The Taliban’s declaration of a three-day cease-fire on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr has led to a sudden rush of optimism about the prospects for peace in Afghanistan. This is understandable given that it is the first time since the U.S. invasion that the Taliban put a pause to the fighting to honor the end of Ramadan. Footage of Taliban fighters and leaders celebrating the holiday alongside Afghan security and other government officials shaped the perception that after two generations of continuous wars, peace is feasible. However, the Taliban’s motivations for engaging in the cease-fire along with the broader logic of the conflict show that war is likely to continue for quite some time to come.
Afghanistan’s Taliban movement announced June 17 that it had ordered its fighters to resume operations after the Eid al-Fitr cease-fire. In its official communique, the jihadist insurgent group said that its successful implementation of the cease-fire agreement showed that the Taliban are a cohesive force capable of decisive action on the battlefield and of making political decisions. The Taliban also claimed that the cease-fire shows that theirs is a popular national movement. Separately, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government said it was extending its unilateral cease-fire for another 10 days but that its security forces would defend themselves if attacked.
The Taliban’s brief truce is certainly a break with the movement’s past behavior. However, what it is not is a harbinger of impending peace. It is also not a sign that the insurgency is ready to negotiate a settlement with the Afghan government. Rather, the cease-fire is part of a broader Taliban strategy to help translate its battlefield gains into political capital.
Political and Practical Intentions
Though the Taliban’s temporary cessation of hostilities might not have been an act of reciprocity to Kabul’s cease-fire, the insurgents had to respond to the offers of peace talks the Ghani administration has been extending since February. Considering that the Taliban insurgency has gained strength the government’s call for peace talks is akin to negotiating from a position of weakness, especially when it knows that the Taliban are not interested a political settlement with the Afghan state. However, the Ghani administration is also not really trying to negotiate per se with the Taliban; instead through the extension of these olive branches, it is seeking to exacerbate existing divisions within the group to make the insurgency more manageable.
Cognizant of Kabul’s strategy and while militarily ascendant the Taliban lack a public presence in country and recognition as a legitimate Afghan political movement. Even if their 2013 move to establish a political bureau in Qatar had succeeded, it would still be an entity in exile — much like the sanctuary the Taliban’s apex political leaders enjoy in Pakistan. The jihadist movement also likely thinks that the time is right to start changing from a clandestine insurgent force to a political movement. The cease-fire, along with the images of Taliban fighters being welcomed by government officials and the public across Afghanistan for Eid celebrations, has allowed the Taliban to showcase their support base across the country.
Therefore, the argument that the ceasefire allowed Taliban greater access to the government held areas of the country for tactical military purposes is at best a partial view of the Taliban calculus. It fails to take into account the broader strategic objective of the Taliban. It also misses the point that the growth of the insurgency over the past decade and a half is because the Taliban already have sufficient intelligence penetration into the Afghan state and society. The cease-fire thus is more of a political move that allowed the jihadists to not only respond to Kabul but also move out of the shadows and onto the public stage.
It is important to bear in mind that the Taliban fighters at the Eid gatherings depicted in pictures and videos did not suddenly emerge out of their hideouts. These appearances were not just centrally organized by the Taliban leaders but also coordinated in various areas between local or regional insurgent commanders and security officials. The Taliban had to have guarantees that their militiamen would not be killed or arrested by security forces. Conversely, the government had to have assurances that the Taliban would not use the occasion to stage surprise attacks.
Furthermore, the Eid gatherings would have needed international blessings. The United States had to have agreed not to take action against Taliban members making public appearances. The cease-fire also had to have been encouraged by Pakistan, which has considerable influence over the Taliban. Given the kind and number of agreements necessary to the orchestration of a peaceful Eid in Afghanistan, it was probably not a coincidence that notorious Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, who had been in hiding in eastern Afghanistan for nearly a decade, was eliminated in a U.S. drone strike one day before Eid.
What the Future Holds
The Taliban are thus willing to engage in limited scale tactical-level talks with Afghan authorities but not strategic level negotiations towards a political settlement. With the end of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, the Taliban officially announced the resumption of the war, which is likely to continue for some time. Even as the Taliban seek political legitimacy, they do not intend to give up their battlefield might — the best tool they have to keep pushing for negotiations with the United States. Talks with Washington are the Taliban’s imperative. Washington, however, wants the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government, which the jihadists reject.
More importantly, there is a huge variance in the envisioned outcome of any talks between the two sides — meaning there is plenty of room for synthesis between the thesis and antithesis of the Afghanistan dialectic. Washington and Kabul want the Taliban to join the current political system, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The Taliban want to replace the present system and resurrect their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Both sides know that talks will eventually lead to a compromise between these two ideal positions. This compromise will also be informed by the fact that the Taliban has just begun to move beyond being a pure insurgency and develop a political wing.
A Taliban equivalent of the Sinn Fein (the Irish Republican Army’s political wing), let alone a grassroots movement capable of competing in Afghanistan’s elections, is not in the cards just yet. Therefore, the Taliban are likely to keep pushing for significant changes to the present Afghan government. As it continues the quest for a political solution to the longest war in U.S. history, the Trump administration must take great care that efforts to bring the Taliban into the mainstream do not allow the jihadists to subvert the system – considering that the mainstream itself is yet to be defined.
Kamran Bokhari is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ottawa’s Security and Policy Institute for Professional Development. He tweets at @KamranBokhari
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.