Taliban have not split from al Qaeda: sources
The Taliban have not broken ranks with al Qaeda, senior US military and intelligence sources told The Long War Journal. The idea that the Taliban has severed relations is promoted by European countries who wish to back out of Afghanistan after years of bloody fighting, the sources, who wish to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject, said.
The reports of a split between al Qaeda and the Taliban originated with CNN after sources claimed senior Taliban leaders were in Saudi Arabia to meet with King Abdullah and several members of the Afghan government.
But sources familiar with al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region told The Long War Journal there is no evidence of a split, and the members of the so-called Taliban delegation have no influence with the senior Taliban leadership.
"There are no indications that Mullah Omar or anyone part of the Taliban's Shura Majlis (or executive council) cut their ties with Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda," one senior source said. "If there is a denunciation or discussion of a break with al Qaeda, I do not see it."
Several members of the Afghan Taliban still serve on al Qaeda's executive leadership council, and there are no indications anyone has been expelled.
"Omar sacrificed his country and his throne to protect Osama" by opposing the US in the run-up to the US invasion in 2001, a source said. "Why, after the Taliban is in ascendancy in Afghanistan in Pakistan, would they abandon al Qaeda now?"
Negotiators are Taliban outsiders
The press reports have focused on the members of the so-called Taliban peace negotiators, but have failed to review at who exactly is participating in the talks. A look at the Afghans involved shows these are men who have fallen out of favor with the Taliban high command.
"There were no senior leaders of the Taliban present in Saudi Arabia," one senior source told The Long War Journal. "Not one member of the Taliban Shura Majlis. Not even one senior Taliban official in good standing with the leadership."
"They are all outsiders," the source reiterated.
Included in the Taliban negotiating team are Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, and Mullah Mohamed Tayeb Agha, according to a report in Asharq al Awsat.
Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil.
Mutawakil, who served as the Taliban's foreign minister in 2001, has long fallen out of favor with the Taliban, according to sources as well as reports in the press. "He has no authority among the Taliban leaders who matter," said one senior source.
The BBC describes Mutawakil as "the more respectable face of the Taliban" as he is considered as "articulate and relatively moderate." He is "several rungs of power removed from the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar." and broke ranks after Omar refused to hand over Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2002 he claimedhe sent an aide to warn the US of the Sept. 11 attacks but was ignored.
Mutawakil surrendered to the US in February 2002 without seeking approval from the senior Taliban leadership. He was detained by the US and then placed under house arrest in Kabul. The Taliban ejected Mutawakil from the movement in 2003, saying he "does not represent our will". Mutawakil contested the elections in 2005.
Mutawakil has been behind numerous failed attempts to promote reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. "He is probably sincere but just completely powerless," a source told The Long War Journal.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, another purported representative of the Taliban in the Saudi Arabia negotiations, served as the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan. He was detained by the Pakistani security services in 2002 and sent to the Guantanamo Detention Facility in Cuba before he was released in 2006.
Zaeef is also seen as a "moderate" Taliban and was considered a candidate to join the interim Afghan government. "Zaeef has no standing with the current Taliban leadership," a source said.
Mullah Mohamed Tayeb Agha was also in attendance in Saudi Arabia. While Agha is described as "the spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar," he hasn't held this role for a decade. "That was back in the 1990s," a source familiar with the Taliban leadership said.
The Taliban reject peace talks
Mullah Omar and the Taliban have openly rejected the idea their followers are in negotiations with the Afghan government. Omar and the Taliban issued two press releases since Sept. 28 to quell the rumors.
The first statement, issued by the Taliban on Sept 28, rejected any idea of a peace agreement. "The Shura Council of the Islamic Emriate of Afghanistan considers such baseless rumors as part of the failed efforts by our enemies to create distrust and doubts among Afghans, other nations, and the mujahideed," the statement read. "No official member of the Taliban--now or in the past--has ever negotiated with the US or the puppet Afghan government."
The Taliban then went out of its way to denounce those negotiating under its banner, and clearly referred to Mutawakil, Zaeef, and Agha. "A handful of former Taliban officials who are under house arrest or who have surrendered do not represent the Islamic Emirate."
The Taliban then clearly lay out their strategy to retake power in Afghanistan. The statement is clear they do not seek accommodation, but the removal of NATO troops and the ouster of the Karzai regime. "If out fight was for control of ministries and other prominent positions in the puppet administration, then such negotiations would make sense--but this is not the case," the statement read. "Our struggle is to implement the rules of Allah in Afghanistan by eradicating the enemies of Islam... Our struggle will continue until the departure of all foreign troops."
In a statement signed by Mullah Omar on Sept. 30, he was clear that he believed the Taliban was close to victory and offered the US harsh terms for peace. "If you demonstrate an intention of withdrawing your forces, we once again will demonstrate our principles by giving you the right of safe passage, in order to show that we never harm anyone maliciously," Omar said. He also went out of his way to praise the mujahideen, both Afghan and foreign, in their willingness to take the fight to the West.
Europe looking for an out
The eagerness to promote reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government stems from European governments looking to extract themselves from the Afghan conflict, senior sources tell The Long War Journal.
The reports of the Saudi Arabian negotiations arose after a senior British general said victory in Afghanistan was impossible and the West should dumb down expectations on the outcome of the conflict. A British and a UN diplomat described Afghanistan as "lost." Other European officials have been keen on opening direct negotiations with the Taliban.
US intelligence and military officials are furious over the latest attempts to conduct "misguided" negotiations. "These are the people that brought you Musa Qala and the debacle in Basrah," one senior source said angrily. The source was referring to the Brit's turning over of the district of Musa Qala in Helmand province to the Taliban in 2006 and the Brit's ceding the Iraqi city of Basrah to the Mahdi Army while claiming victory in 2007. The Brits claimed Basrah was a success story and began withdrawing troops as the city fell under the spell of Iranian-backed militias.
"These two events were debacles," the source said. "Why should we trust them with current peace talks, particularly when they have no idea who they are negotiating with?"
"We had to clean up their mess twice," another source said, again referring to Musa Qala and Basrah and fearing the negotiations would be taken seriously by Washington. "At this point, it would be better if they left Afghanistan," the source said, frustrated with the lack of unity of command in Afghanistan and the failure of the West to present a unified front against the Taliban and allied groups.