Opinion: The Taliban is playing a double game

Opinion by Hamid Mir

Hamid Mir is a Pakistani journalist and author.

Suhail Shaheen, Afghan Taliban spokesman and a member of the negotiation team gestures while speaking during a joint news conference in Moscow on July 22. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

The Taliban is playing a shrewd diplomatic game. Even as its fighters advance throughout Afghanistan, they are working to assuage the anxiety of countries across the region. They have conducted talks with the Iraniansthe Russians, and the countries of Central Asia. They’ve reassured the Chinese that they have no intention of challenging Beijing’s atrocities against its Muslim minorities. And they have told anyone who will listen — including the Americans — that a Taliban government would not let the soil of Afghanistan to be used as a base for operations against third countries.

That looks like a smart strategy — yet we’ve just seen a striking departure from this pattern. On July 26, the head of the Pakistani Taliban gave an extraordinary interview to CNN in which he declared that his group intends to seize control of Pakistani territories along the Afghan border and “make them independent.” Why did the Taliban leadership allow him to make such a provocative statement?

It was the first television interview ever granted by Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Mehsud is a highly experienced Islamist militant. The United States has classified Mehsud as a “specially designated global terrorist,” and he has also been sanctioned by the United Nations.

When Pakistani media contacted Suhail Shaheen, the Qatar-based spokesman of the Afghan Taliban, he repeated the official talking point that his group would not allow anyone to use Afghan territory for attacks against other countries. He dodged follow-up questions.

It’s an open secret that Mehsud is hiding in eastern Afghanistan. Though the TTP focuses on Pakistan, it is joined at the hip with its Afghan counterpart. Mehsud published an Urdu-language memoir that dwells on this point in great detail. The book also elaborates his group’s dealings with al-Qaeda, which he describes as a close ally, though he was careful to deny any contacts with them in his TV interview. “We have waged jihad against Pakistan,” he writes in the book, and “we want to establish a caliphate all over the world under the banner of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — meaning, of course, the Afghan Taliban.

Mehsud is in no position to defy the authority of his Afghan brothers. I think they allowed him to make this statement for two reasons. First, they wanted to prove that Mehsud is still alive, refuting reports about his death in a drone strike last month. His appearance exposed the failure of the many intelligence agencies who told the media that he was dead. Second, they wanted to send a message to Islamabad that Pakistan should make any public expression of concern as the Taliban advance on Kabul. Otherwise, Mehsud’s appearance implies, they can once again unleash the TTP against Pakistan.

In any event, the CNN interview raises serious doubts about the credibility of the promises the Afghan Taliban is currently giving to the international community. Can the United States and other powers really trust the Taliban when it allows one of its allies to issue threats against Pakistan?

It’s worth noting that two al-Qaeda operatives gave an interview to CNN a few weeks ago in which they praised “war on all fronts” against the United States and lavished praise on the Afghan Taliban. A recent U.N. report claimed that al-Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces. The U.N. analysts noted that many of the fighters belong to a branch of the organization known as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which consists mainly of Afghan and Pakistani nationals but also individuals from India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It also mentions groups from Uzbekistan and China. The same report warned that around 6,000 trained TTP fighters remain active in eastern Afghanistan.

This report is an alarm signal not only for Pakistan but also for all other stakeholders in the region who have been working together on a peace deal with Afghan Taliban. Taliban fighters have captured key border crossings in the last few weeks. Early this month hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled to Tajikistan. This week 46 others were granted refuge by Pakistan in a border area where TTP fighters are active.

The Taliban is trying to exploit the fears of countries in the region, who are desperately hoping that the group can be relied on to resist the rise of ISIS through Afghanistan. These countries should not allow themselves to be duped. They should make joint efforts to pressure the Afghan Taliban to uphold the peace deal it signed with the United States last year. The Taliban must stick to its commitment to prevent foreign militants from using Afghanistan as a base against other countries.

The Afghan Taliban is playing on the differences among major stakeholders in the region. To name but one example, the governments in Kabul and Islamabad rarely manage to agree on anything. They often make allegations against each other, willfully ignoring the fact that the Taliban will capitalize on its differences. Suspicion and mistrust remain the biggest obstacles to peace in Afghanistan. For its part, the Afghan Taliban should also take credible action to allay the concerns about its double game that have emerged after the recent interview of its proxy on CNN.

Opinion: The Taliban is playing a double game