Moderate Faction of Afghan Taliban Gains Visibility

As the New York Times notes, the Taliban took steps over the weekend to remove some of the more provocative aspects of its office in Qatar from which representatives may enter into negotiations on the end of the war in Afghanistan. Specifically, they took down both the version of the Afghan flag which they used while they ruled the country and they removed the sign that could have been interpreted as a claim that they were still the legitimate government of the country:

In a possible easing of tensions that have held up an opening for peace talks by American, Afghan and Taliban officials in Qatar, the Afghan government confirmed the complete removal of an objectionable sign, flag and flagpole that had led the Afghan delegation to boycott negotiations.


“According to the timely and appropriate and precise position of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Taliban flag has been brought down from the office, the Islamic Emirate sign has been removed and the Qatari police removed the flagpole from the Taliban office,” said a statement released Sunday by the presidential palace, quoting Masoom Stanekzai, a senior member of the Afghan High Peace Council.

The statement referred to the signs and flag unveiled when the Taliban open their Doha office last week — their first public re-entry on to the international stage in almost 13 years. At the official opening of the office the Taliban had put up signs saying “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” which is the name they used for their government when they ran Afghanistan, and they raised their white flag with black writing.

Both gestures, along with their description of the office’s mandate of speaking to foreign governments, suggested that the Taliban were trying to present themselves as an alternative to the Afghan government.

It is possible that these symbolic moves came about through an ascendance of a more moderate wing within the Afghan Taliban. Significant support for such a view comes from a remarkable interview TOLOnews correspondent Mujahid Kakar conducted with Mutasim Agha Jan, who was Finance Minister of Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled. The interview can be seen in the two-hour-plus video embedded below (with English subtitles) or the English translation can be read as a 31 page pdf file here.

There are a couple of caveats that should be kept in mind when reviewing Jan’s statements. First, the interview took place in Turkey, where Jan has resided since about 2011, when he was injured in an attack in Karachi after falling out with Taliban leaders in 2010, so the fact that he is not in either Qatar or Afghanistan suggests that he and the moderate faction for which he appears to speak still don’t feel safe in either of those locations. Second, I of course have no idea whether the translations in the video or transcript are accurate.

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With those caveats in mind, however, Jan makes a number of striking statements. Early in the interview, we get a description of the moderate and extremist groups within the Afghan Taliban:


Sometimes the media claims that there are both extremist and moderate groups amongst the Taliban, if this is true, then who are the leaders of these groups?

Mutasem Agha:

I shall say that for all Taliban there is a specific leader, and that is Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid. As you said, the Taliban can be divided into two different groups or ideas. One group, according to us, can be called moderate. They are the Taliban who, beside military efforts, believe in peaceful aspects as well. They believe that war has been imposed on us; we are fighting to defend ourselves. The second group is the Taliban who we call extremists. This group wants the war to continue in Afghanistan and their views don’t match with those of the current government so they want to continue the war until they it is defeated. I can also define these groups in a simple way, which is that the moderate Taliban are the ones who act according to what the people want. First, they emerged by doing what the nation wanted in that the nation told them “we are fed up of the situation, life is horrible, and we can’t pursue our lifestyle in a proper manner.” So there were problems, and that is why they started their movement according to what people wanted. With the support of people they quickly became successful to a certain extent. The second group, which is extremists, wants to implement Islamic law in Afghanistan and they won’t stop until they have fulfilled that quest. The moderate Taliban just wants the people to decide. This Taliban can be understood in this way.

Jan identifies himself as being a part of the moderate faction. After a brief venture into suggesting that perhaps the Mossad was behind 9/11, Jan makes a remarkable admission about the failure of the Taliban to hand bin Laden over to the US:


Okay. In your opinion, when America asked the Taliban to surrender Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban refused, was this the right decision?

Mutasem Agha:

Afghans, on the basis of their culture and tradition, have made many decisions throughout history and some of them have backfired and some have been beneficial. This was one of those decisions that backfired.

To me, the most encouraging part of Jan’s statements addresses whom a new government in Afghanistan should represent:


During the Taliban’s era there were some sides that you were fighting against. Those groups are currently more in control of Afghanistan, they have participated in the elections and they have put their arms down—what do you think about relations with them?

Mutasem Agha:

In Afghanistan, not only the Taliban is a hostile side. In Afghanistan, 35 years war has created many hostile sides and groups. It has created lots of hatred and conflicts, but we can see that most hostile sides have now joined together. They are sitting in one parliament, with one platform, on one dining table, and discuss one issue because the time requires this. Similarly, the Taliban feels it is important for past hatred, conflict, enmities and discriminations to be forgotten for benefit of the people.


It is said that most Taliban are Pashtuns and it is said that they want a government where always Pashtuns have control. How much of this is true according to you?

Mutasem Agha:

This is not true because in the government of the Taliban there were representatives of every ethnicity. There were representatives of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara and Turkmen. You know that the Taliban’s emergence started from the Pashtun areas and it started from the Kandahar province. So at first the members of the Taliban’s council or important figures of the Taliban were Pashtuns. When the Taliban reached the central government of Kabul there was instability, war and unrest. The Taliban couldn’t create a national government. The Taliban doesn’t have a tribal, regional or ethnical ideology – the Taliban has an Islamic ideology. In an Islamic ideology we can include all the ethnicities and tribes and classes of Afghanistan.

It is my hope that this interview appearing concurrently with the removal of the provocative sign and flag from the Doha office represent the moderate faction within the Taliban gaining a stronger foothold. The views Jan presented in the interview could go a long way toward achieving a much more peaceful and stable country after the end of NATO actions and with a newly elected government in place.

4 replies
  1. JTIDAHO says:

    Is this going to be similar to the split between the political and provisional wings of the IRA?

  2. Garrett says:

    Afghans, on the basis of their culture and tradition, have made many decisions throughout history and some of them have backfired and some have been beneficial. This was one of those decisions that backfired.

    On the other side of the Great Cultural Mistake, about the Taliban leaders not bin Laden, here is Arturo Munoz. Long quote because the issue deserves it:

    The Taliban leaders, especially Mullah Obaidullah and Abdul Wahid, individuals most closely involved in the surrender negotiations with the approaching leaders, expected to be able to return to their homes peacefully – as Hamid Karzai offered. Unfortunately, US policy toward the Taliban was soon set in Washington, D.C., by someone who knew nothing about Pashtunwali. The US Defense Secretary soon reversed Hamid Karzai and left the simultaneous disastrous impression that the new head of the Afghanistan Interim Government was an American ‘puppet.’ Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the US would not stand for any deal that allowed Omar to remain free and ‘live in dignity’ in the region.” 18

    The New York Times reported the following: “Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun tribal chief who was named at Afghan peace talks in Bonn to lead an interim Afghan government, said that Taliban militants would turn over their arms and ammunition to a council of tribal elders and would be allowed safe passage to their homes. That process, he said, should be completed within a few days… In Islamabad, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a Taliban spokesman and former ambassador to Pakistan, announced the surrender agreement had been reached to save civilian lives. ‘Tomorrow the Taliban will start surrendering their weapons to Mullah Naqibullah, a famous commander… the Taliban were finished as a political force,’ said Mullah Zaeef, adding, ‘I think we should go home.’ Mullah Zaef said that Mullah Omar would be allowed to live in Kandahar under the protection of Naqibullah.” 19

    Not only did Rumsfeld publicly disavow the peace settlement negotiated by Karzai, but he stated the intention to continue military operations in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban had been defeated. Echoing the White House declaration that “those who harbor terrorists need to be brought to justice,” Rumsfeld threatened Karzai with withdrawal of assistance if he persisted in trying to negotiate peace. If any Afghan anti-Taliban leader made a deal with Mullah Omar, Rumsfeld noted pointedly, “our cooperation would take a turn south.” 20 As result, Mullah Omar fled into hiding and continues to be the spiritual leader of the insurgency, nine years later.

    Pashtun Tribalism and Ethnic Nationalism

    Anand Gopal, in his Kandahar profile, is also good about this.

    Kandahar Taliban had laid down their arms, formally retired from political life, and gone back to their farms. Slowly, over time, they were hauled off to Bagram or killed by the U.S. So the others fled to refuge in Pakistan. Where, among other things, ISI meddling starts.

    Looking now at the outright comic U.S./Taliban negotiations, struggling for a reintegration, Gopal’s theme is a sad one: this was not inevitable and not preordained. This did not have to be.

  3. Garrett says:

    And in lesser cultural issues, this choice of translation is cute:

    They are sitting in one parliament, with one platform, on one dining table, and discuss one issue because the time requires this.

    The Taliban sit on the dining table! No wonder we don’t get along.

  4. Garrett says:

    And also, and somewhat sorry to be talking to myself. Is there a technocratic/meritocratic split also involved?

    By common reputation, low-level Taliban are not the brightest bulbs in the bunch. The insurgent group most likely to make promotion decisions by who prays most devotely. It’s a meritocracy, but not a technocratic meritocracy.

    Afghan politicians will make political jabs about this. “I acknowledge that the Taliban are sincere and devout. But on religious issues, perhaps the Taliban should study more.”

    We can understand this. “I acknowledge that the Christian Right are sincere and devout. But on the Jesus Dinosaur stuff, perhaps they should study more.” The cultural aspects of fundamentalist anti-intellectualism are as frightening as the political aspects.

    Over at AAN, they have a profile of Tayyeb Agha, with a counter-stress.

    Erudite and politically savvy, Agha is one of the few people in the world with direct access to Mullah Omar in Karachi, senior Taleban figures say. He’s been able to parlay such connections into considerable influence, despite being only in his mid-thirties. Most recently he headed the Taleban’s political committee, a body tasked with formulating the political objectives of the movement and developing contacts with foreign governments. He is well respected within leadership circles, both for his political abilities and his education—he is fluent in five languages, including English and Arabic.

    There is a tie-in by group and affiliation.

    In January of 2002, Tayyeb Agha, former Finance Minister Agha Jan Mutassem and former Health Minister Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai traveled to Khas Uruzgan in an attempt to work out a deal with new government.

    Of note, as a general and very problematic issue. Even from AAN and the like, how do we know what we are told is true?

    2) [amended] In an earlier blog, we have given a completely other story about Tayyeb Agha’s family and tribal background: that Tayyeb Agha is a young educated son of Mawlawi Abdullah Zakeri, chairman of the Afghan Ulema Council in Peshawer established pre-Taleban who visited Kabul during the 1990s, advised the mujahedin leadership and Rabbani and later the Taleban and that he is from the Tsinzai, a subtribe of the Hotak (see the original here). It is not the first case that there are different versions, not least to exactly achieve this: to blur the background and make access more difficult.

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