In Abu Dhabi this week, the U.S. and the Taliban engaged in some of the highest-level talks the two sides have held since the war in Afghanistan began more than 17 years ago. The effort will almost certainly prove futile, however, for two crucial reasons. The Taliban aren’t ready for peace. And the Afghan government couldn’t accommodate them even if they were.
U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who met with Taliban representatives on Tuesday, has speculated a deal could be reached before April 20, when Afghanistan is slated to hold presidential elections. Certainly he’s progressed further in negotiations than previous U.S. diplomats have, and the fact that Taliban sponsor Pakistan seems to be backing U.S. efforts is a heartening sign. Without Pakistani support and shelter, the insurgents would find it nearly impossible to keep fighting.
As overdue as peace talks are, though, they’re also premature. Structurally and operationally, the Taliban remain a jihadist movement. They’ve never developed a political wing akin to Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and remain years away from doing so. Under the group’s central leader Haibatullah Akhundzada sits a shadowy, largely Pakistan-based leadership committee consisting of a couple of dozen senior mullahs and their trusted aides. Beneath this group are the various regional commanders with their respective fighters across Afghanistan, who operate with a great degree of operational autonomy.
The bulk of the movement is thus composed of militiamen who only know how to fight. Both the Taliban’s jihadist ideology, which calls for establishing their envisioned Islamic polity via military means, and the fact that all the group’s resources have been spent waging an insurgency, have prevented the Taliban from moving beyond clandestine activity and developing a public-level political capacity. They simply aren’t ready to enter the existing Afghan constitutional system, much less to operate by its rules. The required functional capabilities will take years, if not decades, to develop.
In any case, it would be difficult to mainstream the Taliban because of how weak the so-called mainstream in Afghanistan is. After nearly two decades and a trillion-plus dollars in foreign spending, the Afghan state remains a fragile polity marred by infighting. Political parties are terribly underdeveloped; factions revolve around regional personalities, rather than policies. The current administration is based on an ad hoc power-sharing arrangement between President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, put in place as a stopgap measure after the disputed results of 2014 presidential elections. That arrangement expired in 2016 but the two men remain in office and elections have been delayed.
Even if the Taliban somehow evolved into a political movement, its entry into this system would only exacerbate pre-existing tensions across ethnic, regional, tribal and political lines. Strongmen such as the northern Tajik leader Atta Mohammad Noor and the recently rehabilitated Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar already lead rival Islamist parties. Add in the Taliban and this complex balancing act could collapse completely. The Afghan state simply lacks the coherence and therefore the absorptive capability to subsume the Taliban.
The truth is that the Taliban have no interest in being part of the existing state. What they’re hoping to negotiate is a path to power and legitimacy that doesn’t require any significant behavioral change.
Since its inception in 1994, the Taliban has been an armed group seeking power through insurrection. The last time it came to power in 1996 was via an intra-Islamist civil war between factions. After the fall of its regime in 2001, the Taliban launched an insurgency to force a U.S. withdrawal. Over the years, the Taliban realized that fighting their way to power again was unlikely and that 1996 was a fluke because of the anarchy that prevailed after the collapse of the previous communist regime.
The Taliban also recall how their previous regime was a global pariah, only recognized by Pakistan along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The insurgents don’t simply wish to return to their pre-9/11 status; they hope to be internationally recognized as a legitimate Afghan national political group and rulers of their country. That’s why the Taliban’s war — and now, its attempts at peace — have been geared towards forcing a negotiated settlement that allows the movement to regain power through a restructuring of the current constitutional setup.
It’s critical that the U.S. realize the limits of what can be achieved in ongoing talks, so the Taliban don’t exploit them. There’s a serious disconnect in timing between the U.S. need for a quick deal in Afghanistan – there are reports already that the U.S. could begin withdrawing troops within weeks – and the jihadists’ political evolution, which remains extremely uncertain. Washington should avoid the strategy it used to get out of Iraq, rushing a political settlement while leaving critical details to be determined later. Doing so will only work to the advantage of the Taliban, which is hoping to gain international legitimacy without having to reform significantly. Negotiations may seem hard; true peace will be harder still.
Dr. Kamran Bokhari is Director of Strategy & Program with the Center for Global Policy. Dr. Bokhari teaches courses on nat’l security & foreign policy to Canadian military, intelligence, law enforcement & other govt officials at the University of Ottawa’s Security & Policy Institute for Professional Development.
The article originally appeared in Bloomberg on December 20, 2018.