Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has offered the Taliban talks without preconditions and with the possibility of political recognition. And the US State Department has supported the announcement despite President Donald Trump earlier pointing towards an increase in military pressure on the insurgency. This comes amid reports released last year by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) stating that the Taliban controlled or contested 43 per cent of Afghanistan’s districts.
The focus on what international actors can do to facilitate the process is warranted given their history of involvement in the country’s affairs. However, there is an equally urgent need to debate whether ‘peace’ with the Afghan Taliban is achievable on the ground. This has a great deal to do with the insurgency’s political, military and organisational outlook and whether it is willing to or even able to negotiate an enforceable agreement with Kabul in the future.
I focus on two particular aspects of the insurgency in this regard. The impact that the organisational growth and subsequent factionalism can have on the peace process, and the insurgency’s relations with civilian populations as a lens through which to speculate on the prospects for structural and attitudinal changes that might facilitate a peace process.
PART I: Fragmentation, factionalism and the prospects for negotiations
Put simply, fragmented, factionalised and undisciplined insurgencies can prove to be impossible to negotiate with. A lack of guarantees and poor enforcement mechanisms on part of the rebel forces impede the peace process and elongate violence.
Over the years, despite maintaining its ideological coherence, the insurgency has fragmented as its loci of operations have expanded from the south and the east into northern and western Afghanistan. This ‘fragmentation’ has manifested itself in the shape of disputes over the makeup of the central leadership (Quetta Shura), creation of separate governance and control structures and different viewpoints over negotiations with Kabul. Decentralisation and differences of opinion have always existed but the public acknowledgement of Mullah Omer’s death has accentuated the broader fragmentation dynamic, especially along regional lines.
According to a recent report, the insurgency has four main shuras (Quetta Shura, Mashhad Shura, Shura of the North and the Rasool Shura) — a form of leadership council that presides over and controls different Taliban organisations. The ‘old guard’ is based out of the Quetta Shura that has authority over the Miranshah Shura (primarily the Haqqani Network) and the Peshawar Shura. A first source of factionalism can be identified in the divergence of opinions and the emergence of dissidents within this arrangement.
In 2007, the Miranshah Shura declared independence from the Quetta Shura and in 2009 the Peshawar Shura followed suit. The Peshawar Shura, beleaguered by financial difficulties without the support of the central leadership, re-joined in 2016. The Haqqanis re-joined in 2015, only after Sirajuddin Haqqani was promised the role of deputy leader within the Quetta Shura. As of 2017, there seemed to be an ongoing struggle for monopolising control of the Quetta Shura between Haibatullah Akhundzada, his predecessor’s cousin Obaidullah Ishaqzai, and the increasingly dominant Sirajudin Haqqani.
Antonio Giustozzi (who has had access to the leadership of the various shuras and authored the report mentioned earlier), reported that Haibatullah was willing to negotiate with the government and expand non-military activities. On the other hand, hardliners Sirajudin and Obaidullah opposed reconciliation with Kabul and held opposition to attempts by some to open up to Iran.
A second and more prominent feature of the fragmentation is the increasing regional autonomy between the various shuras. At the leadership level, none of the other shuras recognise the authority of the Quetta Shura completely. The Shura of the North only occasionally consults and cooperates with the Quetta Shura and usually only for large-scale military manoeuvres. It cooperates much more readily with the Mashhad Shura. Between 2015 and 2017 the Rasool Shura (that refuses allegiance to Quetta Shura’s leadership) and the Quetta Shura engaged in armed clashes against one another.
The Quetta Shura blamed the Rasool Shura of being pro-negotiations. In an interview in 2015, then leader of the Rasool Shura, Mullah Rasool, stated that he was not opposed to negotiations with Kabul in principle, but was critical of the monopolisation of the peace process by the Quetta Shura and the levy this allowed to the Pakistani authorities. Furthermore, the governance structures the insurgency has employed have also been run separately by the respective shuras. For instance, the Quetta Shura, the Rasool Shura and the Shura of the North have their own respective military, justice and education commissions.
If the fragmentation persists or becomes more acute, achieving peace will become more difficult. Peace selectively established with certain factions will increase the propensity of others to act as ‘spoilers’ — a phenomenon shown to impact the peace process detrimentally and elongate violence. Factions co-opted by the Kabul government could face retribution from those left out or those not willing to negotiate. Regional stakeholders could amplify the process by channelling external support along factional lines.
It seems that Taliban commanders willing to talk to Kabul are apprehensive of retribution from hardliners within the movement as well as elements within the Pakistani security apparatus. Some events if taken into perspective seem to support this view. In 2010, Mullah Baradar, Mullah Omar’s deputy, was arrested in Pakistan while in the middle of negotiations with President Hamid Karzai’s brother, a claim Pakistan denied.
In 2013, Pakistan released Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, a senior Taliban military commander in southern Afghanistan, following requests from Kabul to expedite the peace process. By 2015, Dadullah had openly voiced his refusal to accept Akhtar Mansoor as the leader and by November that year his death was reported as a result of armed clashes between the two factions in Zabul. Similarly, Mullah Rasool was ‘detained’ under mysterious circumstances while in Pakistan during 2016. Divided opinion over Mansoor’s stance led to his demise in a drone strike.
Overall, two trends seem to appear. Factional leaders that have some ability to assert independence from the dominant Quetta Shura seem to be interested in engagement with Kabul and other regional actors. However, if seen to be acting too independently they run the risk of retribution from the central leadership. For now, it also seems that to be classified a ‘moderate’ within the movement increasingly runs a high-risk for a majority of Taliban commanders.
The Quetta Shura and the Pakistani authorities seemingly hold a disposition towards sidelining those guilty of insubordination and trying to preserve a united front that would mean negotiations on their terms. Secondly, and what makes the prospects grimmer is that if assessed according to military capability, the strongest factions have been least disposed towards engagement with Kabul. Any judgement about the future remains speculative, but it is unlikely that the Taliban can present a united front for negotiations as things stand.
Part II: Prospects for structural and attitudinal changes
Avenues to establish some meaningful dialogue are only slowly emerging. Despite recent promises, in the long run, it is impractical to expect a prolonged and active role of foreign troops in combating the Taliban. Strategically, this might benefit the insurgency as it will put greater pressure on the fledgling Afghan security forces.
However, in the long-run, the Taliban will also lose the legitimacy they derive by voicing their ‘resistance to foreign occupation’ narrative. In the northern and eastern parts of the country, defection by smaller commanders to the ‘Islamic State’ bandwagon has also provided an opportunity for the government, the US and the Taliban to align their short-term priorities. Opinion is divided regarding whether the factional engagement witnessed so far is a genuine effort for a political settlement or mere propaganda. Actions seem to speak louder than words. Attacks by the Taliban increased in 2017 compared to the previous year and given the bigger picture of the war, the insurgency seems stable.
Nonetheless, should things move forward, we must consider the possibility of a DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) approach for Taliban fighters and the prospects of the leadership converting itself into a party organisation of sorts (structural changes). We must also consider to what extent the Taliban can engage with civilian populations and dull down their ideological orthodoxy that has so far resulted in their irredeemable labelling as pariahs of global politics and Afghanistan’s history.
The Taliban have two categories of fighters; Taliban allied militias that are largely recruited by cutting deals with local strongmen and, a second category of ‘regular’ fighters, directly and firmly under the control of military commissions. Given that the central leadership might enjoy less control over loosely affiliated militia commanders provides the government an opportunity to ‘switch’ them. In fact, the history of the conflict gives some evidence of such an eventuality. During the war against the mujahedeen, the Soviet-backed Najibullah government launched a policy of ‘national reconciliation’ that involved ‘switching’ local commanders and their militias over to the state.
KhAD (State Intelligence Agency) and the National Fatherland Front (NFF) were fairly successful in some areas. However, the policy was predicated on the expectation to turn these militias into pro-government forces, still under the individual control of their leaders. This resulted in a major problem of indiscipline, looting and local feuding that further alienated the government. If the current government can engage some loosely controlled pro-Taliban militias, it must impose better top-down mechanisms associated with the DDR approach.
Secondly, the central leadership of the Taliban is quite aware of the historicity of this phenomenon and has taken measures to preclude the process. Increasingly, the central leadership is formally integrating semi-autonomous units into formal units directly under the control of military commissions. Coherence and ability to control factions might prove to be the key towards establishing meaningful peace. In this sense, a greater emphasis towards institutionalisation efforts on part of the Taliban might make it easier to monitor and implement a peace process should a deal be reached at the top.
As far as the ability of the leadership to convert itself into a party organisation goes, the Taliban are opposed to democracy on ideological grounds which is the most significant bulwark. However, the leadership has reportedly been divided over launching big attacks targeting electoral processes, despite reports of rank-and-file Taliban acting coercively. This is more due to strategy since, as early as the 2004-05 elections, the Taliban were trying to get sympathisers to positions of power via local politicking. If they claim the support of various communities in Afghanistan, the government can emphasise pro-negotiation ‘commanders’ seek to become ‘politicians’.
Structurally, this might be achievable. The state-building project post-2001 did not set a high bar for conversion from ‘commander’ to politician. Numerous warlords of the 1990s were given positions within the new Kabul government. Changes beyond military adaptation have been rare in the Taliban’s past but not entirely absent.
The insurgents have also created various governance structures in areas they now ‘hold’. The most prominent of these are the various Local Commissions (overseeing shadow provincial and district governors), Justice Commissions (overseeing sharia courts), Companies Commissions (that oversee taxation of local economic activity), NGOs Commissions (that monitor NGOs’ adherence to Taliban rules) and the Education Commissions (that run madrasas and increasingly state-sponsored schools under the Taliban’s curriculum).
The Taliban’s ability to maintain these governance structures is variable across different areas of Afghanistan and, as discussed earlier, also victim to fragmentation between the shuras. When compared to other protracted insurgencies around the world that faced the possibility of being ‘mainstreamed’ in the context of their respective cases, the Taliban’s attempt at ‘rebel governance’ is nominal and fairly limited. This is amplified by divisions within the central leadership with respect to allocation of funds to military versus non-military avenues. Regardless, as the phenomenon of ‘parallel government structures’ metastasizes, the power calculus dictating any attempts towards power-sharing becomes increasingly complicated and impalpable.
In terms of political strategy, the insurgency has relied on zoning in on and exploiting governance shortcomings and local rivalries between communities. It has empowered old friends who sided with it in the 1990s, sided with communities and leaders left out of positions of power in the new Kabul government, and recruited among communities coerced by state and coalition forces. Strong Pashtun tribal leadership at the clan level in the east has been coerced whereas as that of the south has been engaged with a ‘carrot and stick’ policy under which some elders have cooperated to win advantage over local rivals.
Generally, however, relations with the tribal elders have not been good — an aspect that represents the broader ideological and social division between the mullah class and the traditional authority of the Khans of Pashtun tribal areas. The insurgency does not represent broad tribal divisions (such as Ghilzais versus Durranis) or sub-tribal affiliations. It did make the most of how the transition of power resulted in the marginalisation of and retribution against previously pro-Taliban communities, but over time has shown a willingness to co-opt anyone who agrees to its rules and opposes the Kabul government.
In terms of ethnic representation, despite remaining predominantly Pashtun, some change has been witnessed as expansion into north-eastern Afghanistan has meant that co-opting Tajik commanders has become inevitable. Another important factor in gaining civilian support has been the Taliban’s ‘pay tax, but free market’ attitude towards poppy cultivation and other economic activity in areas they hold.
The military strategy of the insurgency has evolved over time and is different when the mode of operations in rural and urban areas is contrasted. Often the insurgents let the locals know about an impending attack in villages, allowing them to evacuate. The insurgents have done so with the aim of improving their public standing and ancillary activities. In any case, compared to the proclivities of the mujahedeen parties during the 1990s, the Taliban have maintained a much more disciplined military outlook. Active reliance on mullah networks for intelligence collection and the use of intimidation tactics (for example, the ‘night letters’) has remained a regular feature of how the insurgents develop control mechanisms. Affiliates of the Taliban no longer indiscriminately target sectarian minorities in large-scale attacks as they did in the 1990s. This has been a strategic move to distinguish itself from the ISIS/L affiliates.
The Taliban’s ‘rulebook’, called the ‘Layeha’, prohibits harassment of civilians and raiding houses without permission from commanders. However, as the insurgency has grown geographically and fragmented, it remains to be seen to what extent behaviour can be monitored and controlled from the top down. Mining of roads and attacks on urban centres have inevitably produced scores of civilian casualties and have never been preceded by warnings. Targeted assassinations have also abounded. Even when the insurgency claims to be targeting only government targets and international forces, the collateral damage has been significant. The memory of violence carries on in the minds of the Afghan populace. This might make it difficult for the public at large to display any sympathy for the Taliban even if the government is willing to negotiate.
It is always easier to make peace with an insurgency that has a high degree of institutionalisation and a coherent control structure. Institutionalisation facilitates the implementation of a peace process. Afghanistan is not at a ‘post-conflict’ stage by any means, however, the ‘stalemate’ is becoming increasingly apparent.
The Taliban were unable to control any provincial capitals in 2016-17. SIGAR reports that districts changing hands between Taliban and government control in a matter of weeks is a recurrent phenomenon. This is a clear sign of how neither side seems to be able to make any decisive gains that could point towards an impending ‘victory’. If the ‘hardliners’ within the various parties to the conflict refuse to acknowledge such a reading of events, the impetus towards fragmentation within the insurgency will escalate in the future and so will the violence.
If the Taliban wish to function as a political enterprise, further attitudinal and structural changes are required. The Taliban must recognize the evolving landscape of the conflict and make such pragmatic concessions and changes. Prolonged emphasis on excessive coercion, affiliations with foreign fighters and the ‘image problem’ associated with dependence on Pakistan will not stand well in the context of transitioning to a political enterprise in Afghanistan’s domestic politics.
These factors if left unaddressed could also prove to be sources of disagreement within the leadership, adding a degree of permanence to the fragmentation dynamic discussed above. The roots of the conflict date back to the decades of the Cold War. The current generation of foot soldiers on both sides have grown up witnessing little other than protracted violence and turmoil in their country.
Memories of violence, oral histories of antagonisms between communities, and a general lack of trust among various actors are all realities of where we stand now. War has gone on for far too long. The violence must stop first and concessions will have to come from both sides. Regional and international actors that can facilitate a dialogue must re-think what purpose reliance on more warfare would serve in the long-run. As President Ashraf Ghani aptly put it, “let’s not remain prisoners of the past and let’s secure our future with the aim not to win the war, but to end it…”
Shahab Ud Din Ahmad is a teaching fellow at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.