As negotiations begin and Afghans wait with baited-breath — the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain. The US is ready to leave, the Kabul government and the people it represents are desperate for peace and the Taliban are eager to be seen as a legitimate political entity.
The time has finally come. Nearly two decades after their regime was overthrown by the United States, the Taliban have decided to sit across the room from a Washington-backed Afghan government and begin negotiations that could, hopefully, lead them to peacefully coexist in Afghanistan.
The negotiations taking place in Qatar’s capital of Doha, where the Taliban have a political office, have come after decades of the Taliban killing, plundering and terrorising millions. To be perfectly clear, the Taliban as Islamist-militant organisation have not changed. They continue to believe in the power of the gun, that women are second-class citizens and that Islamic law and not secular democratic principles are best for Afghanistan. However, where the Taliban have shown change and evolution is their political strategy of how they plan to achieve this.
The first element of the Taliban’s strategy has been to demonstrate their legitimacy and power, to both the international community and the people of Afghanistan. This they have done in two ways: by displaying their proximity to Washington and by their violent campaign of attacks. Taliban have not lost an opportunity to show Kabul and the rest of the world that by signing the ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’ with the US on 29 February, they have already been granted certain validity that they did not have earlier.
In early August, the Taliban released a photograph of a video call between Mullah Baradar, the deputy leader of the Taliban and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on their social media handles, before the US released any statement on the same. This helped the Taliban project their proximity to the US; reflecting the fact that while they may be vilified by Kabul for their actions, they had direct access to Washington, Kabul government’s supposed allies. It also helped the Taliban send a message to their own organisation, that those part of the negotiating team were in control of what was going on and would continue to put forward their demands directly to the US.
By not agreeing to a ceasefire before talks and continuing to stage attacks across the country, the Taliban have used violence as a tool to extract leverage over the government. In the immediate aftermath of their deal with the US, the Taliban resumed their attacks against Afghan forces. Since then while they have spared US forces, they have viciously gone after government officials, politicians, members of the negotiating team and Afghan security forces.
With a delay in the talks between the Taliban and Kabul and disagreement over the withdrawal of prisoners from both sides, Taliban’s violence spiraled into a deadlier phase with repeated news of roadside bombs, check post overruns and infiltration into army bases, causing havoc across the country. This reflects the Taliban thinking, that with their show of violence and brute force, they can force the government to talk to them out of fear. Going into the negotiations at Doha, the Taliban plan was to begin from a position of relative strength: a Washington signed withdrawal-agreement, a Washington backed peace talks and an army of fighters that could wage hell should the Kabul government not listen to them.
The second element of Taliban’s political strategy has been to appoint a new negotiating team to lead the talks with Kabul. The new twenty one-member team, reflect the seriousness with which the Taliban are approaching negotiations as most of the men a part of the team are extremely influential within the Taliban and share a close relationship with the leader Hibatullah Akhundzada. With their ages ranging from the late 60s to mid-20’s, the negotiating team members have served time at Guantanamo Bay prison, or have been a part of the previous Taliban regime (1996-2001) as ministers of foreign affairs, defence, justice, agriculture, religious education, information and culture, or as ambassadors and governors of different provinces.
Given their high profile and long-standing ties to the group, the Taliban negotiating team can take decisions independently that reflect the wishes of leadership without having to take approval from anyone. With the stamp of approval from Akhundzada and the leadership council in Quetta, Pakistan, the nature of the negotiating team demonstrates that the group is taking the talks with Kabul seriously, as they know if their best shot at attaining domestic and international legitimacy and power, after decades of war.
The third component of the Taliban’s strategy has been to constantly reiterate and remind the Afghan people of their ‘red lines’ or ‘non-negotiables’: their desire for an “Islamic system” in the country. A number of statements from Taliban members over the last year have shown that the group is insistent on the establishment of what it considers an ‘Islamic system’ in the country, while remaining vague on what the system would entail and whether it would reverse the political and gains made since 2001.
By stating this demand, over and over again, the group hopes to show that, an Islamic system is not something they are willing to compromise on and that it has their highest priority. As a negotiating tactic, demonstrating inflexibility on a certain point is a smart tool, one that the Taliban hopes to leverage in their favour. Should they be forced to change or alter this ‘non- negotiable’ item on their agenda, they can demand a series of trade-offs or compromises from Kabul. While it is highly unlikely that they will modify their demand for an Islamic, their strategy to constantly restate it, shows that is part of their plan to extract the maximum they can for their goal of an Islamic emirate.
As negotiations begin and Afghans wait with baited-breath, the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain. Though there are several steps that need to be taken before the current stalemate can result in a negotiated settlement, the silver lining is that war-weariness runs deep for all three sides. The US is ready to leave, the Kabul government and the people it represents are desperate for peace and the Taliban are eager to be seen as a legitimate political entity.
While there are still plenty of possibilities for spoilers, the current negotiations are the absolute best chance the country has to create lasting peace. Although both the Afghan government and the Taliban will face setbacks and be forced to make concessions, the Taliban’s game plan going into Doha highlights the unfortunate truth of the Afghan war. The Taliban’s political strategy has ensured that they have outlasted a superpower, now their articulation of a coherent political vision (if they have one) will guarantee that they outlive them too.