five, is a Popalzai from Arghestan in Kandahar. During the Emirate, he was considered one of the more moderate Taleban in leadership circles. Among others, he was governor of Herat in western Afghanistan. According to UN sanctions records, he also served as their spokesperson, Governor of Kabul province, and Interior Minister. In February 2002, Khairkhwa was arrested by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to the Americans. According to Anand Gopal in his book, No Friends Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, the arrest was made after Khairkhwa had contacted representatives of Ahmad Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s half-brother (he was friendly with the family). He was looking for a formal amnesty and possibly a post in the new administration and the two sides met in a safe house in Chaman on the Pakistani side of the border where he was arrested. He has been mentioned as one of the members of the negotiation team in official statements.
- Mullah Muhammad Fazil Mazlum was one of the Guantanamo Five and the Taleban’s Chief of Army Staff during their reign in the 1990s, according to a biography in Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s book An enemy we created. UN sanctions records have him as Deputy Chief of Army Staff and hailing from Uruzgan province, a Kakar by tribe. AAN research found him to be considered one of the most important and feared commanders of the Emirate. He, among others, was responsible for some of the Taleban massacres of civilians (largely Shia, but also Sunni), which took place during the regime’s last years. The main accusation against him is of the industrial-scale destruction of civilian property and associated killings in the (Sunni-populated) Shomali in 1999. After his release from Guantanamo he and the others of the Guantanamo Five group became members of the political office in Doha.
- Mullah Nurullah Nuri is also one of the Guantanamo Five and was head of the northern zone and governor of Balkh when he was captured in November 2001. Previously, he also held other provincial governor positions, in Wardak, Laghman and Baghlan, as AAN has reported in the past. He is a Tokhi from Zabul province. War crimes reporting has not linked him to any charges. Along with others, Nuri negotiated the surrender of Taleban fighters in Kunduz in November 2001, expecting the peaceful surrender to be in exchange for safe passage home. Nuri was handed over to US forces and imprisoned in Guantanamo. After his release from Guantanamo he and the others of the Guantanamo Five group became members of the political office in Doha.
- Mullah Abdul Haq Wasiq is also one of the Guantanamo Five and now a member of the political office in Doha. He was deputy chief of the Taleban intelligence structure until 2001. He is an Andar from Ghazni province, according to UN records born either 1971 or approximately 1975. He was detained in a sting operation in late 2001 in Ghazni, after being tricked by a subordinate who knew that he had travelled to Pakistan to see Rahim Wardak (who became defence minister under President Karzai) to start cooperating with the US.
- Mullah Muhammad Nabi Omari, too, was one of the Guantanamo Five and was later introduced to the political office in Doha. He has links to the Haqqani network (his brother was a commander in Khost, according to UN records), but during the reign of the Taleban remained a mid-level figure. According to one source, he is from the Ismailkhel-Manozai district of Khost. Some sources and people who knew him then said that he, among other positions, was chief of police in Zabul, later chief of the border police at the Taleban’s ministry of interior.
- Mawlawi Shahabuddin Delawar is a member of the political office in Doha. During the Taleban time, he has served as representative in the Peshawar consulate, Ambassador to Pakistan, Chargé d’Affaires in Saudi Arabia, Deputy Chief Justice of the Appeal Court of Kandahar and head of the religious board of the Supreme Court. He also attended the Chantilly conference in December 2012. UN sanctions records have him hailing from Logar.
- Naim Wardak is the spokesperson of the political office in Doha for the peace talks. He hails from Chak district inWardak province, AAN has found previously. He went to school in Wardak before getting his BA in Islamic Studies (Arabic) in Peshawar. He then enrolled in the International Islamic University in Islamabad for a Masters and subsequently PhD, graduating in 2010. He is also reported to have briefly studied Hadith in the famous Dar ul Ulum Haqqania Madrassa in Akora Khattak. He is fluent in Arabic and also speaks English. He was first noticed at a conference held in Chantilly, France, on 20 and 21 December 2012. Three participants told AAN that it was Naim Wardak who was in charge of the Taleban’s delegation. However, according to one source, Wardak may not be counted as a member of the negotiation team while his predecessor as spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, may still be. This is why we include his biography as well.
- Suhail Shaheen was as spokesman one of the few public voices and faces of the Taleban political office in Doha, as AAN has reported previously. He is a Totakhel from Paktia, was educated in Pakistan, at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, and is known as a fluent English speaker and prolific writer. He edited the English-language, state-owned Kabul Times during the Emirate, before being appointed to the Afghan Embassy in Pakistan as deputy ambassador. After 2001, sources place him as living in the (Hezb-e Islami controlled) Shamshatu refugee camp in Peshawar where he wrote for a Hezbi newspaper and as having later worked for the United Nations in Pakistan.
- Anas Haqqani is the brother of Serajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network and deputy Taleban chief. He was reportedly arrested in 2014 and released in November 2019 in exchange for two professors of the American University in Kabul (American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks) held by the Taleban. His role in the insurgency at the time of his arrest was not fully clear. Afghan government officials told media that he contributed by fundraising and was involved in propaganda efforts.
- Mawlawi Nur Mohammad Saqib is a member of the Quetta Shura and during the Emirate was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. According to UN records, he hails from Kabul province.
- Mawlawi Mati ul-Haq Khales is one of the sons of late mujahedin leader Mawlawi Yunos Khales of Hezb-e Islami Khales (who died in 2006). According to a 2013 paper published by West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center (“Usama bin Laden’s ‘Father Sheikh’: Yunus Khalis and the Return of al-Qa’ida’s Leadership to Afghanistan” by Kevin Bell; in the AAN archive), Khales the elder was in the mid-1990s favourable to the Taleban, though “disagreed with many of the Taliban’s more extreme policies… There is little information about Khalis’s interactions with Mullah Omar, but the scant available evidence indicates that these two were neither friends nor political allies.” Another Khales son, Anwar ul-Haq, had first declared jihad against the Karzai government in 2003 and 2005 and established a subgroup of the Taleban, the Tora Bora Jihadi Front, in Nangrahar province in 2007, which merged with the mainstream Taleban in 2015 (see context here and here and AAN reporting here).
- Mullah Abdul Salam Hanafi is a former Taleban Deputy Minister of Education, currently serving as a deputy head of the political office in Doha. He is from Faryab province and an Uzbek.
- Mullah Faridullah (or Mullah Fariduddin or Farid ul-Din Mahmud) is to many observers a new face. Well informed Pakistani journalist Tahir Khan says that he hails from Paktia (some media has him, without sourcing, from Paktika), is a religious scholar and close to the Haqqanis. During the Emirate, he served in the judiciary, Khan says.
Other potential negotiators occasionally mentioned in lists could be Mawlawi Abdul Karim (unclear), or Mawlawi Amir Khan Motaqi, a prominent member of the leadership circle and during the Taleban reign previously Minister of Education as well as of Information and Culture, according to UN records.
One source also said that two negotiators (Ahmadzai und Saqib) may not take part in the meetings in Doha, but would “attend talks in other countries”.