Taleban make big changes ahead of expected talks with Kabul

Taleban, Afghanistan, Hibatullah
Taleban appointed son of the movement's feared founder in charge of its military wing and added powerful figures to its negotiating team ahead of expected talks aimed at ending Afghanistan's decades of war.

Islamabad - The shuffle, overseen by Taleban leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhunzada, is meant to tighten his control over the movement's military and political arms


Published: Fri 17 Jul 2020, 5:34 PM

Last updated: Fri 17 Jul 2020, 7:40 PM

The Taleban have put the son of the movement's feared founder in charge of their military wing and added several powerful figures to their negotiating team, Taleban officials said. The shake-up, one of the most significant in years, comes ahead of expected talks with Kabul aimed at ending decades of war in Afghanistan.
As head of a newly united military wing, 30-year-old Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob brings his father's fiercely uncompromising reputation to the battlefield.
Equally significant is the addition of four members of the insurgent group's leadership council to the 20-member negotiating team, Taleban officials said.
The shuffle, overseen by Taleban leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhunzada, is meant to tighten his control over the movement's military and political arms, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the inner workings of the Taleban.
Analysts say the shake-up could be good news for negotiations with the Afghan political leadership, and a sign of how seriously the Taleban are taking this second - and perhaps most critical - step in a deal Washington signed with the insurgents in February.
"I'd say it appears to be a positive development because the Taleban are creating a delegation that seems more senior and more broad-based than they've used to date, or than might be strictly necessary for the opening stages of talks," said Andrew Wilder, vice president of the Asia Program at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace.
"If you want to see the glass as half full, this strengthened Taleban delegation could be interpreted as a sign that the group is planning to engage in serious discussions," he said.
When the US signed the deal with the Taliban on February 29, after more than a year and a half of negotiations, it was touted as Afghanistan's best chance at peace in four decades of war. It was also seen as a road map for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, ending America's longest war.
On Monday, four-and-a-half months since the signing, chief U.S. negotiator and peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted that "a key milestone in the implementation of the US-Taleban agreement" had been reached as American troop numbers dropped to 8,600 from about 12,000 and five bases were closed in Afghanistan.
Even as Khalilzad chastised increased insurgent attacks on Afghan security forces, he said the Taleban had been true to their word not to attack US and Nato troops.
"No American has lost his/her life in Afghanistan to Taleban violence. Regional relations have improved," he tweeted.
The Taleban have stepped up their military activity against Afghan government forces since Yaqoob's appointment in May, a sign the militants under his leadership may see battlefield wins as upping their leverage at the negotiating table.
"I can see a lot of reasons for the Taleban to be pushing the envelope - perhaps as a negotiation tactic, but equally likely as a means to test US limits," said Daniel Markey, a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "So far, the Trump administration looks like it is heading for the exit, no matter what. Why not ratchet up the violence to see what greater victories can be won? "
Surprisingly, the shuffle also sidelined senior Taleban leader Amir Khan Muttaqi, removing him from the negotiating committee. Seen as close to neighbouring Pakistan, his removal could limit Pakistan's influence and buttress their position with Kabul, which is deeply suspicious of Islamabad.
Already a deputy head of the movement, the sudden appointment of the son of Mullah Mohammed Omar as the Taleban military chief reportedly ruffled feathers among members of the leadership council, who had not been consulted. Yaqoob, however, met with the council and won over the dissenters, said the Taleban officials.
"Yaqoob's appointment appears to be, at least in part, an effort by Mullah Akhundzada to shore up oversight of battlefield operations at a key moment ... as the insurgents ramp up violence to strengthen their negotiating position in preparation for potential peace talks with the Afghan government," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center.
In recent weeks, hopes have been raised of a July start to negotiations even as the Taleban and the Kabul government seem bogged down in the final release of prisoners, a prerequisite to the start of negotiations. The United Nations had expressed hope the negotiations could begin this month.

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