LONDON - Civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose to a new high in 2016 amid the ongoing Taliban insurgency, with 3,500 killed and close to 8,000 wounded, the United Nations reported Monday. But a new analysis suggests the Taliban is deeply divided, presenting an opportunity for "insurgent peace-making."
A study based on dozens of interviews with Taliban insiders suggests exploiting fractures within the group’s rank and file.
There were "senior commanders who were, in a sense, using suicide attacks to build up their reputation," said professor Theo Farrell of the Royal United Services Institute, a co-author of the report. "So there are large parts of the Taliban that are fully committed to the fight, but there is a potential here, nonetheless, to de-escalate the conflict."
That potential, according to Farrell, lies in the weakness of the Taliban's leadership.
The new leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, is widely seen as "weak and divisive leader," Farrell said. "Many of our interviewees referred to him simply as a symbolic leader. The real power in the Taliban lies elsewhere. And so, therefore, there is a view among the rank and file that, effectively, the movement has become leaderless."
Informal peace talks have taken place between the government and the Taliban leadership. However, senior Taliban commanders have demanded that the 13,000 NATO-led foreign troops in Afghanistan withdraw before formal talks begin.
Speaking in December, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the continuing bloodshed on Pakistan’s failure to take on militant groups in its territory; Islamabad denies the charge.
"Some still provide sanctuary in support or tolerate these networks," Ghani said. "As [Mullah Rahmatullah] Kakazada, one of the key figures in the Taliban movement, recently said, 'If they did not have sanctuary in Pakistan, they would not last a month.'"
Farrell argues the senior Taliban leadership should be circumvented, enabling dissenting commanders to meet and forge a common purpose of ending the conflict.