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Future of The Taliban

Taliban fighters patrol in the central Afghan province of Ghazni in May 2017.
Taliban fighters patrol in the central Afghan province of Ghazni in May 2017.

Afghanistan’s Taliban movement appears to be on the verge of an agreement with the United States that is likely to see the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan in return for Taliban counterterrorism guarantees and a possible beginning of peace talks among Afghans during a cease-fire or reduced levels of violence.

The prospects of such an agreement puts the quarter-century-old movement at a crossroads. It now has an opportunity to become an Islamist political party focused on winning or sharing power in a pluralistic political system. In practice, this means the Afghan Taliban might become a replica of Pakistan’s Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI) political party. This Islamist groups is led by clerics practicing and propagating the conservative orthodox Deobandi school within Sunni Islam. While campaigning for an Islamic political system, the JUI is a mainstream parliamentary political party that has resisted joining jihad against the Pakistani state even when the Taliban insurgents controlled large swathes of territories in the country. Many, if not all, of the Taliban leaders attended Deobandi madrasahs in Pakistan and were mentored by senior JUI leaders.

But the Taliban’s history as a leading Islamist militant movement in the 21st-century can also push them toward another extreme of the Islamist spectrum by turning them into something akin to Al-Qaeda. The Taliban lost power in 2001 after hosting Al-Qaeda leaders who had also pledged allegiance to the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar. After its reemergence as an insurgency in 2003, the Taliban adopted many Al-Qaeda tactics, contributed to hosting its leaders at its Pakistani sanctuaries, and even facilitated its return to the Afghan battlefield, which was showcased by the recent killing of Al-Qaeda In The Indian Subcontinent’s leader Asim Umar in September.

In the best-case scenario, the Taliban join Afghans in a power-sharing agreement transforming them from one of the world’s most violent militant groups into a peaceful political group or charity focused on non-violent activism and social welfare. In the worst-case scenario, the Taliban declare victory either soon after signing an agreement with Washington or after an actual military withdrawal. The movement can then expand its rhetoric and focus on reaping the fruits of jihad, which will mean it will continue to push for militarily capturing power to recreate the Islamic Emirate -- the formal name of the Taliban denoting their hard-line regime in the 1990s.

What is likely to transpire on the ground in Afghanistan appears to be geared toward a combination of both scenarios. There will be some movement on behalf of the Taliban toward realizing the first scenario in the short term. After U.S. President Donald Trump stepped back from an imminent accord with the Taliban in September, it is evident from insurgent statements that they are keen to conclude an agreement with Washington to ensure U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.

But a range of factors and influences are likely to shape a more contested future for the Taliban and Afghanistan. Overshadowed by a focus on violence, the Taliban’s future is likely to be shaped by the ideology, interests, composition, and acumen of their current leadership, political wisdom, geopolitics, and their failures.

A closer look at the Taliban’s actions and pronouncements clearly demonstrates that the group is focused on fighting jihad for now. Most of the statements on the group’s Voice of Jihad website boast of the group’s battlefield victories and exploits. It is true that the Taliban have made optimistic statements on power sharing, protecting rights within an Islamic framework, and the virtues of peace. They have also demonstrated a savviness in public relations and information campaigns, but still there is no indication that they put aside being warriors and insurgents for the role of peacemakers.

As the Taliban’s negotiators talked peace with U.S. Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad in the Qatari capital of Doha on December 11, the insurgents mounted a brazen attack on a medical facility near Bagram, the main U.S. military base in the country. “When I met the Talibs today, I expressed outrage about yesterday’s attack on Bagram, which recklessly killed two and wounded dozens of civilians,” Khalilzad tweeted on December 12. “Taliban must show they are willing and able to respond to Afghan desire for peace.”

Khalilzad said the two sides are taking a brief pause so the Taliban can consult their leaders on this issue. In September, U.S. President Trump called off peace talks with the Taliban after it attacked Kabul’s diplomatic quarters. "If they cannot agree to a cease-fire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don't have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway," Trump tweeted on September 7 after one American soldier and 11 Afghan civilians were killed in the Taliban attack two days earlier.

The Taliban’s dependence on violence is reinforced by the fact that the movement still broadly sees itself as fighting for the restoration of its Islamic Emirate, which in the movement’s view enforced Islamic Shari’a law. For the Taliban, that ideal state distinguished itself by enforcing Hudood or punishments such as stoning for adultery and amputation for theft while also implementing strict moral policing to prevent people from what they viewed as committing sins.

But it is difficult to reconcile such specific visions of enforcing religious practices with the modern state. Thus, there is an open question of whether the Taliban are open to sharing power in a pluralistic system or if their vision of inclusivity is limited to having a regime where members from Afghanistan’s diverse society are present. This issue becomes more problematic if one considers that the Taliban have indicated a wish to demolish key institutions of the current Afghan state and replace current laws and the constitution.

The Taliban’s focus on fighting and violence has also meant they do not have a workable and broad political strategy aimed at wooing the Afghans in whose name it claims to be fighting. The movement has often showed little concern for the welfare and wellbeing of ordinary Afghans and even appears ill-prepared for dealing with the tremendous changes Afghan society has undergone with the rise of an educated middle class and a globally connected population largely opposed to the Taliban and who still mostly views them as proxies of neighboring Pakistan.

This gaping lack of political preparedness is further bolstered by their longstanding opposition to all manifestations of modern Afghan nationalism, which is secular, remains popular, and is inclusive in character. The Taliban have gained international legitimacy by engaging in negotiations and high diplomacy with the U.S., Western, and neighboring countries. But they have not reciprocated by reducing violence, which again is disproportionate to their actual marginal popular support inside Afghanistan. The absence of a current charismatic Taliban leader means it faces a more challenging path to transformation -- a key requisite for a successful peace process centered on reconciliation among Afghans.

Lastly, the Taliban’s relations with longstanding principal backer Pakistan and more recent tactical ally Iran are still too murky to allay Afghan fears that the secretive movement ultimately contributes to protect their interest in longstanding disputes with Afghanistan.

This article is an abridged version of the author’s presentation at Jamestown Foundation’s Thirteenth Annual Terrorism Conference on December 12. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.