DOHA, Qatar — When the Taliban opened their political office in Qatar last week, stepping into the halogen glare of TV cameras, it was the first time in a dozen years that the world had gotten to see members of the insurgents’ inner circle — and they seemed different. Urbane and educated, they conducted interviews in English, Arabic, French, and German with easy fluency, passed out and received phone numbers and, most strikingly, talked about peace.
Back in Afghanistan, though, it has been the same old Taliban: Fighters have waged suicide attacks that have taken an increasing toll on civilians, and on Tuesday the militants staged a deadly strike right at the heart of the heavily secured government district in Kabul.
For officials watching the talks, those contradictions offer a picture of a top Taliban leadership taking advantage of two different tracks — orchestrating the fighting element even while setting up a new international diplomatic foothold in Doha. This complicates efforts to pin down the insurgents’ true goals.
At the Taliban office, it quickly became clear that the contingent’s members had all been carefully vetted for their diplomatic credentials. Though many were officials in the old Taliban government, often sent abroad, none is known as a fighter. And they all are considered loyalists to the Taliban’s reclusive leader in exile, Mullah Omar.
Further, while the delegates said they were there to talk peace with the Afghan government and US officials, on closer examination, what they did — essentially setting up a virtual embassy to the world — sent what many saw as the reverse message, raising serious questions about the insurgent movement’s real motives in going to Qatar in the first place.
“From minute one, the Taliban didn’t play this by the book,” said a Western official who has tracked the Taliban for a number of years. “They overstepped pretty well agreed-upon guidelines.”
The identities and backgrounds of the delegation’s key members — and thus some of the Taliban leadership’s aims in choosing them — can now be detailed based on interviews with four disparate officials and on public appearances by the group in Qatar. The sources include a member of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council in Pakistan; a Taliban military commander from eastern Afghanistan; a former Taliban official; and a Western official in Kabul who is close to the Doha talks and spoke about the delegation’s general approach. All included the same nine key names, though their lists differed slightly in other ways.
“Every single member of the delegation has been picked by the leadership council after a long series of lengthy discussions and sometimes tense talks,” said the eastern Taliban military commander. “There were certain criteria they should meet. First was loyalty to Mullah Mohammad Omar. Second was having experience in diplomacy. Third was speaking at least one foreign language, either English or Arabic.”
Among the delegation are six former diplomats, five former ministers or deputy ministers, and four preachers — one of them so admired for his oratory that the Qatari defense minister is said to be in the congregation when he makes guest appearances at his mosque.
They are all seen as close adherents of Mullah Omar. One, Tayeb Agha, the apparent leader of the delegation, was his secretary and chief of staff.