Can the Taliban save Afghanistan?

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By the close of 2014 the vast majority of American and NATO troops will have departed from Afghanistan.[i] However, a small residual force will likely remain until 2016 to assist the Afghan government and support Washington’s primary post-war interests, which include: sustaining progress made against the Taliban during the troop surge, preventing a civil war, and ensuring Afghanistan does not revert back to a haven for transnational jihadists.[ii] Unfortunately, conditions on the ground suggest that these goals will prove elusive, and that many of the war’s accomplishments will be at risk following the drawdown. An unappealing but potentially effective way to avert this outcome is to successfully conclude a peace settlement with the Taliban leadership: one that grants them some degree of political power in exchange for their compliance with NATO’s post-war agenda. Thus far attempts to reach a bargain have fallen short, but as American and allied forces prepare to vacate, restarting negotiations stands the best chance of salvaging their interests in the region. 

Although progress has been made in securing the country, Afghanistan’s future is uncertain at best. In spite of setbacks, the Taliban have not been decisively defeated and are increasingly optimistic that they can regain lost ground following the withdrawal.[iii] The Afghan National Security Forces are resented as corrupt foreigners in the southern provinces and will have difficulty clearing insurgent strongholds or resisting Taliban advances without significant American assistance.[iv] Several hundred ANSF soldiers are consistently being killed each month, and insurgents are still able to violently subdue the civilian populace.[v] A Taliban commander casually explained that, “all we have to do is kill two people in each village and we can control it.”[vi] As such, the war will likely resemble a stalemate after 2014, which the Taliban can prosecute indefinitely and perhaps eventually win, particularly if foreign aid to Kabul diminishes.[vii] Troubled by the prospect of such a revival, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias have begun regrouping and rearming in northern areas of the country. Escalating sectarian tensions combined with an ineffective security apparatus could lead to an abrupt deterioration of stability.[viii]  A 2013 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate corroborated as much. An official familiar with the report relayed to the Washington Post that even with a residual American presence, security gains made between 2010 and 2013 are “likely to have eroded significantly by 2017…,”and that the central government is “all but certain to become increasingly irrelevant…”[ix] Under such a scenario, the breakdown of governance would easily permit al Qaeda to re-establish a hub of operations, and the fundamental achievements of the last thirteen years would be jeopardized if not lost.

A negotiated settlement is arguably the most feasible alternative to the preceding sequence of events. In exchange for renouncing violence and permanently disavowing al Qaeda, the Taliban could be formally incorporated into the political process and given some meaningful role in administering the country. Washington, Kabul and the Quetta Shura have all displayed a willingness to engage in a serious peace process, and there are indications that the Taliban are open to accepting the aforementioned demands.[x] Additionally, concluding the war in such a manner would place the U.S. in an advantageous position to restrain the Taliban from future misconduct and enforce the terms of any such agreement.

If a Taliban resurgence and civil war are to be averted, Mullah Omar’s followers must first and foremost be persuaded to disarm. An accord that petitions the Taliban to demilitarize while legalizing them as a political actor would preclude their need to retake control by force, thereby ending the insurgency and lessening the chances of a full-fledged sectarian conflict. This may seem like a long shot, but despite past brutality, peaceful political participation does not appear out of the question for the Taliban’s leadership. Omar himself has publicly endorsed the idea of talks with Western leaders, which did briefly occur. Between May 2010 and September 2011, several rounds of meetings took place between American diplomats and a Taliban envoy in Qatar, which included Mullah Omar’s close representative: Syed Tayyab Agha.[xi] The talks ended abruptly without producing an agreement, but several confidence building measures were undertaken by the Taliban which, according to Ahmed Rashid, clearly demonstrated that they “were serious about negotiating at least a reduction in violence, if not an end to the fighting.”[xii] Additionally, while the discussions were underway Mullah Omar attempted to reach out to non-Pashtuns in an Eid message assuring them that “all will have participation,” in the future governance of Afghanistan.[xiii] The sincerity of these sentiments cannot be certified, and minorities’ concern over any peace deal still poses the risk of a civil war, however the hostile restoration of Taliban rule would probably guarantee one. Therefore, it seems worthwhile to seize any remaining opportunity to facilitate the Taliban’s nonviolent reentry into Afghan politics in the interest of preventing complete chaos.

Readmitting the Taliban to national affairs may also offer the most effective means of eliminating terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Averting civil war and state failure is crucial for obstructing al Qaeda’s return.  However, securing the country from terrorist infiltration will also require the Taliban to repudiate foreign jihadists, which they can be cajoled to do. At their core, Mullah Omar and his followers are Pashtun tribesmen and Afghan nationalists―not international terrorists. Their agenda is largely restricted to establishing Islamic governance in Afghanistan rather than waging war on the U.S. and its allies. The Taliban only posed a concern for the West when they elected to host Osama bin Laden and permitted him to conduct militant training activities―a decision they appear to regret. Many within the Taliban quickly came to view Osama’s residence as a liability, and at one point considered surrendering him to Saudi intelligence.[xiv] Bin Laden’s provocative activities garnered negative publicity, hindered Kabul’s foreign relations and led to military reprisals including the Taliban’s ultimate expulsion from power in 2001.[xv] “Most senior Taliban I spoke to over the years,” recalls Rashid, “blamed bin Laden and the Arabs for their defeat by the Americans in 2001.”[xvi] Thus, whatever asset bin Laden’s finances and men initially offered were ultimately far outweighed by the cost of receiving them. As such, the U.S. is well positioned to demand an end to the Taliban’s tolerance of jihadists in any future negotiations. If administering Afghanistan is in fact the Taliban’s utmost priority and they recognize al Qaeda as the main obstacle, disowning the terrorists should be an easy decision for them. Moreover, in virtue of their intimate knowledge of the physical and human terrain, local Pashtuns would be more effective at denying al Qaeda sanctuary than the U.S. could be through either drone strikes or boots on the ground. If properly exploited, the Taliban’s displeasure with the “Afghan Arabs” may prove to be one of al Qaeda’s most significant setbacks in the region.

The apparent willingness to consult with American diplomats and the expressions of frustration with al Qaeda are encouraging gestures from the Taliban. But any moderation or maturation this indicates should not be overestimated. Conciliatory maneuvers or agreements may be little more than ploys to allay NATO’s apprehension in hopes of accelerating their departure, following which the Taliban would be free to renege on their concessions. However, the Taliban’s return to a position of authority would shift the military dynamic decisively in Washington’s favor, allowing them to severely punish any such vitiation.

Despite NATO’s conventional military superiority, they have failed to subdue the Taliban in the rugged Afghan countryside. Inaccessible terrain, low population density and porous borders have significantly undermined efforts to secure the civilian population and neutralize the insurgency. Put simply, decisive victory appears to be unattainable in an asymmetric conflict with the Taliban.[xvii] Be that as it may, the U.S. efficiently routed them from all major Afghan cities in the fall of 2001. Between October 7 and November 12 of that year, American airpower along with modest contingents of special operations and intelligence personnel brought the Taliban’s reign of power to an abrupt end.[xviii] As that event demonstrated, the U.S. holds an assured advantage in anything resembling a conventional engagement, such as bombing an air-defenseless regime into exile. Thus, having the Taliban in power actually places them in a strategically weak position in terms of Washington’s capacity to quickly dispossess them of that power. As long as they have something to lose, they are susceptible to some degree of coercion if necessary. Should negotiations prevail and the Taliban return from expatriation, American and NATO leaders could reassure them that any default on the terms of the settlement will be met with a similar expulsion from authority. This would merely reinstate the current status quo of an unresolved insurgency, but as Rashid explains, “the Taliban are exhausted by the long war. They have suffered terrible casualties, and they want to return home from the refugee camps in Pakistan.”[xix] That being said, the prospect of another eviction may give them enough incentive to cooperate in stabilizing the country. 

While there may be no ideal option for concluding the Afghan war, compromising with the Taliban is certainly not the worst one available. Reconciling with the enemy of the last thirteen years will be difficult for policymakers to justify to domestic audiences and will invite accusations of weakness. It will also be challenging to work out the precise details of an agreement with all of the various Pashtun factions, some of which are not under the direction of the Quetta Shura. Moreover, even the peaceful reemergence of the Taliban could alarm minorities enough to be destabilizing.  But without an accord to mitigate violence, keep sectarian strife at bay, and expel foreign jihadists, the country will likely drift into anarchy leaving NATO and Kabul with little means to contain it. A settlement, on the other hand, offers the U.S and its allies a chance of ending the war without forfeiting their accomplishments, or completely restricting their military options should things go awry. If the Taliban are in fact serious about negotiations, efforts should be made to restart the process.

Photo credit: Mosslempress


[i] Mark Landler, “U.S. Troops to Leave Afghanistan by End of 2016,” New York Times, 27 May, 2014.

[ii] President Barack Obama recently outlined a plan for retaining a force of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan following 2014 with the intention of reducing that number in half after one year and completely withdrawing all troops by the end of 2016. Both of Hamid Karzai’s potential successors as president, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have said they would sign such an agreement. See: Karen Deyong, “Obama to Leave 9,800 U.S. Troops in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, 27 May, 2014.

[iii] David Pugliese, “What’s Next for Afghanistan?” Ottawa Citizen, 22 February, 2014.

[iv] While reporting from Helmand Province, BBC journalist Ben Anderson observed that the majority of crime in the province was perpetrated by the Afghan Security Forces, particularly the police. Anderson also notes that while the number of Pashtuns in the security services has increased, Southern Pashtuns are still underrepresented which undermines their legitimacy in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar. See: Ben Anderson, interview by Eddy Moretti, The Vice Podcast Show―Have We Won in Afghanistan?, Vice News, 9 May, 2013. See also: Stephen Biddle, “Ending the War in Afghanistan: How to Avoid Failure on the Installment Plan,” Foreign Affairs, (September-October 2013) 51. According to Biddle, aside from the very best ANSF units their “corruption and ineptitude will leave them part of the problem rather than part of the solution for the foreseeable future.”

[v] Ian S. Livingston & Michael O’Hanlon, “Afghanistan Index: Tracking Progress and Security in Post- 9/11 Afghanistan,” Brookings Institution (March 2014) 13. 80% of AFNS fatalities between 2001 and 2014 occurred in the last three years. The rising death toll reflects the increased roll of the AFNS as NATO hands off responsibility for security operations. However, it also reflects the continued potency of the insurgency.

[vi] Carlotta Gall, interview with NPR, Fresh Air Podcast― Pakistan, The Taliban and the Real Enemy, NPR Programs, 16 April, 2014.

[vii] Biddle, “Ending the War in Afghanistan,” 50-51.

[viii] Any outbreak of civil conflict will likely be exacerbated by external powers engaging in proxy warfare. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab Gulf states have traditionally supported the Taliban while India and Iran are the historical backers of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara factions.

[ix] Ernesto Lodoño, Greg Miller & Karen DeYoung, “Afghanistan Gains Will Be Lost Quickly After Drawdown, U.S. Intelligence Estimate Warns,” Washington Post, 28 Dec., 2013.

[x] The Quetta Shura refers to Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban’s senior leadership, who are believed to be residing in Quetta, Pakistan. Between 2010 and 2011 numerous meetings transpired between Taliban and American representatives. This is discussed below. Also, both of Hamid Karzai’s potential successors― Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah―have said they would be willing to negotiate with the Taliban. See: Ahmad Hasib Farhan, “Comparing Ghani and Abdullah’s Vision for Afghanistan,” Sharnoff’s Global Views, 11 June, 2014.

[xi] Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink: the Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan, (New York: Penguin Books, 2012) 113-136.

[xii] Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 121. The talks stalled after word of them leaked to the press violating the Taliban’s foremost condition that they remain secret. Karzai’s efforts to engage with the Taliban came to an end following the assassination of Burhanuddin Rababani: the head of the Afghan High Peace Council.

[xiii] Ahmed Rashid, “What the Taliban Want,” NewYork Review of Books, August 29, 2011.

[xiv] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: al Qaeda and the Road to 9-11, (New York: Random House, 2006) 303-304. By Wright’s account Mullah Omar verbally agreed to deliver Osama bin Laden to then Saudi Intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal in exchange for 400 pick-up trucks and an unspecified amount of cash. However, at their next meeting Omar failed to deliver bin Laden and denied agreeing to do so. 

[xv] While in Afghanistan, bin Laden issued two declarations of war against the U.S., made several media appearances and orchestrated multiple terrorist attacks including the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and 9-11 itself. Osama’s failure to inform the Taliban of his activities in advance placed a strain on the relationship from its earliest stages. See: Wright, The Looming Tower, 278.

[xvi] Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 117.

[xvii] Karl Eikenberry, “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, (September-October 2013) 61.

[xviii] Northern Alliance soldiers played a key role in deposing the Taliban as well, but the incident still illustrates how quickly the U.S. was able to orchestrate their downfall using kinetic operations. For a good overview of the first phase of the Afghanistan War see: Gary Schroen, First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005). See also: Gary Berntsen & Ralph Pezzullo, Jawbreaker. (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005). 

[xix] Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 118-119.

About Author

Eric M. Tope

Eric M. Tope is contributor at the International Security Observer. Eric holds a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Political Science with a focus on International Relations from Arizona State University, where he completed his master’s thesis, “Collective Action in Counterinsurgency”. He primarily writes on Middle Eastern security affairs including: terrorism, counterinsurgency and American foreign policy in the region. His work has also appeared in Counterterrorist Trends, Analysis and Foreign Policy Journal, Small Wars Journal and Think South Asia. Eric is a native English speaker, but is conversational in Spanish and Classical Arabic.

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