Al Qaeda Versus ISIS
The Jihadi Power Struggle in the Taliban’s Afghanistan
For the last six months, Afghanistan has felt the stirring of something rare: if not peace, then the promise of its pursuit. President Ashraf Ghani invited the Taliban into negotiations without preconditions in February. Islamic scholars and Afghanistan’s neighbors rallied behind that offer in the subsequent months, while sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations broke out across Afghanistan, calling for an end to the country’s chronic conflict. For the first time in 40 years, the warring parties observed a nationwide cease-fire over three jubilant days in June.
The vital question throughout this period has been whether the Taliban insurgency is actually open to making peace. The group has sent mixed signals this summer—agreeing, on one hand, to the June cease-fire, as well as restarting direct talks with the United States, but all the while continuing its years-long refusal to negotiate with what it calls the illegitimate Afghan government. The Taliban did not formally accept a second cease-fire for the Eid al-Adha holiday in August, and the intensity of its military campaign has hardly flagged. What, then, does the Taliban ultimately want, and is its leadership sincere about peace talks? My own conversations with people close to, and in contact with, Taliban political figures in recent months suggest that there is a genuine, if temporary, opening for peace.
Since the fall of its regime in 2001, the Taliban has consistently proclaimed two fundamental objectives: it wants foreign troops out of Afghanistan and an Islamic government restored to power. For years, these demands were almost entirely rigid. In recent years, however, the Taliban’s agenda has evolved, such that compromise is now conceivable.
In meetings with foreign visitors and non-official Afghans, Taliban political figures now privately say that they merely need a “timetable” for U.S. troops to withdraw. This timetable’s duration can be flexible and might not end in a complete U.S. withdrawal. Some Taliban members say the group is even open to a “conditional” withdrawal, in which the United States would redeploy its forces over a period of years, in response to the meeting of key milestones in a peace process. Taliban interlocutors explain the shift in their thinking by pointing out that Afghanistan could “become another Syria” if foreign troops leave too quickly. Another motive may be the group’s oft stated desire to have productive relations with the United States and other nations in the future.
Similarly, when it comes to the shape of a future Afghan government, I consistently heard that the Taliban does not necessarily object to many of the provisions of the post-2001 Afghan constitution—even, for instance, holding regular elections and protecting most, if not all, of the rights the constitution gave women. But the group will never agree to simply join the system it has for so long decried as illegitimate. If the Taliban is to make peace at all, many of its political figures stipulate, this must mean joining a new, if similar, government, perhaps under a new, if similar, constitution.
Taliban figures frequently suggest a sequence of steps that could lead to such a political settlement. The first would be for the United States to issue its timetable for troop withdrawal. Kabul and the Taliban would then negotiate a “caretaker government,” made up of relatively neutral technocrats and assigned a clear expiration date. This government would oversee a constitutional review, the comprehensive reform of Afghan security services, and the selection of a more permanent government, most likely through an election. Some of those I spoke with suggested starting this sequence before the April 2019 presidential election, on the grounds that a newly elected president with a five-year mandate will have little incentive to surrender power.
If the Taliban comes forward with a version of this plan, Kabul and Washington are unlikely to accept it without modification. Washington will be reluctant to commit to troop withdrawals at the outset of a process, and any Afghan president will hesitate to simply cede power to a caretaker government. The plan does not address thorny questions such as how Afghanistan’s many factions and political groups will divide power, what conservative religious reforms the group might insist on, and what fate awaits tens of thousands of armed men across Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the plan furnishes more than enough of the basic materials for skilled diplomats in Kabul and Washington to begin building a lasting political settlement. Indeed, if leaders in those capitals were themselves to map Afghanistan’s political transition, they would likely begin with many of the same elements.
The Taliban is genuinely interested in peace but far from desperate for it. In the meantime, the group remains committed to its military campaign. This position reflects battlefield confidence: Taliban leaders judge that the group can withstand U.S. military pressure and, if the United States eventually leaves, win the war. They probably recognize, however, that such a scenario is unlikely to unfold anytime soon. Even the current, much-reduced American presence is enough to keep the Taliban from winning. To take power after a U.S. withdrawal would be bloody and arduous. For these and other reasons, the Taliban is willing to contemplate peaceful alternatives.
Skeptics will point out that the Taliban has had the opportunity to negotiate for peace since at least 2010, when it sent representatives to Qatar to conduct talks with diplomats from the United States. Many argue that the group has used this platform only to stall and seek concessions from Washington. I have been part of the State Department’s efforts to work with this channel for nearly all of its life span, and I agree that the channel has moved slowly and sometimes painfully. But Taliban negotiators are not solely responsible for the impasse. Both the Afghan and the U.S. governments have often been internally divided over whether and how to pursue peace with the Taliban, with the result that neither has yet put an offer on the table that meaningfully addresses the Taliban’s two fundamental objectives.
Those who doubt the Taliban’s readiness for peace will point to the sheer volume of Taliban violence. Just in the last few weeks, the insurgents briefly overran much of the historic city of Ghazni. More Afghan cities will likely come under threat in the coming months, and smaller attacks will continue every day across the country. But intensity of military effort has as little bearing on the Taliban’s interest in peace as it does for the other parties to the conflict. Under conditions of war, talking and fighting often occur in parallel. Other than during the recent cease-fire, none of the parties—the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban—have pulled their punches on the battlefield, even when they sincerely desired talks.
The tragedy is that a bloody military stalemate has prevailed for years in Afghanistan. Each of the main belligerents is interested in a peaceful alternative but doubts that the others are and fears what it could lose in negotiations. The major military decisions that each party makes—overrunning cities only to lose them immediately, clearing remote areas that prove impossible to hold, sending enough troops to escalate but not win the war—carry significant human costs while holding out little hope of breaking the stalemate. In 2018, there is more reason than ever to invest in a peace process. The overwhelming popularity of the June cease-fire—including among Taliban fighters—suggests that many Afghans would support this. The Taliban is far from certain to join such a process, but there may never be a better time to make a bold offer.