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Taliban against Semple

July 30, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: A credible and plausible interview with a senior Taleb gives an insight into naïve and inflexible Taliban thinking.  We should be careful not to overplay purported Taliban “doubts” about military victory and negativity towards Al Qaeda.  Little optimism for talks and settlements.

Analytically it is often a struggle to keep up with the continual flow of incidents, events and developments in the relentless modern media/internet cycle of “stuff happening”.   So I am often trying to catch up with issues that remain interesting(for me at least) even when the media spotlight has passed over it and the Google searches have dried up.


There was an interesting indirect “exchange” between the Afghanistan and regional expert, Michael Semple and the Taliban. Semple conducted an interview, purportedly with an anonymous, but highly placed member of the Taliban.  The opinions given by “Mawlvi” definitely came from the more pragmatic and politically-aware (it’s all relative here, of course) side of the Taliban leadership – the Taliban may not be able to “win the war” was one thread that the international media particularly jumped on.  This provoked the Taliban into a response via their website, which remains the custodian of all official public proclamations from the leadership.   Both sides are worth reading.

Key Taliban interview points:

  • “Any Taliban leader expecting to be able to capture Kabul is making a grave mistake. Nevertheless, the leadership also knows that it cannot afford to acknowledge this weakness.”
  • “The Taliban are fighting to expel the occupiers and to enforce shariat. They are sufficiently far from achieving their objectives that now is not the time for a realistic discussion of whether they will re-establish an emirate.”
  • “If the Taliban were ever to return to power they would face enormous problems. But they are a long way from having to grapple with the challenges of power, and for the moment, as long as Mullah Omar is alive, the Taliban will be prepared to follow him in this fight.”
  • “The only other serious political force in Afghanistan is that of the Northern Alliance.”


Analysis and Outlook:

Semple is certainly a credible interlocutor in this regard and we should take the interview seriously, although I imagine there may be something of a “witch hunt” amongst Taliban circles for this supposedly anonymous senior Taleb – perhaps he will not be anonymous for much longer.  Semple claims that the Taleb concerned came from amongst the original Taliban leadership from the 1990s.  I wonder, therefore, to what extent this interview represents current Taliban thinking…?

Despite this, the interview reads plausibly – but not encouragingly.  We should not be surprised that the Taliban are capable of recognising their own weaknesses.  The views are broadly consistent with what we know about Taliban thinking.   The Taliban “angry at Al Qaeda” message might play well in US government and media circles, but there is little here that suggests the Taliban are developing any kind of real pragmatism or flexibility – in fact their approach seems simplistic, blunt and naïve and mainly locked into their experience of the 1990s.   Several times it was clearly suggested that the Taliban were still too far away from power to have to worry about preparing anything so tiresome and populist as “policies” or concern themselves with reaching out and generating consensus amongst the peoples of Afghanistan to any great degree.  That they recognised the former Northern Alliance as a key force to be dealt with also suggests a very primitive approach – old school indeed.  This alone should be reason for concern in the context of peace talks and political settlements.  Western messages that the Taliban should reject Al Qaeda, turn in their weapons and uphold the current Afghan constitution look more like surrender terms and are probably more damaging when stated outright.  It forces the Taliban into a corner that reduces their incentive and flexibility to negotiate.  Some messages are perhaps more effective when implied and unstated, rather than crudely shouted out.

The fact that the interviewee “dare not talk about” the Taliban relationship with Pakistan is intriguing.  It seems to confirm an unpleasant and complex relationship where both parties need the other but do not enjoy the experience.  Perhaps Taliban leaders are located in compounds with the knowledge of (and therefore dependent upon) Pakistani intelligence organisations, for example?

Any corporation is likely to be angry when an official goes “off message”, but the Taliban’s naïve, and slightly shrill, official response is characteristic of what we should continue to expect from their media machine (and, by implication, the regime itself) when they are “bounced” with information or developments beyond their control.  “Stalinist” was a good descriptor used by Semple in relation to their media approach.  When information goes against the party line, the Taliban still tend immediately to deny, deflect or denounce.  Flexible, adaptable and opportunistic their media team is not.  But at the moment, they don’t appear to feel that they need to be…

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