Understanding the Adversary: What the Taliban Think About Afghanistan Peace Negotiations
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.
The peace talks went on uninterrupted, a marathon session for six intense days, yet barely a moment in a war that has lasted so much longer.
Still, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad emerged from the negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar last month with a message of hope, choosing to broadcast his message via a social media platform that didn’t even exist when the conflict in Afghanistan began.
Having assumed his assignment to end the longest war in American history, Khalilzad was upbeat. He went so far as to signal during a recent interview with a local television station in Kabul that “it is possible” to reach a peace deal with the Taliban before this year’s presidential elections in Afghanistan – now delayed until July.
Such optimism. But this hope for a political solution suggests U.S. officials lack a concrete understanding of the view about negotiations from the men who sit on the other side of the table. It’s not that the Taliban are shy about expressing their view. A trove of information in the Pashto language is published online: edicts, orders, fatwas, and manifestos, all waiting to be examined. I have delved into and translated many of the documents in my postgraduate research. The attitudes revealed are compelling, and deeply worrying for the prospects of lasting peace.
The Taliban’s Logic for Peace Negotiations
As with the justification for their “jihad” in Afghanistan based on “sharia,” the Taliban also turned to “sharia” to guide their “negotiations” with the Americans. The group has published a series of fatwa-like commentaries under the title “Afghanistan’s contemporary jihad based on sharia” on its Pashto website. In April last year, they declared:
In response to the US occupation, defensive jihad is mandatory based on sharia, and if the enemy is keen for peace, then peace must be also based on sharia.
Peace according to “sharia” is further explained in subsequent documents. In June, the Taliban reaffirmed that the goal of their current “jihad” is the “end of occupation” and the introduction of the “rule of sharia in Afghanistan.” According to the group, the goals of any kind of potential peace should be precisely the “same as the goals of ongoing jihad” itself.
In its religious manifesto titled, “The goals of peace with the Americans should be based on sharia,” the Taliban maintain:
Based on sharia, peace is a moral jihad, if the mentioned goals of jihad [end of occupation and rule of sharia] can be achieved through peace, then there should be peace. And if the goals of muslims are not achieved in peace, then peace is prohibited, and jihad remains obligatory against occupiers.
What these files reveal is that the Taliban believe “Afghans” have two choices for the future in Afghanistan: “jihad” or “peace.” The goals of both options are the same: the “end of occupation” and “rule of sharia.” This Taliban logic for peace has been consistent, with the ideology viewed as a means to recruit fighters and, to some extent, to appeal for local support for the insurgency.
But more than this, it creates an impression that the Taliban would not accede to the presence of even a small number of American troops in Afghanistan. To do so would mean the group has abandoned its ideological appeal to free Afghanistan from “American occupation,” a means by which it can and has already developed a degree of popular legitimacy.
Rumors spread in December that the Taliban and Khalilzad agreed that the United States would be permitted to have two military bases in Afghanistan. The group immediately denied this. To sustain their narrative, the Taliban insist they will continue to fight until the very last American soldier leaves the country.
So the U.S. negotiators would be naïve to believe that a political solution with the group will allow the Americans to retain military bases. Such an outcome would require the Taliban to shift dramatically in their narrative of struggle, compromising their credibility with both prospective recruits and segments of the population that are sympathetic. There is no public evidence of such an about-face.
Talk with Americans, But Not Afghan Officials
A common theme in the Taliban view on peace is that the Taliban and the United States – not the Afghan government – are the “main parties” in the country’s peace negotiations. The Taliban’s reason for this claim? Because the Americans started the war in Afghanistan in 2001 against the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” by its accord, only these two sides can end it.
Accordingly, the Taliban have consistently cited two key reasons to refuse to negotiate with the Afghan government directly. In an official commentary under the title of, “Why negotiations are not possible with the Kabul administration!” the group argues, first, that the Afghan government does not have authority over key issues that concern the Taliban, including the “withdrawal of troops,” “delisting of Taliban leaders from blacklist,” “recognition of political office,” and the “release of prisoners.”
Secondly, the group believes the elites in the “Kabul regime” have no interest in the withdrawal of American forces, “because their existence is dependent on foreign troops.” The Taliban also cite disagreements within the National Unity Government of Afghanistan and differences of opinions about peace between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. For example, in June 2017, criticizing the “Kabul Process,” the Taliban issued a daily commentary, “Is the Kabul process really for peace?” which stated:
While Ashraf Ghani described the agenda of the gathering as peace negotiations with the Taliban … speaking to the representatives of more than 25 countries, his Chief Executive and his Foreign Minister did not attend the meeting.
The Taliban want to discredit the major achievements of the past 18 years, including the democratic state that the group does not recognize as legitimate. They don’t stop there. They also want to be the boss in talks aimed at ending the “occupation,” leaving the Afghan government sidelined. For the Taliban, if officials of the Afghan government are at the same negotiation table, it would mean that they are not leading the process.
The Taliban’s leaders and members believe they are the authentic and legitimate representatives of the Afghan people. In the same series of commentaries on “jihad,” the Taliban issued another declaration under the subtitle of “Who should lead a national peace process with the Americans in Afghanistan?” Referencing some Hanafi scholars, the Taliban write:
A national peace [process] with infidels is not the duty of any individual. This [peace process] is a social matter of Muslims, and Sharia has given this right to the Imam of the Muslims. Particularly while Afghanistan is functionally under occupation of Americans, in such situation, decisions of peace, war, and negotiations with infidels and occupiers is the responsibility and duty of the individual who practically holds the leadership of decision making in the struggle against the occupiers.
In other words, the Taliban leader, Mawlawi Hibatullah.
The Taliban in the New Afghanistan
The group explains its approach towards a political solution to the conflict in two stages and based on two factors – external and internal. As a Taliban representative put it in January 2016 at Pugwash conference in Qatar:
The matters, related to foreign troops will be discussed with the Americans in the first stage and the rest of the issues that relates to Afghan people, will be resolved with Afghans afterwards.
Whereas the external issue is the withdrawal of troops, internal issues include the system of government the Taliban aim to establish after the troops’ withdrawal. In a Taliban commentary, “The straight way towards peace,” social ills from corruption to criminality are blamed on the current constitution, grounded in a belief that peace and justice prevailed before American occupation in 2001 under the laws it enforced. As the group made clear in a 2016 comment:
The Kabul administration’s current constitution, established under the shadow of occupation, is not acceptable for the Afghan people, as it does not fulfil their needs … and cannot serve justice to the poor.
The Taliban want the dominant focus of the peace process to be negotiations over the withdrawal of American troops. On internal issues with Afghans, changes to the constitution would likely be very significant, as the Taliban still believe in strict laws, which they consider imperative for returning Afghanistan to what was, in the group’s view, the stable and socially cohesive country that existed before the United States invaded.
Nonetheless, the Taliban are attempting to portray themselves as a more tolerant group, maintaining that they are “committed to civic activism, freedom of speech, women’s rights, facilitating education, and preserving and developing national projects.” The key issue, however, is how the Taliban’s understanding of these values is shaped by the core commitment to a particular interpretation of sharia. The group also presents itself as determined to offer mutual respect with neighboring states and all countries around the world.
Where does this leave the negotiations? Any progress toward ending the longest war in American history would require accepting some mind-boggling demands from the Taliban, or substantial policy and ideological shifts on their part, which seem unlikely.
Patience is the most important need. Yet it won’t help unless American diplomats understand their adversary – specifically, the Taliban’s commitment to its desire to rule a “Sharia-governed” Afghanistan unchallenged, and as a sovereign power.
In a series of tweets, Khalilzad affirmed that significant progress had been made on the two vital issues of counter-terrorism and troop withdrawal, and also vowed that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” As he is set to meet the Taliban in the next round of negotiations scheduled for the end of this month, Khalilzad needs to be vigilant about post-withdrawal chaos that will ensue in the absence of strong institutions and inclusive democratic government. Meaningful and long-lasting political changes that ensure enduring peace do not just materialize for the sake of meeting a deadline, whether for the Afghan election, or the next American one.
Baheer Wardak is researching a PhD on the Taliban’s strategic communications at Monash University in Melbourne. He holds Master of Diplomacy and Master of International Relations degrees from the Australian National University.
Image: U.S. Mission Uzbekistan