Talking to the Taliban With the Wrong Assumptions: The Conundrum of Afghan Peace
In his 1995 memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara boiled down the American failure in Vietnam to one important factor: America’s inability to fully grasp the complexity of its adversaries and the environment in which they operated. He wrote: “[t]he basic lesson is: understand your opponent…[w]e don’t understand the Bosnians, we don’t understand the Chinese and we don’t really understand the Iranians.”
Little has changed in the quarter-century since McNamara’s reflection. After 18 years of fighting in Afghanistan, the United States is diving into a peace process based on false assumptions about its primary adversary, the Afghan Taliban. Namely, U.S. policymakers are assuming that the Taliban fight simply for political power, rather than for a rigid ideology, and that they operate through unified command and control. Based on these premises, America seeks to negotiate a power-sharing settlement with the group’s leadership to bring an end to the violence. But these dangerously flawed assumptions about the adversary could set Afghanistan on a course toward an even deadlier conflict.
The first assumption mistakes the Taliban’s struggle to revive an Islamic Emirate for an effort to gain a share of political power. But there is a difference between struggling for power and struggling to implement an ideology. The Taliban leadership might not have tangible power in a political structure, but so long as their demands are met (withdrawal of foreign forces and a sharia-ruled state), they will likely take that deal. Similarly, if they were given the chance to rule within the current political structure without revamping it completely, they would probably reject that deal.
Since the group’s inception, the Taliban have been a puritanical movement determined to establish a sharia-ruled state. Their humiliating defeat in 2001 and the subsequent insurgency have not made them any less resolute or more moderate. The movement still refers to itself as The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and envisions an Islamic system — one that strongly resembles an emirate — as the outcome of any political process to end the conflict. In their statement in the first Moscow meeting with Afghan political figures earlier this year and in previous statements, the Taliban have repeatedly opposed the current Afghan constitution as “un-Islamic,” despite all its Islamic features, and labeled women’s rights immoral. In practice, the group has implemented in areas under its control a swift justice system marked by executions, stoning, and beheadings without due process. They have kept their ban on music and other forms of art and have denied women their basic rights. The Taliban’s belief in a divine source of legitimacy for their Amir-ul-Momenin, “leader of the faithful,” defies any notion of democratic accountability and a pluralistic public sphere.
The movement’s interest in talks is not a result of war-weariness, nor should it be seen as a sign that the Taliban are willing to compromise. Rather, the Taliban are talking because they calculate that a desperate United States will deliver the outcome of a military victory — withdrawal of troops and a sharia-ruled state — at the negotiation table.
The Taliban leadership have little interest in acquiring office or seeking resources. Their ideology prevents them from agreeing to anything short of a structure dominated by their fundamentalist value system. The Taliban’s unwillingness to join the current political structure or any similar setting isn’t because its leadership lacks political will, but rather because its values prevent it from doing so — its fundamentalist ideology would crumble in any system with pluralism and diversity. A statement by the Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada marking the Muslim celebration of Eid portrays that ideological rigidity: He vowed to continue fighting until “ending the occupation and establishment of an Islamic system.” The head of the group’s Qatar office, Mullah Baradar, made similar comments, explicitly renouncing the pursuit of power: Now that God has “given [the Taliban] victory in the political and military fields,” he said, “instead of a desire for power, they should think about service to Islam.” That uncompromising tone was reinforced in an interview of Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who said the group would return triumphant, and remarks by their senior negotiator, Abbas Stanekzai, who said the United States will soon withdraw “either of their own accord or will be forced out.”
Moreover, rigid ideology is also the Taliban’s political capital, differentiating them from other mujahideen groups, such as Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Etehad-e-Islami and Asef Mohseni’s Harakat-e-Islami, who support the post-2004 constitutional order. If the Taliban give up on a sharia-based system and agree to join a democratic process defined by separation of powers, pluralistic politics, and independent media, they would lose their most distinguishing characteristic.
Hezb-e-Islami of Gulbedin Hekmatyar, who signed a peace deal in September 2016 with the Afghan government, is an example of a failed effort to transform from an insurgent group into a political party — the group has lost its political significance with its main objective, the withdrawal of foreign forces, yet unmaterialized. The significance of this point and its implications for the morale and incentive of foot soldiers is not lost on the movement’s leadership. Baradar’s message about his 16 days of talks with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in late February particularly spoke to that worry. “In all these days, I can’t think of a point or a thought that may have gone against our principles,” he assured his fighters.
Command and Control and Local Political Economy
Second, the structure of the current U.S.-Taliban talks assumes that the Taliban movement operates through one centralized command structure, in which all decisions are made at the leadership councils in Pakistan and communicated through the hierarchy. This view of the Taliban also supposes that all Taliban forces share common incentives to fight, and that those incentives are all equally ideological. This in turn implies that a grand bargain with the leadership could end the bloodshed across Afghanistan.
But such an assumption ignores both the localized nature and the economic aspects of the conflict. Over the past decade, the violence has become extremely local, with parties from both sides fighting tribal feuds and personal grievances. From early on, local power holders took advantage of their alliance with the U.S. military to win out in tribal and local rivalries by labeling their adversaries as Taliban, as detailed in Anand Gopal’s book No Good Men Among the Living. As the war continued, misuse of state authority further compounded local dynamics of conflict as some felt compelled to take arms against the government. Longstanding local disputes over land and family feuds further incentivized allegiance to either side of the conflict. For some insurgents, a dysfunctional justice system or personal grievances against the state and its agents motivated allegiance to the Taliban leadership.
The assumption about the Taliban’s unity of command also ignores the broader political economy of the conflict. Over the years, the war economy has grown into a complex market in which drugs, weapons, information, and protection are traded with handsome margins. Most people who make a profit in this war, legally or illegally, don’t subscribe to the Taliban ideology, politically or religiously. What is important to them is the sustainability of instability as an economic market. These actors include forces who might side with the Taliban only out of economic interest, but more importantly those who are against the Taliban ideologically but find the continuation of the conflict imperative for their interests. Warlords, local power holders who engage in smuggling of drugs and natural resources, and those who profit from contracts all complicate the prospect of resolving the conflict through a political settlement.
Drug traffickers, who expend considerable sums for protection, are one of the largest financiers of the Taliban insurgency. In some cases, even poppy farmers who have lost their livelihood to the government’s counternarcotic campaigns have joined the Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani has rightly said that criminality is an important pillar of the current conflict. Taxing local populations, extorting development contractors and local businesses, and exploiting natural resources are all examples of the Taliban’s engagement in illegal activities that on one hand generate nonideological incentives for conflict and on the other, makes local commanders less dependent on the core leadership in Pakistan. In 2005, thousands of fighters from the Alizai tribe in Helmand joined the Taliban after Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, the provincial governor, was sacked over suspected links to drug trafficking. As the United Nations’ Taliban monitoring team reported in 2014, “economic opportunism has shifted the Taliban from a group based on religiously couched ideology to a coalition of increasingly criminalized networks, guided by the profit motive.” While the political leadership with whom the United States negotiates have remained largely ideological, those incentivized by factors other than religious beliefs are far from an ignorable minority across the Taliban ranks.
Profiteers of the war also include businessmen and warlords who have become multimillionaires through contracting with international forces and the Afghan government. They have contributed to an oligopolistic economy with political power and economic wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. The recent parliamentary election, dominated by wealthy candidates who have profited mainly from international contracting, highlighted the incredible political maneuvering ability of these oligarchs. Newly elected Speaker of the House Mir Rahman Rahmani, who previously was barely known on the political scene, is brother of General Baba Jan, a former Northern Alliance warlord, and father of Ajmal Rahmani, himself a newly elected MP in his early 30s, who has become one of the country’s richest men through contracting in fuel and logistics with American forces at Bagram airbase. Until 2011 when private security companies were disbanded, many of the largest ones were owned by relatives of the most senior government officials, including the president’s and vice president’s brothers. Many warlords went so far as to use local militias to secure contracts in construction, logistics, and mining in areas where delivering results has been nearly impossible for others. Some power holders, especially in the south, have actively played both sides, fabricating insecurity to create a market for their services — protection for logistics convoys and development projects.
A settlement that could result in stability brings no benefit to these groups. To the contrary, they have ample incentive to sabotage efforts that could disrupt their local activities. A peace deal could mean diversion of government attention and resources away from the daily struggle for survival against the insurgency. Those fighting for nonpolitical and nonideological causes under the Taliban banner would break up as soon as they realize the diminishing utility of the label. And those profiting off the armed conflict are bound to oppose a new order that could threaten their interests, which ensures that violence would continue under such a settlement. The conflict brings these groups more than economic rent. For them, standing against the Taliban is itself a form of political capital.
The Way Forward
Despite the consensus among Afghans and their international partners that the only way out of the conflict is negotiation, a deal remains far from within reach. The nominal United States-Taliban agreement on troop withdrawal and denying international terrorists a safe haven might very well be the easiest step in ending the war, as the recent sluggish pace of the negotiations has revealed. Arriving at an actual settlement gets far more complicated once discussions expand to include the shape of the political structure, the citizenry’s rights, free media, and women’s and minorities’ rights — issues all deferred for now to a later round of talks with the Afghan government.
Still, to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the existing talks, the United States needs to negotiate with a sober understanding of the Taliban and their motives for fighting. To that end, assuming too much flexibility on the Taliban’s part only emboldens the group, which could in turn intensify violence and make getting to an agreement more difficult. To reach a settlement that could safeguard Afghanistan’s most important post-2001 achievements against the Taliban’s regressive ideology, there needs to be a meaningful connection between the current talks in Doha and the intra-Afghan dialogue that addresses more pressing issues of state structure, citizens’ rights and civil liberties. The withdrawal of forces should take place according to a phased timetable, with the completion of each phase conditional upon the achievement of particular milestones in the intra-Afghan dialogue. While this could prolong the process and make reaching an agreement even harder, it would help keep the intra-Afghan dialogue from stagnating and protect Afghan-American achievements in democratic institution building, empowering women, protecting minorities, and promoting freedom of expression. If there is any chance of an agreement that will benefit Afghanistan, the Afghan government and the United States should look united and strong. If the United States makes its own deal with the Taliban and leaves the rest to Kabul to figure out, it will make a full settlement much tougher to come by.
To further incentivize an intra-Afghan agreement, the withdrawal of forces should be pre-conditioned upon a country-wide ceasefire, as many have called for. Once an agreement is reached, the disarmament and demilitarization of Taliban fighters within a short timeline should be a key condition for the continued withdrawal of troops, as this will be critical to maintaining the de-escalation of violence and mitigating risks of spoiling from those who might prefer to continue fighting. To be sure, we cannot expect violence to end entirely. But if a deal with the Taliban results in the disarming of their foot soldiers, the conflict will change from political violence to a criminal crackdown. Neutralizing the Taliban’s main body could significantly de-escalate the level of violence.
Admittedly, none of this will be easy. In over a decade of talking peace, America’s position and leverage have only declined, with the clock to conclude the war ticking, the political will to commit resources waning, and the American public growing more war-weary. In that process, U.S. policymakers have erroneously developed an assumption that the Taliban have grown equally frustrated with the longevity and cost of war. The reality, however, has been almost the opposite. American impatience and desperation have only further invigorated the Taliban, who see it as a sign of victory from God. Unlike the United States, the Taliban have proven that they understand their adversaries and have been extremely adaptive to changing circumstances — all while strictly adhering to their own set of medieval beliefs. Unless the United States corrects course to see the Taliban as they are rather than as what the United States prefers them to be, the peace process will either miserably fail or come at a staggering cost in an intensified and renewed conflict.
Moh. Sayed Madadi is Director General of Afghanistan Civil Service Institute. He was previously a Graduate Fellow at the Center on International Conflict and Negotiation at Stanford University, a Fulbright Scholar at New York University and a Hurford Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. His writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, Al-Jazeera, the National Interest, The Diplomat, and BBC. He tweets at @MadadiSaeid.