[In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times and appeared in the Afghan news media, Mr. Agha supported the idea of talks, and said the insurgency should be urgently trying to position itself as an Afghan political movement independent from the influence of Pakistani intelligence officials who have sheltered, and at times manipulated, the Taliban since 2001.]
By Mujib Mashal
Sayed Muhammad Tayeb Agha, right, the former Taliban chief negotiator, speaking
to reporters in 2001 in Spinbaldak, Afghanistan. Credit Ruth Fremson/
The New York Times
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban’s internal debate over whether and how to negotiate with the Afghan government is playing out in the open, even as there have been renewed attempts to restart talks.
Breaking with nearly 15 years of public silence, Sayed Muhammad Tayeb Agha, who until recently was the Taliban’s chief negotiator and head of their political commission, issued a letter about peace talks to the insurgency’s supreme leader over the summer and discussed reconciliation efforts in an interview with The New York Times in recent days, his first on the record with a Western publication in years.
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times and appeared in the Afghan news media, Mr. Agha supported the idea of talks, and said the insurgency should be urgently trying to position itself as an Afghan political movement independent from the influence of Pakistani intelligence officials who have sheltered, and at times manipulated, the Taliban since 2001.
Mr. Agha led efforts to open the Taliban’s political office in Qatar in 2011, and he was instrumental in negotiations that led to the release of the last known American prisoner of war held by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, in exchange for the release of five Taliban detainees from the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay. But he became disgruntled over the internal power struggle that broke out in 2015 after the death of the movement’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, for whom he was a trusted aide. He remains in exile abroad.
Within the Taliban, discussions of whether or how to take up negotiations have proved divisive. Some of the group’s most senior field commanders openly bridled at the possibility in 2015, when a meeting in Pakistan seemed to signal that talks might progress. Now, however, with the insurgents seizing so much territory in Afghanistan and badly bloodying the security forces, some officials believe the Taliban might be more amenable to coming to the table.
Mr. Agha’s letter, which he sent in July but has not been answered by the new Taliban leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, was a sign that not all senior Taliban figures were so reluctant to talk. In fact, he insisted that it should be a priority for the insurgency — and that the Taliban movement must change to allow it or risk disintegrating into splinter groups, making way for bandits and Islamic State loyalists.
Much of Mr. Agha’s letter, about four pages long and containing eight recommendations, was focused on steps that would reform the insurgent group from a force that sees itself as divinely mandated, but is largely dependent on Pakistan’s intelligence service, to a relatively independent political movement that could fit into a framework of reconciliation with the Afghan government.
He suggested that the insurgency break with foreign fighters in its ranks, call itself a movement rather than an Islamic emirate, and stop pretending it is a parallel government. And he wrote that the Taliban leader should avoid the claim to the Islamic title of Amir ul-Momineen, the commander of the faithful, because the reality of his ascent to power did not fit the criteria of allegiance, and the effort of forcing allegiance had spurred a bloody power struggle in the ranks during the past year.
His most important recommendation was that the insurgency’s leadership, which has operated in exile in Pakistan since the toppling of its regime in 2001, should leave that country to avoid being used as proxies.
“The presence in Pakistan of the movement’s key and decisive members and structures … will force on the movement things that are against the interests of the movement and Afghanistan,” Mr. Agha wrote in the letter.
In the interview, conducted by email, Mr. Agha said the most opportune moment for peace talks was 2010, when Mullah Omar signed off on the idea and his representatives began directly negotiating with the Americans, though not with the Afghan government.
But Mr. Agha insisted that progress could be made now despite the existence of a public ultimatum from the Taliban that they would never negotiate with the Afghan government as long as American or other foreign troops were still in Afghanistan — a demand he characterized as flexible.
In fact, he rejected the idea that the insurgency had strict preconditions for talks beyond certain necessary trust-building measures.
“Not at all — we did not have the precondition that the American forces leave and then we will sit down with the Kabul government, because that would not be wise and practical,” Mr. Agha said in the interview. “Of course, if we had reached that stage of negotiations, we would have asked for a deadline, for a timetable. And this was our right, and also a wise condition.”
Now, some officials say, there have been renewed efforts to contact Taliban representatives and start working toward peace talks. But most described those attempts as preliminary, and there was some worry that the Taliban would continue pressing their military offensives while trying to fool the Afghan government by saying they were amenable to talks.
Pakistan’s role in any negotiations also remains a divisive issue.
The new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani banked tremendous political capital on trying to persuade Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the table. After just one round of talks in a Pakistani resort town last summer with a Taliban delegation of suspect legitimacy, the process fell apart. Mr. Ghani’s government now publicly asserts that there is a Pakistani military hand in the Taliban battlefield gains this year.
Officials remain divided on the extent of Pakistan’s control over the Taliban, and how much that affects their intention to talk about peace. A former senior Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said that individual members of the Taliban’s leadership council might well support the idea of talks and moving away from Pakistan’s sphere of influence. But put them all together in the same room, the official said, and none would say so — out of fear as well as internal mistrust.
Nevertheless, Afghan officials say Pakistani influence over the Taliban is an increasingly touchy issue within the insurgency’s ranks.
“The Taliban were angered by Ashraf Ghani saying somewhere that if they make a deal with Pakistan, then Pakistan can deliver the Taliban,” said Anwar ul Haq Ahadi, a former Afghan cabinet minister involved in some of the contacts with the Taliban. “They were offended. Peace through Pakistan — that has failed. The assumptions were wrong.”
Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter @MujMash.