Picture: Former Taliban fighters return arms.
Taliban unity has been a distinct facet of the US led war in Afghanistan, where resistance to previous foreign invasions has suffered from disunity. Could this cohesion unravel in the wake of a peace deal?
Afghanistan has long been seen through the historically deterministic lens: a mountainous land whose fierce and diverse inhabitants seem almost destined to repel foreign invaders, as they have done since time immemorial. This view is seemingly vindicated by British attempts at subjugation in the nineteenth century and the brutally disastrous Soviet occupation of the 80s. With President Trump’s decision to negotiate directly with the Taliban (abandoning its long held precondition of the Taliban first negotiating with Kabul), the release of the Afghanistan Papers and now an imminent deal, the US now features inevitably on the doomed list of foreign invaders of Afghanistan in the popular imagination.
News of US-Taliban negotiations in Doha triggered strong responses. Many, particularly in Afghanistan, reacted with hope and optimism, praying that the negotiations would materialise in a lasting respite from over four decades of conflict that have broken the country. Officials in Kabul reacted with horror, as their patron undercut its jurisdiction and legitimacy by engaging in talks with an implacable foe that has waged an 18 year long war against an Afghan government it long derided as a US satellite.
On the other hand, the prospect of the Taliban’s future participation in the exercise of political power has led inexorably to heavy focus on the glaring eyesores of Taliban rule from 1996-2001. During this period, the group gained notoriety worldwide specifically with regard to women’s rights, as well as other reported infamous social restrictions in what was perceived a puritanical purge. This scrutiny of the unpalatable facet to the Taliban was, no doubt, aided by Kabul. If the US-Taliban negotiations bore fruit, and the Taliban participated in politics, would Afghanistan see a return to the gloomy days of stringent Talib rule?
American and Afghan officials have conceded their difficulty in countering Taliban propaganda, even with the huge disparity in resources. Part of this has been unavoidable as fate has placed the Taliban perfectly to fill the vacuum of a national history replete with those who fought against attempts at subjugating their land. These heroes include Mir Masjidi Khan, Dost Muhammad Khan and the latter’s son Wazir Akbar Khan in the First Anglo-Afghan War, Sardar Muhammad Ayyub Khan in the Second Anglo-Afghan and the millions of martyrs (as per the Afghan national consciousness) who fought the Red Army to the death.
The historical continuity is self-evident. With that being noted, it is noteworthy that there do exist differences between the Taliban and what they consider their insurgent predecessors. The resistance to the 19th century British invasions were made up of divergent tribal and ethnic forces momentarily united. These forces could be played against one another with enough cunning, and cash. More recently, the resistance to the Soviets was dogged down by fractiousness, with a total of seven officially registered mujahideen parties fighting the Soviets. These mujahideen groups were either royalist, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, or traditionalist. Some were even Maoist. The Taliban, however, have enjoyed a near total monopoly on the resistance to the US since the latter blundered into Afghanistan in 2001. Their dominance stands, even as rival movements have tried, and failed, to wrest this monopoly from them. This is in the face of overwhelming odds of operating in environments in which they encounter multiple actors seeking either its total annihilation (in Afghanistan), or those seeking to cut it down to size whilst retaining it as a foreign policy asset, as is the case in Pakistan.
A litmus test of the group’s solidity was in the ascension of Mullah Akhtar Mansour to head the Taliban. The group has survived being toppled in 2001, which precipitated the disappearance of its founder and leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. It was revealed in 2015 that Mullah Omar had actually died in 2013, with the Taliban supreme council, or shura, still aggressively conducting military and political activities in his name in the intervening period. The movement managed to iron out differences in accepting its leader as Mansour, despite some initial controversy and reports of splinter cells being formed to oppose the new leader.
In a seemingly bizarre twist of events, Mansour was killed in 2016 whilst in Pakistan’s southern Balochistan province by a US strike, with the connivance of Pakistan’s military. This illustrated, quite crudely, the conflicting interests at play behind the raging conflict. What was made bare was the apparently contradictory stance of Pakistan’s military establishment, a key stakeholder in the Afghan conflict, toward the Taliban and by extension Afghanistan. The former has oscillated between open tolerance of Taliban activities and scheming, sometimes violently, to bring the movement closer in line with its interests. The successor to Mansour was Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, with Siraj ud-Din Haqqani (son of the legendary commander Jalal ud-Din Haqqani) as his deputy. Under Haibatullah, the group has recorded further success across the country. Prior to Mansour’s incinerating by an American Hellfire missile, Pakistan’s infamous ISI arrested Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in 2010, after he had risen to direct the Taliban’s revived insurgency in its heartlands in southern Afghanistan. His arrest took place in the backdrop of circulating reports of his clandestine contact with Ahmad Wali Karzai, then head of the provincial council of Qandahar and brother of then President Hamid Karzai.
That the Taliban has managed to navigate between asymmetric warfare on its home turf in Afghanistan, and the unpredictability with which authorities across the Durand in Pakistan perceive and act towards it, lends even further credit to the group’s flexibility. It has managed to find the balance between appropriate centralisation of command and control to prevent fractures, whilst giving commanders enough autonomy to operate even when leaders are killed and/or imprisoned. No insurgency can survive without at least tacit support from those it seeks to rule over. This would not have been possible had the movement not been deeply entrenched in the social and political fabric of at least part of the country’s society. Eliminating the Taliban would entail eliminating a whole political subculture that itself is the product of centuries of evolution. Increasingly so, there has, over the years, been greater recognition of this fait accompli, broadening support for an understanding with the insurgents.
What outsiders perceived as a major threat to Talib predominance with the ascent of ISKP onto the scene was quickly averted. Whilst ISKP claimed responsibility for a string of deadly attacks across the country, there was no mass defection to the group from amongst the Taliban ranks that many had anticipated. For the Taliban, however, it served only to distinguish them, conveniently, as a ‘national’ movement, in stark contrast to the brutality of ISKP. The gruesome infliction of mass killing and deliberate civilian casualties too helped cast the Taliban in a more humane light. By emphasising its national, Afghan credentials (albeit heavily infused with Islamic principles), the group’s legitimacy in the ever evolving Afghan political discourse has only further been cemented.
This has revealed an impressive record at war. What then, of peace?
Thus far, it can be deduced, quite accurately the group has in many cases excelled at war. The real question, however, is whether this would be the case in the aftermath of a peace deal. Peace involves not just cessation of hostilities, but an accompanying building of meaningful dialogue and the formation of a viable framework between the Taliban and other players and stakeholders in the country. This is complicated by the nature of relations between the Taliban and these given stakeholders. Most notable amongst the latter are members of the ex-Northern Alliance: a coalition of factions situated in the north of the country who resisted the Taliban throughout the late 90s and eventually overthrew the Taliban emirate together in the wake of America’s 2001 clumsy entrance. In the aftermath of the invasion, the Taliban had ample grievances to exploit in recruiting fighters both within and without its heartlands in southern Afghanistan. These areas were where the new NA dominated administration’s security policy was most keenly felt, translating into a (c)overt anti-Pashtun prejudice that dashed any hopes of the government gaining any legitimacy or even goodwill. As it turned out, it was these areas that provided the bulk of new Taliban recruits and strongholds in the intervening years. More significantly, the Taliban recently have made strides in the country’s north and west, in non-Pashtun localities and communities. Given the conflict’s longevity, many of the group’s original commanders are no more, and those who took their place are too young to remember what a pre-2001 Afghanistan looked like.
The perceived treachery and embarrassingly visible corruption was difficult to mask. This was equally true in government institutions as well as the ‘puppets’ in government who worked under the NA umbrella in 2001, adding further fuel to these grievances. It thus transpired that the cause not only became one in which the Taliban posited themselves as the successors to a national heritage of longstanding resistance to foreign occupation to preserve the almost sacred Afghan independence. It became equally one of fighting a corrupt and kleptocratic entity. This corruption reached its apex with the internationally damning Kabul Bank scandal in 2011. Is it thus conceivable that the Taliban would accept as constituting part of the political mainstream those who they have rebuked, for almost two decades, as corrupt facilitators of humiliating foreign occupation?
The bad blood between the Taliban and rival (or soon to be allied) factions notwithstanding, exactly how the Taliban would participate in a future government remains to be seen. Exactly what form of government this would be is as of yet anyone’s guess. As the self-styled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, would the Emirate, per se, be willing to engage in accordance with the rules of the the self-styled Islamic Republic in Kabul? With the agreed upon seven day reduction in violence more or less in effect, what is planned to follow is the scheduled February 29th signing of a deal between the Taliban and the US. This would precede intra-Afghan negotiations.
Thus, the Taliban’s longstanding insistence of dividing the peace process into firstly ensuring withdrawal of foreign forces, and secondly engaging directly with stakeholders in Kabul, has transpired into reality. In accordance with this stance, Siraj ud-Din Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban, wrote recently in his New York Times op-ed that ‘We are aware of the concerns and questions…about the kind of government we would have…My response to such concerns is that it will depend on a consensus among Afghans.’ As such, the much called for intra-Afghan negotiations are fraught at the outset with immense difficulty. What constitutes consensus? Which Afghans are the Taliban willing to build it with? Can we expect the movement to persist in its unity as its leaders hammer out a backdoor agreements with those against whom an eighteen year long jihad has been bitterly fought?
Whilst avowedly a democracy, proponents of the post 2001 order have cried foul and claimed mass fraud in each of the last three presidential elections held. The results of the last presidential election, in which incumbent President Ghani was declared winner, have been disputed almost immediately following the end of the election, before vote counting even commenced. Why would the Taliban sabotage themselves by engaging a political process derided as farcical and fraudulent by its own supporters and proponents?
In the backdrop of international discussion regarding the potential re-emergence of the Taliban in Kabul, women’s rights was cited frequently as a point of concern. Using women’s rights as a case in point, it is difficult to gain clarity on this topic. The Taliban, for their part, emphasised that not only are they now no longer opposed to women’s rights to work, property and education, but, according to Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai (head of the Qatar based Taliban political office), they never were. Stanakzai affirmed that the Taliban were willing to grant women whichever rights granted to them by Islam, with the caveat that ‘if the world expects us to give rights that are in America or the West, they understand neither our religion nor culture’.
Whilst Stanakzai attested to the movement’s acceptance of women’s rights ‘according to Islam’, this does not give a substantive answer as to what this would mean in practise. Delving deep into the intricacies of Islamic law is not the aim of this article. Yet it is worth asking, given the multivariate rulings of Islamic law on issues specifically relevant to the present day, what does this exactly mean? Would the Taliban, for example, be willing to forgo their understanding in favour of other rulings too derived from the tenets of Islamic law? These would invariably be rulings more conducive to the creation of a more modern society and country: the unrealised aim of many an Afghan reformist across the last century. If the Taliban leadership do proceed with non-violent political activism or opposition, can it realistically hope to inspire this new approach amongst its thousands of fighters and members? Members whose radicalism was been triggered by those in Kabul with whom the Talibs will have to come to terms, and those for whom the cause was as much about independence as it was about establishing what they hoped would be a true Islamic society?
With the US, particularly with Trump in the Oval Office, keen to leave the country and bring to a conclusion its longest ever war, it is crucial to not lose perspective. On the ground, suspicion of US intentions behind prolonged peace talks is widespread, many undoubtedly questioning why the political office in Qatar threw its weight behind negotiations, especially whilst the Taliban are seen to have the upper hand. The Taliban have indeed recorded an impressive reversal on the battlefield, commanding control over significant stretches of the rural country. In a predominantly rural society, this is all the more significant. Yet whilst they control such, the brutal mass bombardment campaign that has characterised the war since Trump’s assumption of office have proven to stem the seemingly unstoppable Taliban advance, even if this has failed to lead to any meaningful reversal on the battlefield.
The coming weeks and months are critical. Phases such as the intra-Afghan negotiations, and how these would transpire in corresponding with the withdrawal of US forces, are anyone’s guess. With a track record of impressive Talib deference to leadership, a failure henceforth in controlling rank and file could potentially lead to the derailing of the Taliban movement. If the movement maintains its unity as has been the case up until now, it will emerge from the peace talks as unarguably the single most powerful entity in Afghanistan: a status it arguably already enjoys, given the outreach of many in Kabul to the insurgents in foreign conferences and summits.
Kabul looks to be cracking under pressure. The apparent self-interest motivating the actions of its factions no longer look as transparent. The US, President Ghani’s biggest ally, has thus far been hesitant to endorse his declared election victory. Together with this, his rival Abdullah Abdullah is leading his camp in having also declared victory in the disputed, and the Doha talks are reaching their climax in the imminent signing of a peace deal on the 29th February. For Ghani at least, it seems the writing is on the wall. How many others in Kabul for whom this will be the reality remains to be seen. Yet in the midst of Kabul’s visible collapse, this does not serve as a guarantee to the Taliban’s hitherto formidable cohesion. With Kabul seemingly imploding before its very eyes, can the Talibs manoeuvre themselves on the political chessboard, whilst resisting the urge of many in its ranks to take the war further to its logical conclusion: total military victory? If it does decide to ride the wave of military euphoria, how would the US respond? That is, assuming it does.