The Taliban’s political leaders signed a peace deal — but its military commanders could put that at risk

On Feb. 29, the United States and the Taliban signed a historic peace agreement, calling for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops in exchange for Taliban guarantees not to use Afghanistan as a base for terrorist attacks against the West. Although there were early snags — including a disagreement over when the Afghan government would release Taliban prisoners — the deal represents a rare chance to reach a negotiated settlement in America’s longest war.

The Taliban’s military council has instructed its commanders and governors to avoid targeting international troops — but the Taliban has resumed fighting Afghan forces in earnest. This puts U.S. forces at risk from accidental attack, but also from a deliberate attempt to spoil the cease-fire or any future agreement.

These risks highlight an important organizational divide within the Taliban between its senior political figures mostly based in Pakistan, who have been responsible for negotiations with the United States, and Taliban military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan. How will this divide impact the prospects of a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan?

Understanding the Taliban’s political-military divide

The Taliban’s primary decision-making body is a political, rather than a military, one. But Taliban military commanders are both highly influential and less flexible than the group’s more pragmatic political leadership. During the June 2018 cease-fire, for example, many younger fighters saw the cessation of hostilities as counterproductive.

Most of the Taliban’s current negotiators have never fought on the front lines — or they’ve been out of combat for years. Haibatullah Akhundzada, a former religious teacher without much military exposure, currently leads the Taliban’s organization. The head of the Quetta Shura (a central political body of the Afghan Taliban) and Akhundzada’s deputy, Mohammad Yaqub, shares Akhundzada’s lack of military experience.

Tensions between political and military leaders within an insurgent group are hardly unusual, though. In U.S. history, for instance, even one of the most advanced and institutionalized rebellions, the Confederate States of America, suffered from significant bouts of political-military infighting about appropriate strategies and tactics.

My research suggests insurgent military commanders and fighters often have bureaucratic incentives to continue fighting. Their political power and material well-being may depend on continued conflict — and this makes them potential candidates to become spoilers to cease-fires or negotiated settlements.

Who has more incentive to negotiate? Political leaders.

How does political command and control affect the odds of reaching a negotiated settlement? I collected global data from 1945 to 2011 for my dissertation on political control in active insurgent groups to investigate this question. Here’s what I find: Insurgencies controlled primarily by their senior political figures, rather than military commanders, are more than twice as likely to end in negotiated agreements.

In these groups, political leaders are better positioned to make concessions to which the group can actually commit. In contrast, groups in which military commanders play a larger role in decision-making are less likely to end conflicts through negotiated settlements because political negotiators lack the ability to enforce cease-fires on the battlefield.

The level of political control within insurgent groups can vary considerably — usually depending on who controls the sources of material support flowing into the organization, including arms, resource wealth and taxation.

In governments undergoing political transition, one of the most crucial challenges to civilian control over the military is gaining control over the military’s finances and material supplies. In many countries, militaries have access to vast monetary resources, which allow them to become independent of official defense budgets provided by the state and to finance operations that may not have the approval of civilian authorities.

Insurgent political leaders face a similar challenge when dealing with the distribution of resources in their organizations. Inducing insurgent military commanders and fighters to follow orders is a challenge for senior political figures, who generally cannot rely on third parties, such as a judiciary system, to enforce their rules.

Who controls the Taliban?

In the case of the Taliban, political leaders have attempted to centralize material support tasks under their control. Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the de facto leader of the Afghan Taliban from 2010 until his death in May 2016, began to shift the group into a politically controlled organization by centralizing its finances and cultivating his own networks. Under Mansour’s direction, the Taliban formalized an extensive alternative administration, including public services, a court system and taxes on business and trade activities.

In recent years, Akhundzada further strengthened his control of the group’s material support base. In the narcotics trade, for example, the Taliban has moved from simply taxing the profits of heroin refiners to opening refineries themselves and using the Central Financial Commission of the Quetta Shura to take all of the profits.

Akhundzada also increased the powers of the Taliban’s shadow governors in controlling this revenue, making it easier for him to divert funds directly to himself and his allies. While Akhundzada benefited politically from the largesse of individual Taliban leaders, the Taliban’s military wing feels the lack of these funds, as well as diminished fighter morale and trust in senior political figures.

At the same time, the Taliban’s military leaders have found success on the battlefield against the Afghan government, making them less likely to support concessions that might be required to reach a lasting agreement.

As the Trump administration’s peace efforts move to the next stage, the ability of Taliban political leaders to maintain command and control within the group will become more important. In September, Trump invited Taliban leaders to sign a deal at Camp David but called off the meeting after fighters from the group killed a U.S. service member.

While the Taliban’s leaders believe that Trump is eager to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, this seems unlikely to happen if Taliban field commanders fail to honor commitments made by their political leaders.