Weeks after the United States and Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban movement signed an agreement to stipulate the withdrawal of foreign forces in return for counterterrorism guarantees, the hard-line movement has yet to begin talks with the Afghan government as outlined by the pact.
Instead, the insurgents have opposed a 21-member negotiating team announced by Kabul and supported by most factions and prominent politicians supporting the political system under the umbrella of the Islamic Republic. The Taliban have ramped up attacks on security forces across the country after the February 29 deal with Washington. “We shall only sit for talks with a negotiation team that conforms with our agreements and is constituted in accordance with the laid-out principles,” said a Taliban statement on March 28.
Michael Semple, a former European Union and United Nations adviser in Afghanistan, says the Taliban’s actions are consistent with their longstanding political goal of re-establishing their Islamic Emirate, the formal name of their regime in the late 1990s. He says the occasional optimistic statements by Taliban leaders about an inclusive government never relayed the movement’s true strategy.
“We should not be surprised when we see that even after the deal in Qatar [with the U.S.] the Taliban movement as a whole is pursuing a military campaign, which is already intensifying across Afghanistan,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website on March 31. “They are engaged in a military campaign to try to re-establish their Islamic Emirate -- a government of Afghanistan dominated entirely by the Taliban movement.”
Semple, now a professor at Queens University Belfast, says the Taliban’s commitment to negotiations with the Afghan government in the Doha agreement is undermined by their reliance on violence. “If this is the position they take to the negotiations, there is little hope for success,” he noted.
He says that in the Taliban’s current calculations, they don’t really need to negotiate peace with other Afghans.
“The Taliban have made it clear that they are very keen on this deal, which they have done with the Americans but only for the purposes of allowing U.S. forces to leave the country,” Semple said. “They consider themselves to be victorious over the U.S. and believe they somehow have a right or destiny to take on the whole country on the basis of what they say [as] having defeated the Americans.”
Mullah Fazel, a former top Taliban military commander and senior member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, recently portrayed this sentiment. In a March 25 speech to supporters in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan, Fazel defined their redlines in future negotiations with the United States and the Afghan government.
“The amir or leader of [a future government] will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Shari’a [Islamic law],” he told Taliban fighters and supporters in the rural district of Pishin near the Afghan border. “We will not let the sacrifices of our martyrs be wasted. God willing, we will see the victory.”
Fazel, however, indicated that they would accommodate Afghans who can work for the Taliban. “Unlike in the past, all [officials] will not come from among the ulema or the Taliban,” he said. “The Taliban or the Islamic Emirate will never become part of the Kabul government, but we can grant them [some individuals] a ministry or some other post.”
But in a recent analysis, the International Crisis Group argued the Taliban have “shown persistence” in pursuing negotiations to end four decades of war in Afghanistan.
“Little is lost, however, by testing the Taliban’s potential to negotiate seriously. Much could be gained, not least the opportunity to curb violence in the deadliest war in the world,” said a March 30 briefing by the international research group. “It will require patience, as any peace process will probably involve many false starts and disappointments.”
Semple says the Taliban’s agreement with the United States underlines the fact that the Islamist movement is no longer waging a jihad against what they claimed was against foreign occupation.
“Any further fighting is entirely a fight among Afghans over the nature of government in the country,” he said. “It is not what they initially mobilized the young fighters for. It remains to be seen how long they can convince the people or young fighters to actually fight for such a cause. In my experience, there is also tremendous opposition to the idea of civil war.”
Semple says a negotiated solution to the conflict in Afghanistan will happen after the Taliban realize they cannot militarily overthrow the government. “[They will then] actually negotiate the future of Afghanistan -- something they are really not ready to do yet,” he concluded.
In a sign of some progress toward contact and cooperation between the Afghan sides, a three-member Taliban technical team arrived in Kabul on March 31. They are expected to monitor the release of Taliban prisoners from Afghan prisons.
The movement has insisted 5,000 of its fighters and supporters be unconditionally released from Afghan prisons in exchange for some 1,000 Afghan soldiers and government workers in their captivity before they begin talks with Kabul.