Insurgent Peace-Making: A New Approach to End the War in Afghanistan


America should be wary of sending more troops to Afghanistan. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this month, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson, called for thousands of more advisors to assist the Afghan security forces in their fight against the Taliban. U.S. forces have been at war in Afghanistan for over 15 years and he cost has been great: over 2,350 American war dead and almost 700 billion dollars spent. And for what? Far from defeated, the Taliban appear to be in the ascendancy and are wrestling a third of the country away from government control. Back in October 2015, Donald Trump suggested that he would “begrudgingly” keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But this prompted him to ask, “Are they going to be there for the next 200 years?”

Commanders in Afghanistan and military pundits in Washington have for years argued that Western forces must gain on the upper hand on the battlefield before the Taliban would enter into peace talks. Writing in War on the Rocks in December, Joe Collins repeated this line of thinking. At the height of the military surge under President Barack Obama in 2010, the United States had just over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, serving alongside 30,000 more troops in the International Security Assistance Force coalition. Today is NATO has 13,000 troops in Afghanistan under its Resolute Support Mission and 8,500 of these are American. It is hard to imagine that a few thousand more will make any difference to the fortunes of the Afghan security forces. They are losing, and losing badly, primarily due to the endemic corruption that has undermined these and other institutions as well as public support for the government.

In mid-February, Politico reported that “key members of Congress are eager for President Donald Trump to consider a new course” in Afghanistan. The starting point for any such rethink must be a hard look at what is going on inside the Taliban. But I am struck  by how little consideration internal Taliban dynamics receive in Washington circles. In November 2016, Michael Semple and I held direct, exploratory talks with seven well-connected Taliban leaders. The context for our discussions was the failure of previous attempts at peace talks, and reports that the new Taliban emir, Maulawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, had failed to exert his authority. We sought to find out more about the new Taliban landscape and the potential for re-starting peace talks. What we discovered surprised us.

Our talks were held over ten days at a location outside of Afghanistan. We engaged in lengthy iterative interviews with each person over many hours. Our interviewees represented all of the major networks in the Taliban except the Haqqanis and included two former Taliban deputy ministers, two former Taliban provincial governors, and a former front commander. We published our findings last month in a report for the Royal United Services Institute. Our headline is that the Taliban is in disarray. Far from emboldened by their battlefield successes of the past two years, a great many among the Taliban rank-and-file are disillusioned. They have lost faith in the war following the withdrawal of Western combat forces that, as one put it, “has nothing to offer but destruction and the slaughter of Afghans.” Ramping up the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan risks re-injecting a sense of purpose into the Taliban war effort. Semple and I conclude that the time is right to explore peace talks with the Taliban, but in a completely new and different way.

Our interviews consistently revealed the new emir to be even more powerless than most outside observers appreciate. This is a major change for a movement used to strong leadership. As Semple and I have noted elsewhere, according to Taliban doctrine it is the divinely guided leader that ensures the movement serves the interest of Islam. The pious Mullah Mohammed Omar embodied this ideal, even when he was no longer among the living. His deputy and successor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, was altogether more material in outlook. He used coercion instead of doctrine to enforce Taliban discipline. Haibatullah, the current emir, took charge when Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May 2016. For Western observers, he was a surprise choice as the new leader. Haibatullah was head of the Taliban’s Ulema Council, its highest religious authority, but he was not a major player within the movement.  He was not even significant enough to make it onto the U.N. sanctions list. His appointment did not augur well for re-starting the embryonic Pakistan-sponsored peace process. Barnett Rubin, former senior State Department advisor on Afghanistan, predicted that “The new leader, who is weak and untried, will be totally unable to make the decision to join the process.”

Rubin was proven right. To a man, our interviewees attested to the weakness of the new emir. As one former Taliban provincial governor told us, “all know that Haibatullah is a symbol and does not have any authority.” Our interviewees described how Haibatullah was unable to get access to Taliban finances, to appoint his own people, or to remove those that defy his rule. The head of the Taliban Finance Commission, Gul Agha, is simply refusing to hand over the cash. According to one account, Agha claims that it disappeared with Mansour. Allies who backed Haibatullah, such as the former head of the Taliban Central Military Commission, Mullah Qayyum Zakir, are without a senior appointment. One interviewee described how Zakir “has gone quiet: you can only get hold of his secretary, who takes a message.”

Several interviewees highlighted the rise of the Mansour network, now led by the shadow governor of Helmand, Mohammed Rahim. Sitting on the lucrative drug fields of central and northern Helmand, the Mansour network have stopped forwarding revenue to Quetta. Three interviewees noted how Haibatullah has been “surrounded by the comrades of Mansour,” who alternatively manipulate and bypass him. As one put it, “the friends of Mullah Mansour…they are in power, not Haibatullah. They have control over all finances and supplies.”

Viewed from the perspective of the Taliban rank and file, things don’t look good. Battlefield successes have not come cheap: Our interviewees highlighted heavy Taliban losses, in particular in Farah, Faryab, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Kunduz provinces. The new leader is weak and many worry for the future of the movement. The war continues but with no end in sight. There is no plan for converting tactical victories into political success, and there is no confidence in Haibatullah’s ability to produce such a plan. Added to this is growing distaste among many Taliban for the un-Islamic behaviour of some commanders, who mercilessly target civilians. As one Taliban interviewee with close links to the Quetta Shura observed, “now the ranks of the movement are very vulnerable because they don’t know where they are going and what will happen tomorrow.”

Compounding this sense of vulnerability is the expulsion Afghan refugees by Pakistan. Human Rights Watch recently reported:

In the second half of 2016, a toxic combination of [Pakistani] deportation threats and police abuses pushed out nearly 365,000 of the country’s 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, as well as just over 200,000 of the country’s estimated 1 million undocumented Afghans.

These people returned to nothing in the bleak Afghan winter. In November, three of our interviewees described the situation as a “humanitarian calamity.” More to the point, for Taliban fighters with families in Pakistan, it adds to the growing sense of uncertainty and insecurity.

Given the widespread disillusionment among Taliban with the conduct and direction of the war, Semple and I conclude that the time is right to make peace. However, a new approach is required. Previously, the United States has tried to deal directly with the Taliban senior leadership. Under Haibatullah, this is a non-starter. In our paper, Semple and I outline an approach, which we call “insurgent peace-making” that would out-maneuver a divided Taliban senior leadership. This would involve a peace process open to all Taliban with standing within their own network, and able to speak for a sizable group of fighters, and who are looking for a negotiated end to the conflict. The basic idea would be to assemble a broad Taliban pro-peace coalition.

The collapse of authority under Haibatullah opens the way for such a move. Our interviewees indicated that a large number of Taliban commanders would be prepared to join such a process, bringing many thousands of fighters with them. Crucially, we warn that this cannot be seen as a mechanism for splitting the Taliban. For senior Taliban dissidents to be effective in advancing the case for a negotiated end to the conflict, it is essential that they maintain the respect and support of their comrade networks within the Taliban.

Insurgent peace-making does not offer a quick or even certain end to the war.  The simple fact is when it comes to Afghanistan, “There are no quick-fix solutions.” This is the conclusion of a major report just published by the Center for a New American Security. However, our research does suggest that insurgent peace-making offers the best chance to reduce the violence and begin the talks. We think this reason enough to give it a chance.


Theo Farrell is Professor of International Security and Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at City, University of London. He was previously Head of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.