Three Myths Holding Back Afghan Peace Talks

Negotiators at a meeting of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, and China delegations to discuss a roadmap for ending the Taliban conflict. Kabul, Afghanistan, February 23, 2016. (Shamriz Sabawoon/Imagespic/Associated Press).

An attack this week on a hospital in Kabul was one of the largest acts of violence claimed by the so-called Islamic State within Afghanistan. The group’s emergence in the country has threatened to pull focus from international talks with the Taliban that seek an end to spiraling instability. Yet Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar says that the ISIS-claimed attacks only increase the impetus for negotiating a solution with the Taliban, with the latter group continuing to determine the trajectory of Afghan extremism.

A United Nations report found that civilian casualties in the country’s conflict reached a new high point last year. As of November 2016, the Taliban controlled or influenced 10% of Afghanistan’s districts, with a total population of 2.5 million. The government controlled or influenced 57% of these districts, while the remainder were contested. Those numbers may appear dire, but it is not all bad news. While the Taliban’s territory increased, the size of the population within decreased from 2.9 to 2.5 million. The group also made several attempts at conquering a provincial capital in 2016, without success.

Without some form of intervention, the conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban will most likely continue as a stalemate. In the long term, this will still be an untenable situation, as it will hamper reconstruction efforts and cause further suffering for Afghanis. It will also likely see ISIS and other extremists increase their local footprints. The prospect of peace negotiations has thus been brought up on a regular basis. These efforts will likely intensify in the years ahead, particularly as large regional powers such as China and Russia increase their interest in playing a more active role.

The talks are a contentious issue, however, not least within Afghanistan itself. Western engagement, meanwhile, remains characterized by a lack of knowledge about the nature of the Taliban and what it stands for. It is thus timely to take a step back and review some of the most common misconceptions about the Taliban. This article does not propose a solution to the conflict, nor does it take a stance on who the main international actors in a future peace process should be. Separating myth from fact will be a useful first step toward formulating sound policy decisions for any party taking up the challenge.

Myth One: The Taliban Only Uses Negotiation as Deception

One of the common arguments against negotiating with the Taliban is that the group is not sincere in its negotiation efforts. In the 1990s, United States diplomats negotiating for the expulsion of Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan were frustrated by what they viewed as the Taliban’s constant play for more time. The Taliban’s continued rejection of peace talks in recent years suggests the group still negotiates to extract concessions, without giving up anything of substance. Yet researchers on Afghanistan, such as Michael Semple, have also found the group may be willing to conduct meaningful negotiations when it suits it. The regime’s negotiations with the UN on humanitarian access in the 1990s is one example. Starting in 2007, the Taliban leadership—including Mullah Omar himself—also initiated contact with Norwegian diplomats in order to facilitate talks with the Afghan government.

Policymakers have also often claimed that those Taliban delegates in contact with foreigners do not have any real decision-making power. This may have been true for some of the negotiations that took part in the 1990s over the fate of bin Laden, when the Taliban’s chief negotiator at the time, Foreign Minister Mullah Muttawakil, was gradually being marginalized by the leadership in Kandahar. It no longer appears to be the case, however. It is notable that Taliban officials currently manning the group’s representative office in Doha, Qatar, have authority to negotiate on behalf of its leadership. These individuals were able to secure the release of five Taliban members from the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in 2014, in exchange for American captive Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

Myth Two: Taliban Ideology Is Inflexible and Anti-Democratic

Another common misconception is that negotiating with the Taliban would reverse all progress made in Afghanistan since 2001, whether in the fields of human rights, women’s equality, health, education, or democracy. Proponents of this view see the Taliban as a monolithic actor whose ideology is inherently inflexible and anti-democratic.

The Taliban is not a fixed movement; it is in constant flux, both culturally and ideologically. This means there is a plethora of opinion regarding the ideal form of peace negotiations and the future Afghan state, amply described in a 2016 report by the Center on International Cooperation. Taliban officials interviewed in the paper claimed that “the Taliban leadership does not seek a political monopoly, and… it recognizes the importance of sharing power with other Afghan factions.” The main obstacle to peace is not the Taliban’s unwillingness to share power, but the presence of foreign troops in the country.

The Taliban has in fact been an under-studied movement for many years—not least because of the security situation in Afghanistan, and also due to language and cultural barriers, which has discouraged research based on indigenous sources. As a result, we are only now starting to understand the regime of the 1990s and have a long way to go to catch up to 2016.

Some recent research that has been conducted, including by Alex Strick Van Linschoten at King’s College London, has found that the group draws its identity from a deep religious, cultural, and institutional heritage, including even a rich collection of songs and poetry. The political system it introduced in the 1990s was not a new and alien system based on religious dogma; rather it was a continuation of a political system dating back to the early 20th century. The group certainly introduced new elements, such as the rise of a clerical class in positions of power, but it left more unchanged than is commonly perceived. It might thus be convinced to do the same with regard to changes made in recent years.

Myth Three: Taliban Members Are Either Moderates or Hardliners

The third and final myth is that the Taliban can be neatly divided into two camps: politically pragmatic moderates willing to negotiate and uncompromising hardliners who must be fought militarily. While there are certainly groups within the Taliban that fit these characteristics, the majority of its members are not so easily characterized.

Based on my own fieldwork, there is a spectrum of opinion at all levels of the group, between those who would unconditionally lay down their weapons and join the government and those who believe armed struggle framed as jihad is an end in itself. As noted in the report by Kings College’s Van Linschoten, there are no fixed components in the Taliban: “sections are shifting and formed and reformed, with alliances easily switched.”

The group’s large middle category consists of those who want Afghanistan to be an Islamic state but are willing to negotiate on the best means to establish it, including gradual and non-violent means, as well as how it should ultimately look, which might eventually include acceptance of a form of political pluralism. This category also include those who are not particularly religious, but who fight due to common grievances such as unemployment, political oppression, and tribal affiliations.

The corollary of this is that any attempt to pitch Taliban moderates against hardliners would not capture the large middle category, and render any peace negotiations unrepresentative and ineffective. It might ultimately also push more people toward the hardline camp, which is arguably what happened in the 1990s.

What Next?

It is widely agreed that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict. The US has long sought quick fixes such as more troops or exerting more diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to manage the problem. These measures may weaken the Taliban in the short term, but they won’t lead to long-term peace. Increasing pressure on Islamabad, for example, may simply see it seek allies elsewhere in the region—Pakistan is already one of the closest partners of China. Given this, the most likely scenario for the year ahead is that of a continued stalemate, with neither the government nor the Taliban strong enough to tip the power balance completely in its favor.

As more regional powers engage in Afghanistan it is likely that negotiations will be higher on the agenda in 2017 and the years that follow. Despite the inherent difficulties, talking directly with the Taliban remains the most viable long-term solution for peace. A successful approach will depend on all parties separating myth from reality in dealing with the Taliban.

Anne Stenersen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, where she manages the Terrorism Research Project.