Shadow politicians, clerics and Soviet-era fighters: The Taliban’s team negotiating peace

Members of the Taliban delegation attend the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Sept. 12.
Members of the Taliban delegation attend the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Sept. 12. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

DOHA, Qatar — The Taliban negotiating team that will determine the future of Afghanistan in talks with the Afghan government comprises 21 men, most with graying beards and biographies that date back to the fight against the Soviet Union.

Nearly all of the negotiators are pulled from the organization’s old guard, and many served in the militant group’s shadow government, which expanded as the Taliban’s territorial control and influence grew. Several are known for links to deadly attacks, including on civilians; others are essentially unknown outside the group.

The talks, which began this month in Doha but have stalled as the two sides wrangle over ground rules, are expected to be wide-ranging: Whether the country remains a democracy, who controls security and whose rights are protected are all up for negotiation.

For a notoriously secretive movement, the Taliban’s political office and negotiators in Doha have taken on a rare public role. The Taliban’s leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, has not appeared in public for years, and little is known about the group’s demands, beyond that Afghanistan be ruled by Islamic law. Still, the Taliban’s choice of negotiators provides a glimpse into the movement’s vision for Afghanistan’s future.

A key challenge for the Taliban will be maintaining command of its thousands of rank-and-file fighters, as talks are likely to force compromises with a government it has been fighting for two decades. But Taliban leaders say new members of the negotiating team, many leading the fight on the ground until just months ago, make the group more representative of its ranks and will help maintain unity.

nger,” said Abdul Salam Hanafi, a senior Taliban political leader who negotiated with the United States and has remained on the group’s team.

Suhail Shaheen, a longtime spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha who is also part of the delegation, said the additions also cast a wider geographic net.

“They are from many parts of the Islamic Emirate to represent all, so that will be a collective decision with credibility and trust of all,” Shaheen said. The religious insurgents call their government an Islamic emirate.

The Taliban’s team includes lead negotiator Abdul Hakim, his deputy, Abbas Stanikzai, and the five Taliban inmates released in a 2014 prisoner exchange from the U.S. military detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Also at the table is Anas Haqqani, whose family connects him to a network of fighters that has arguably been one of the Taliban’s most influential and most lethal.

Abdul Hakim

Abdul Hakim, the Taliban’s lead negotiator, second from right, attends the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the militant group in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 12.
Abdul Hakim, the Taliban’s lead negotiator, second from right, attends the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the militant group in Doha, Qatar, on Sept. 12. (Hussein Sayed/AP)

The chief justice of the Taliban’s network of courts until just a few months ago, Hakim was not a well-known name outside the movement before his appointment to lead negotiations. And little is known about his background beyond his position as an Islamic scholar respected within the Taliban and his time as a lecturer at a ­madrassa in Quetta, Pakistan, where he instructed many within the group’s senior ranks.

His appointment to the head of the negotiating team sends a message that the Taliban is “not about anything other than establishing an Islamic government,” said Ashley Jackson, an expert on the Taliban with the Overseas Development Institute.

“They know they’re going to have to make some pretty substantial compromises, and so putting someone like Hakim at the top both insulates Haibatullah” and gives any of the team’s decisions “that stamp of approval” from someone who is neither a political nor military actor, she said.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai arrives for talks in Moscow in February 2019.
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai arrives for talks in Moscow in February 2019. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

Stanikzai was initially appointed to lead the negotiating team, but just days before the talks began, Taliban leaders announced that he would instead serve as Hakim’s deputy.

“If there’s one word to describe Stanikzai, it’s ‘survivor,’ ” said Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, a D.C.-based think tank. “He has never been one of the prime movers of this movement, but he’s always been up there in the shadows of the higher ranks, and he’s always managed to retain just enough influence to stay alive and stay active.”

Unlike most of the Taliban’s inner circle, Stanikzai received his military training in India in the early 1980s before he joined the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. During Taliban control of Afghanistan, he served in its Foreign Affairs and Public Health ministries.

The ‘Taliban Five’

Norullah Noori, third from left, Mohammad Nabi Omari, center, and Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, second from right, shown in Doha in 2019, are three of five Guantánamo inmates released in a 2014 prisoner swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Norullah Noori, third from left, Mohammad Nabi Omari, center, and Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, second from right, shown in Doha in 2019, are three of five Guantánamo inmates released in a 2014 prisoner swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

The five men who went from inmates at Guantánamo Bay to negotiators across the table from U.S. officials in Doha have remained on the team for talks with the Afghan government delegation. And even though it has been nearly 20 years since they set foot on the battlefield, they remain among the movement’s most respected military figures.

The men are Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, the interior minister under Taliban rule; Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban army chief of staff; Norullah Noori, a former provincial governor for the Taliban; Abdul Haq Wasiq, former deputy head of intelligence; and Mohammad Nabi Omari, who is suspected of having close ties to the Haqqani network. All five were released in 2014 in a controversial prisoner swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

“They give authority and the trust of the people to the political office,” said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan who was held for years at Guantánamo Bay. “Before prison, they were respected people, but also during prison, they never changed their beliefs.”

During negotiations with the United States, the men were credited for selling unpopular moves — like the temporary reduction in violence — to the Taliban’s leadership and the group’s rank and file. In negotiations with the Afghan government, they are expected to play a similar role.

Anas Haqqani

Anas Haqqani speaks to reporters before a deal between the United States and the Taliban was signed in Doha in February.
Anas Haqqani speaks to reporters before a deal between the United States and the Taliban was signed in Doha in February. (J.P. Lawrence/Stars and Stripes)

Less than a year since 26-year-old Haqqani was released from prison in Afghanistan, he is a member of the team talking peace with his former captors. The youngest son of the late Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of one of the deadliest militant networks aligned with the Taliban, he represents a constituency expected to be key to the Taliban’s ability to control its fighters.

Because of his relative youth and inexperience — he never held an official position before he was arrested — many anticipated his role in Doha to be purely symbolic. But in an interview, he said that he grew up fast in prison and that the loss of his father and other relatives to war drives him to bring peace to Afghanistan.

“I think there is also a saying in English, the more you pound the iron, the more it becomes strong,” he said. My time in prison “is now helping me to work more energetically, passionately for peace because I can picture many Afghans, my colleagues and friends who are still in those prisons.”

He was arrested in Doha in 2014 for raising money for the Haqqani network. He said the charges were false, instead claiming he was arrested to be used “as bait” to pressure other members of the Haqqani network to stop their campaign of deadly bombings.

He said he passed the time in prison writing poetry and studying Islam, two pursuits that he says helped prepare him for his current role.

During talks with the United States, his primary duty was to take notes, a job he described as “exhausting” but one that taught him that patience is key to securing key demands in negotiations.

Sherin Akhund

Sherin has some of the most recent battlefield credentials within the negotiating group. He was a close confidant of the Taliban’s longtime leader, Mohammad Omar, whose death in 2013 was made public in 2015.

Sherin received his first significant promotion within the Taliban after the fall of Kandahar. As U.S. forces moved in on the province, Sherin and others helped Omar escape, according to former Taliban fighter Muhammad Manzoor Hussaini, a close friend of Sherin’s who is under house arrest in Kandahar.

After Sherin helped Omar flee, his own home was attacked, and 17 members of his family were killed, Hussaini said.

“That was seen as a big personal sacrifice for the Taliban,” he said. In return, Sherin was appointed head of Omar’s personal security detail. Hussaini described Sherin as a keen military mind thanks to decades of experience and training from Pakistani and Arab fighters in and outside Afghanistan.

“He’s not a political person,” Hussaini said, explaining that issues of injustice or acts against Islam can easily set off his temper during discussions. “But during the fight, he was always coolheaded.”

Tassal reported from Kabul and Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan.

Susannah George is The Washington Post’s Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief. She previously headed the Associated Press’s Baghdad bureau and covered national security and intelligence from the AP’s Washington bureau.
Shadow politicians, clerics and Soviet-era fighters: The Taliban’s team negotiating peace