The Navigator from CGP

Extremists and the Political Mainstream: The Case of Afghanistan

PUBLISHED March 6, 2018

A key challenge for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policies and programs is bringing extremists into the political mainstream. For many Muslim-majority states, the mainstream is contested space. These states are struggling to establish a monopoly over religious discourse and citizenship, and to varying degrees, are undemocratic political economies. As in the case of Afghanistan, under such circumstances, the extremists are contaminating whatever semblance of a mainstream there is rather than being integrated into it.

Afghans’ Desire for Détente

Addressing an international conference in Kabul on Feb. 28, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said that his government was willing to recognize the country’s Taliban movement as a legitimate political party. In a wide-ranging peace offer to the country’s main jihadist movement, Ghani said that Kabul was ready for unconditional talks and a revision to the current constitution. The Taliban have not directly responded to the offer, but a few days prior to the conference, they had reiterated that they were ready to negotiate with Washington but not Kabul. Earlier in February, the Taliban had issued an open letter to the American people saying they preferred negotiations as a way to try to end the longest war in U.S. history.

In order to understand Kabul’s and the Taliban’s motivations, one needs to bear in mind the battlefield reality. According to a January 2018 report issued by the U.S. military, the Afghan government’s writ has shrunk to a little over half of the country’s nearly 400 districts. Therefore, it makes sense for the Afghan government to extend an olive branch even though it is doing so from a position of relative weakness. From the Taliban’s perspective, their movement’s military advantage cannot translate into political power unless it gains international recognition.

At this point, international recognition of the Taliban is contingent upon the jihadist movement joining the political mainstream and disassociating itself from transnational jihadist entities such as al-Qaeda and Daesh. It is important to note that the Afghan mainstream – even 17 years after the Bonn Agreement in 2001 that laid the foundations of the current political system – remains an incoherent, contested space. The anti-Taliban camp that came together to form the internationally backed Afghan state remains a deeply divided conglomerate of tribal, ethnic, regional and partisan factions. The current national unity government, led by Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, was the outcome of compromise mediated by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after Afghanistan’s controversial 2014 presidential vote.

This arrangement was meant to last only until a constitutional amendment could create a power-sharing mechanism. That never happened, and the deal that created the current setup expired in September 2016. Since then, the powerful warlord and former governor of the northern Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor, has been challenging both Ghani and Abdullah (who happens to be from Noor’s own Jamiat-i-Islami party) ahead of the 2019 presidential vote. Meanwhile, parliamentary elections that were scheduled for 2015 have been delayed again, from July of this year to November.

Political Dysfunction as an Obstacle

The process of integrating extremists into the mainstream assumes that there is a political system robust enough to incorporate radical elements.  It also requires the political, military, and civil institutions to have the capacity, insight, domestic and international support, and viable alternatives to offer to the extremists. Clearly, Afghanistan is not about to get there anytime soon. When the Islamist factions that fought the Soviets during the 1980s and now dominate the current political scene barely behave as political parties (Gulbuddin Hekmatyaar’s Hizb-i-Islami only recently agreed to be part of the system), how can one expect the Taliban to form a political party? After all, the envisioned Islamic emirate of the jihadist rebels is far more radical than Afghanistan’s current Islamic republic.

The Taliban would like to use negotiations as a means of shedding their designation as an internationally declared terrorist entity, but they have no interest in joining the current political setup. The Taliban were not designed to function as a social — let alone political — movement. The group is purely an insurgent movement that only knows how to achieve power through armed insurrection. That its opponents are also not following the rules of democratic constitutionalism and the fact that it has the upper hand militarily further emboldens the Afghan jihadist group to stay on its current course.

Since its inception in 1994, the Taliban movement has demonstrated that it dominates the arena of insurrectionist politics in the country. Though internally divided and now facing a challenge from Daesh, the Taliban still represent the single largest political group in Afghanistan. They are also convinced that the Afghan state cannot endure and that Washington’s patience with its anti-Taliban partners in Kabul is wearing thin — hence the Taliban’s interest in negotiating with the U.S. rather than the Afghan government.

Why is the Taliban Negotiating?

The Taliban’s core motivation to negotiate is to achieve legitimacy and force a peace deal where the jihadists do not simply end up joining the current political setup, but rather alter it so that the group gains a disproportionate amount of influence. The dysfunctional state of Afghanistan’s current political system already works to the jihadists’ advantage, and the Ghani government’s statement that the constitution is up for renegotiation only further strengthens the Taliban’s position.

The case of the Afghan Taliban underscores how attempts to moderate radical Islamists are unlikely to succeed in Muslim states that lack a strong democratic political economy. The likely outcome will be that the radicals – taking advantage of the fact that there is no well-defined political mainstream – will be able to forge an Islamist autocracy or at the very least a state of anarchy. While there is a great deal of research underway that seeks to unpack the process of radicalization, Washington needs to devote greater resources to understanding the reverse process of moderation. This has massive implications for the growing number of civil wars in the Middle East and beyond, where Islamist insurrectionists of various stripes dominate the growing number of battlespaces and where the U.S. will have to mediate negotiated settlements.


Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy and Programs at the Center for Global Policy. He is also a Fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security.

The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. 

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