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The Taliban: openness or strategic ambiguity?

Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai Photo: screen capture from Nunn.Asia YouTube channel
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Two presidents. Two inaugurations. Two parallel governments. Kabul is in limbo. Crucial for President Ashraf Ghani is the fact that despite the shaky foundations his government rests on at home, it can, for the time being, rely on international support. This was seen most clearly when his inauguration was attended by US officials, including US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and General Miller, head of US combat operations in Afghanistan. It is conceivable that Ghani used his initial objection to the agreed upon prisoner exchange as a quid-pro-quo for US led recognition of his election victory. With the ongoing paralysis in Kabul though, fears have circulated as to scheduled intra-Afghan dialogues with the Taliban. Exactly with whom would the Taliban negotiate? In the absence of any meaningful opposition, would the Taliban seize control of the country and subject it to their rule, as done two decades ago?

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulates Ashraf Ghani on his election victory.

The suspense and anxiety with which the breakdown of any real legitimacy enjoyed by Kabul has been viewed is understandable. To best understand the Taliban though, a pre-requisite is to assess their initial emergence onto the Afghan political scene between 1994-1996. It was between this period the Taliban seized Qandahar and later Kabul, the capital, thereafter instituting their rule and cementing their control over Afghanistan.

In doing so, what can be gauged are the positions, at least publicly, the Taliban have taken throughout their turbulent history. Thanks to social media, this has become an easier undertaking, as groups usually susceptible to defamatory propaganda become more accessible. This is especially true for the recent op-ed of deputy Taliban leader Siraj ud-Din Haqqani in the New York Times. It is equally true for recently resurfaced videos of interviews of Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai from 1995, representing the Taliban as head of its foreign relations office. Stanakzai remains a senior official in the movement, having later served as Deputy Foreign Minister between 1996-2001 (during the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate) and more recently as head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar after the resignation of Sayyid Tayyib Agha in 2015. As such, in detailing the Taliban’s views and perspective, there are insights that would have proved valuable at the time as well as now, with the innumerable benefits of hindsight.

The topics discussed by Stanakzai are lengthy. The key takeaways are Stanakzai’s description of the Taliban not as a political party, but a ‘national uprising’ against the anarchy and civil war that had crippled Afghanistan since the fall of Dr. Najib’s government in 1992. The then government in Kabul, led by Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, was not unIslamic per se and Rabbani was, indeed, a Muslim. His government, however, was full of corruption, wrongdoing and ‘thieves’. When asked what form of government the Taliban wanted to establish, Stanakzai answered that the Taliban’s goal was to establish a stable environment that would allow a jirga to decide the nation’s future, whether under a presidential, parliamentary, multiparty or even royal system of government. This jirga would represent from within the country and without; representative of all of the provinces and ethnicities.

It was in relation to this that Stanakzai explained, from his side, the reason for the failure of negotiations of the Taliban with the leader of Hezb Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The latter, according to him, had insisted on a pre-planned division or sharing of government ministries as a precursor to forming an alliance. In the words of Stanakzai, ‘we [Talibs] do not give ourselves the authority to decide the next government, and we do not give it to him [Hekmatyar]…such a division of government is a crime, injustice, and treachery imposed on the nation’.

What now?

Fast forward 25 years, and the Taliban have risen to and fallen from power and waged an 18 year war against the US/NATO and their local allies in Afghanistan. Whilst the Taliban have declared that they do not intend to govern as they did two decades ago, they contend also that their government from 1996-2001 was not representative of their guiding philosophy; it was a reaction to the harsh climate within which they found themselves. Now, however, the Taliban can no longer realistically claim to be merely an uprising. They are now, and have been since 1996, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They can no longer claim to be an apolitical group with no guiding philosophy, aims, or vision for what Afghanistan should look like. They are now undeniably an organised and formidable political and military force.

So what do the Taliban suggest or offer to Afghanistan in the conclusion of a peace deal signed between them and other Afghan factions? So far, precious little. In the aforementioned New York Times op-ed of deputy leader Siraj ud-Din Haqqani, he acknowledges this pressing question, writing that ‘the kind of government… will depend on a consensus among Afghans’ and that the Taliban ‘are committed to working… in a consultative manner… to agree on a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded.’ Haqqani also emphasises the need for ‘killing and maiming’ of Afghans to stop.

The nature and (self) perception of the Taliban has changed. What has not changed, however, is the public tune they are playing. Given the notorious inconsistency and double crossing that has characterised Afghan politics over the last four decades, this alone is quite a feat. Yet given the anomaly that this particular facet of the Taliban’s public posturing undeniably is, it begs questions. In such radically different circumstances, and with a hiatus of a quarter of a century, how is it that the Taliban’s view has barely changed? Are the Taliban genuinely open to working with all Afghans to map out an ‘inclusive’ future, as stated by Haqqani and, a quarter of a century before him, by Stanakzai? This consistency is even greater in significance given the U-turns their opponents have taken in their policies toward them.

Or is it the unpredictable reality on the ground in Afghanistan leading to a conveniently ambiguous Talib stance? Is this designed to maximise its leverage in yet to be held negotiations? The Taliban’s primary insistence has been that any system be ‘Islamic’. This, however, according to both of Kabul’s governments, is already the case and is embodied in the constitution on which both claim subservience to. As such, which distinguishable features would the Taliban want to add on to the existing ‘Islamic’ arrangement of Kabul? Or are they content to sit on the sidelines as the Americans withdraw, and elites in Kabul bicker? As Kabul staggers from one crisis to the next, it has to contend with the pressure of targeted and precise violence inflicted by the Taliban who are upping the ante, whilst simultaneously observing a vague, conciliatory stance.

If this ambiguity is indeed strategic, it could be remarked that this too is not different from the approach of President Ghani. Ghani’s declarations of intent to release prisoners to precipitate peace talks have so far been just that: declarations. Whilst reports are surfacing at long last of direct discussions between Ghani’s government and the Taliban over Skype, the spectre of violence, deployed skillfully by the Taliban looms. With it, hopes of a reprieve from conflict remain in a state of suspense. For now.

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