Taliban talks: Does Mullah Omar speak for his footsoldiers?

Taliban leaders have agreed to set up an office in Qatar to facilitate peace talks with the West. But it's unclear how well the Taliban communicate among themselves.

After months of setbacks in negotiations with the Taliban, news that the group has agreed to create a political office in Qatar has been heralded as a significant breakthrough. However, agreeing to an office does not solve all the problems of communicating with the shadowy insurgency.

An office gives the international community a line of communication to the Taliban leadership. But at this stage of the conflict, it's less clear how much control the Taliban's senior representatives – believed to be hiding in Pakistan – exert over the fighters on the ground in Afghanistan. 

US forces have decimated the mid-ranking commanders who moved between the groups of fighters within Afghanistan and Mullah Mohammed Omar and his inner circle across the border, keeping the communication line open. With Taliban leadership removed from the daily fighting, its ties to those suffering heavy losses on the frontlines, may well have frayed, weakening its authority.

“A limited number of the Taliban leaders are going to Qatar, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan doesn’t belong to a limited number of people,” says Salih Mohammad Akhund, a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand province. “I think those Taliban leaders should first consult with the Taliban members who are fighting on the ground.”

As American and international forces increased their troop levels and ramped up kill and capture operations, the Taliban’s low- and mid-level fighters were particularly hard hit.

During a 90-day period this summer, former top American commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus told reporters that special forces kill and capture operations had resulted in 1,355 rank-and-file Taliban captured, 1,031 killed, and 365 middle- and high-ranking Taliban killed or captured.

While there has been some criticism that international forces have offered inflated figures, it's clear that military operations here have led to difficult losses for the Taliban.

As a result, much of the Taliban is now made up of younger fighters with limited experience who are harder for the group’s political leadership to control.

“There is some information that young members have been recruited and sometimes the new, young members are more motivated by ideology than politics,” says Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, the head of the foreign relations department for Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. “It would be difficult to say Mullah Omar is the leader of all the so-called Taliban.”

If the Taliban leadership in Qatar negotiates a deal, it may struggle to make all of its members adhere to the agreement.

Despite these challenges, Mullah Omar has managed to remain a cohesive figure for the organization and a deal that clearly has his backing should be good enough for most of the Taliban. However, arriving at such a truce that is widely acceptable to the entire group is likely to require considerable patience.

“I don’t know how they can convince the fighters not to fight. They always told them these are the Americans, they are kafirs, non-Muslims, this, this and this,” says Sami Yusufzai, an independent analyst in Islamabad. “So now how can a guy who has killed a lot of people for the Taliban easily forget everything and say, ‘Okay, let’s sit with the people we always believed we had to fight with.’ It will take some time.”

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