The imminent peace deal between the United States and Taliban this week is expected to be followed by negotiations between the hard-line Islamist movement and the Western-backed Afghan government.
Talks between the Islamic Emirate, the formal name of the Taliban, and supporters of the Islamic Republic, comprising often-competing leaders and factions within and outside of the Afghan government, are expected to revolve around finding a lasting solution to four decades of war in Afghanistan and an agreement over a future political system for the country.
Despite its status as an insurgency, the Taliban appear to be a more united and disciplined organization in comparison to a deeply divided government headed by quarreling political elites. Most Afghan government institutions continue to suffer from corruption, incompetence, and inefficiency.
This gives the Taliban an edge in tough negotiations with the diverse groups that support the current political system under the umbrella of the Islamic Republic. Their relative strength has historically been a key component of gaining an advantage over adversaries in the war after a communist coup plunged Afghanistan into conflict in April 1978.
Organizational strength has been a somewhat decisive factor in the various phases of war in Afghanistan. Groups and parties united under a single leadership and capable of exerting control over their cadres have mostly prevailed over factions that suffered from internal rifts. Leadership divisions quickly seeped through the ranks and led to infighting, coups, and even the downfall of factions and regimes.
Perhaps this realization now prompts the Taliban to showcase their unity and organizational strength.
“The Islamic Emirate proved with its 19-year struggle against occupation that it is united both in word and spirit,” noted an article titled The Political and Military Unity of Islamic Emirate, published on the Taliban’s Voice of Jihad website on February 24. “Its leadership controls all the ground forces and all personnel work under a strong command and control structure.”
Another article titled Historic Moments and Shared Responsibilities hinted at the Taliban’s keenness to exploit the disunity of their Afghan opponents in future negotiations.
“The common aspiration of the Afghan nation (Islamic government) must materialize and our countrymen must not allow anyone to sacrifice this historic opportunity for their personal whims and desires,” the February 23 article noted. “The responsibility of solving the issue of Afghanistan falls entirely on the shoulders of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of foreign forces therefore we must learn lessons from past experiences in these critical times.”
In a February 20 op-ed in The New York Times, the Taliban’s deputy leader and perhaps its most senior and effective military commander, Sirajuddin Haqqani, attempted to project such an image to foreign audiences. For nearly two decades, foreign and Afghan observers had mostly described the Haqqani network as a distinct military arm made up of the clan and loyalists of Sirajuddin’s late father, Jalaluddin Haqqani.
“Perhaps our biggest challenge is to ensure that various Afghan groups work hard and sincerely toward defining our common future,” Haqqani wrote. “I am confident that it is possible. If we can reach an agreement with a foreign enemy, we must be able to resolve intra-Afghan disagreements through talks.”
The Taliban’s keenness to be viewed as a united organization is in sharp contrast with the reality of the Afghan government. On February 26, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani postponed his inauguration till March 9. Originally scheduled for February 27, the inauguration was postponed amid his bitter dispute with Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who didn’t accept the Afghan election commission’s final result naming Ghani as the winner.
Instead, Abdullah declared his victory and began to create his own administration by appointing governors. The dispute deterred most of Afghanistan’s allies and neighbors from celebrating the election results. Many called for caution and unity.
“Moving forward, we call on the new government to be inclusive and reflect the aspirations of all Afghans,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a February 25 statement that came a week after the Afghan election commission announced the final result on February 18.
While Ortagus called for concerns about the election results to be handled “in accordance with constitutional and legal procedures,” the statement also warned against creating a parallel government. “They should also desist from destabilizing actions, including purported efforts to establish parallel government structures inconsistent with the constitution and rule of law,” she noted. “Such moves call into question the country’s sovereignty and unity that the United States strongly supports.”
Ortagus clearly outlined Washington’s top priority in Afghanistan. “It is time to focus not on electoral politics, but on taking steps toward a lasting peace, ending the war with the Taliban, and finding a formula for a political settlement,” she said, adding that a final resolution “can serve the interests of all of this country’s citizens through intra-Afghan negotiations we expect will begin in March.”
Like its numerous arbitration efforts among Afghan political elites, Washington is likely to broker some kind of power-sharing among Afghan politicians. But they will need greater unity among their ranks to preserve the republican political system that has given them a piece of the pie in the new Afghan state that emerged after the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Recent Afghan history has clearly not favored bickering leaders.
Afghanistan’s civil war originally erupted between the Khalq and Parcham factions of the communist Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan soon after the pro-Khalq army officers grabbed power in the April 1978 coup. Their infighting prompted the Soviet invasion in December 1979 and ultimately contributed to their downfall in April 1992.
Their mujahedin nemesis suffered from more disunity. A fratricidal civil war among more than a dozen mujahedin factions in the 1990s paved the way for the emergence of the Taliban as a counterforce keen on ending the anarchy created by the infighting.
Today, Afghanistan’s security forces, civil administration, and a robust civil society appear to be on the right trajectory toward greater stability and prosperity for the country’s more than 30 million people.
But disunity among Kabul elites, mostly comprising former mujahedin leaders, western technocrats, and royalist tribal leaders, will make it difficult to leverage key concessions from the Taliban in complex negotiations.