US-Taliban talks won’t lead to lasting peace

Negotiation is one policy option for states seeking a softer, less kinetic approach to countering terrorism. There are a number of cases where it has worked, leading to peace accords, amnesties, and finally decommissioning of terrorist groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Irish Republican Army. Most of the successful cases in recent years involved either Marxist, nationalist-separatist, or irredentist terrorist groups. Dealing with religious groups in general and Islamists in particular is especially complicated. For example, negotiating with al-Qaeda (AQ) or ISIS, even after 18 years of the Global War on Terrorism, still seems to be a bridge too far. Moreover, Islamist groups often have black-and-white worldviews and absolutist agendas, making negotiations all the more difficult. There are typically few or no moderates within the ranks of Islamist terrorist groups. In the case of Algeria, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) only came to terms with the government after security forces adopted extremely repressive measures.

When it comes to the Afghan Taliban, much has been written about the ongoing direct peace talks between U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and an Afghan Taliban delegation headed by Mullah Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai in Doha, Qatar. Peace talks with the Afghan Taliban are not new and this process has run intermittently since 2010 without any positive results. Without going into the details of the previous failures, this article will examine the challenges to negotiating with the Afghan Taliban, laying out six reasons why the prospects for peace in Afghanistan still seem bleak.

The Afghan Taliban’s ideological nature

The Afghan Taliban emerged out of the madrassas (religious schools) of Pakistan in the early 1990s under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar, and since its foundation the movement has been an ideological one steeped in the Pashtunwali tribal code. By the mid-1990s the movement had turned violent and gained backing from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Eventually, the Afghan Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan and enforced sharia law while declaring its supreme commander the “Leader of the Faithful” (Emir al-Momineen). The Taliban are adherents of the ultra-orthodox Sunni-Deobandi school of thought, which they immediately imposed after consolidating their control, and the five years of their rule (1996-2001) were similar to that of ISIS in parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014-18. Even during their fight against the rival Northern Alliance militia, they did not show any flexibility, hold any talks, or accept any mediation. Given the Afghan Taliban’s rigid, radical Islamist beliefs and Manichean worldview, holding talks with them would be difficult at the best of times, and even expert negotiators like Khalilzad would only be able to achieve limited aims, like convincing them to let foreign forces withdraw without much hindrance.

They have the upper hand and sense victory

Most importantly of all, the Afghan Taliban currently has the upper hand in Afghanistan over the U.S., other foreign troops, and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The ANSF are estimated to have suffered more than 28,000 casualties since 2015. The Afghan Taliban is clearly in no hurry either. They are not exhausted, nor do they face financial or logistical issues. Their strength was recently estimated at around 60,000 operating in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan, and they are able to contest a large part of Afghan territory.

The Taliban are the descendants of the mujahedeen of the Afghan War (1979-89), who fought Soviet occupation. Some senior Taliban leaders, like Mullah Omar, Mullah Rabbani, and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, were veterans of the conflict, while others were the children of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. They believe they defeated the Red Army when it was one of the world’s most powerful militaries, and the new generation of Taliban fighters thinks they can beat the Americans and Europeans now too. Even when they were driven from power after the U.S. invasion in 2001, they stuck to their Islamist narrative and never condemned AQ, Osama bin Laden, or their terrorist attacks on American soil.

In the five years since the withdrawal of most U.S. troops after the end of the surge in 2014, the Taliban have continuously waged war in most Afghan provinces, even briefly occupying the cities of Kunduz in 2017 and Ghazni in 2018. The sense that victory is near is intoxicating, despite their heavy losses. According to recent case studies of negotiations with terrorist groups, a ceasefire is considered pivotal in peace talks. In the Afghanistan context, however, there has been no ceasefire and talks are ongoing even though the Afghan Taliban continues to carry out attacks on Afghan forces and civilians. As this makes clear, they are not serious participants in talks for or attempts to achieve a peaceful solution. Their shadow government — with governors, a parallel system of justice in villages, and taxes and tolls — indicates they still consider themselves the country’s real rulers. Under these conditions, talks could realistically only be held over safe passage for foreign troops, rather than to secure a more comprehensive deal to ensure a peaceful Afghanistan.

The corrupt and incompetent Afghan government

Another key issue is government corruption and incompetence. The Afghan state has not been able to build its institutions despite strong support from the U.S. and other European countries. The army and police are known for their corruption and highhandedness and have little support among the local population. Absenteeism and desertion are growing problems for the ANSF. Even Afghan army commandos, considered the most effective and highly trained part of the military, have not been able to turn the tide. They have suffered heavy losses of late, shattering the government’s hopes of countering the Afghan Taliban. Given this situation, it is highly unlikely that the Afghan Taliban will hold talks with the internationally-recognized Kabul government to discuss the country’s future.

Despite their overtures to America, the Afghan Taliban are in no mood to hold a similar dialogue with President Ashraf Ghani’s government. The group seems hell-bent on only talking to the U.S. and excluding the Ghani administration. This is quite an impractical demand as the Afghan government is recognized as the legitimate government and represents the country in all world forums. The key question, then, is what is going to happen to the current regime and what will be its role in the future of Afghanistan? For now, this remains unanswered.

A disconnect between leaders and field commanders

According to recent interviews with former Afghan Taliban members and supporters, there is a clear disconnect between Taliban field commanders and the leadership holding talks with the U.S. in Doha. Most of the senior and most seasoned Afghan Taliban leaders have either been killed or permanently settled in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions and cities, and the latter have become increasingly disconnected from the fight and their field commanders over the past 18 years. War has become a part-time business for them — and this is especially true of the delegates in Doha. Taliban field commanders and shuras continue to carry out attacks on Afghan security forces and U.S. troops across the country, contravening the spirit of the peace process. The field commanders are only interested in defeating the U.S. and Afghan forces militarily, with an eye to recapturing Kabul and consolidating their control over Afghanistan in the event of a withdrawal of foreign troops. There is a glaring lack of trust between the delegates and the fighters, and the delegates lack the influence needed to persuade the fighters to halt or even reduce the frequency of their attacks while talks are under way. It follows that there is no guarantee that any peace agreement would be honored by the Taliban rank and file in the field. Even if U.S. and Afghan Taliban negotiators can agree on terms, there is no way to implement an accord as things currently stand, and the chances are good that violations of the deal could lead to the collapse of the whole process.

The status of the Emir al-Momineen

Another thorny issue is what will happen to the Afghan Taliban’s head, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the “Leader of the Faithful.” There has been no discussion about his future role in the post-U.S. context. Religious and fundamentalist movements rely heavily on their emir, and this is particularly true for the Taliban. The office of the Emir al-Momineen was established by Mullah Omar in 1996 and retains a special status. Since the beginning of the Taliban movement, it has played a pivotal and almost cult-like role. The Taliban believe they have revived the institution from the early days of Islam and thus it cannot be changed. The question is how this office could be incorporated into a democratic Afghanistan. The prospects are dim. Even if Afghan Taliban negotiators were to agree, it would likely lead to splintering or fighting between factions.

Al-Qaeda and foreign fighters

First under Osama bin Laden and now under Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQ’s emirs have consistently pledged allegiance to the Taliban, and as a result, technically speaking, AQ is part and parcel of the broader Afghan Taliban movement and under its patronage. The Taliban leadership has not severed ties with AQ, nor has it condemned or restrained its actions. For the Taliban, AQ was a guest that later became part of their movement, and there is no indication at all that the Afghan Taliban would cut their ties with AQ and other Islamist terrorist groups.

Conclusion and implications

The talks between U.S. Representative Khalilzad and the Afghan Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abbas Stanikzai appear not to be leading toward a peaceful settlement for Afghanistan. Instead, they seem to be paving the way for a peaceful withdrawal of U.S. forces. This feels like déjà vu and a repeat of the 1989 Geneva Accords, when the Soviet Union hammered out an exit strategy and left behind a frail pro-Moscow regime in Kabul. Repeating this mistake would be disastrous for Afghanistan and the region and would mean forfeiting 18 years of U.S. gains. The Afghan Taliban is stubborn and believes it holds the upper hand; it is in no mood to hold talks with or even recognize the Ghani regime in Kabul. This means a civil war is in the offing in Afghanistan with devastating effects for the whole region.

President Trump is seeking an exit strategy without considering the ramifications. A hasty departure would strike a tremendous blow to U.S. security policy in the region. Russia and Iran would have a field day, and Pakistan would also likely play its cards in Afghanistan. For China an Afghanistan under Taliban rule would likely become a safe haven for militant Islamist Uighurs, including Uighur fighters of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) returning from Syria, and Beijing’s investments in Afghanistan’s minerals and other natural resources could be at risk as well.

Under this scenario, the future of the Afghan government appears bleak, but there is a slight possibility that it may survive the Taliban onslaught if the U.S. government continues to bankroll it, unlike the Soviets, who cut off all aid to President Mohammad Najibullah in 1992, causing his government to promptly collapse. But the odds aren’t good, and if the bulk of U.S. troops withdraw by 2020 and the rest follow in the next few years, Afghanistan would doubtless wind up back in the headlines soon, and might even regain its old status as one of the world’s most troubled regions.