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The Taliban and Afghanistan – Beyond 2014: DIIS conference write-up

November 29, 2013

Summary: A DIIS conference of academics specialising in the Taliban highlight the need for more research, the difficulties still lie in understanding the inner workings of the Taliban and the value in looking back at their evolution over the 20 years of their existence.  The Taliban are both complex and pragmatic, slowly evolving in several different areas.  Their religious rhetoric has toned down and migrated since the early idealism of their birth.  They have a complex relationship with criminality (drugs, kidnapping) and have had to make compromises in order to sustain a prolonged insurgency.  There are no simple, politican-friendly, solutions for engaging with them but lessons can be learned from their dealings with the international community in the 1990s.  Framing the issues correctly is key – how to talk is as important as what to talk about – personal relationships and understanding cultural norms matter greatly.


DIIS LogoI attended the Danish Institute for International Studies conference entitled “The Taliban and Afghanistan – Beyond 2014”.  It was a topical and highly valuable contribution to the current debate regarding the position of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s future direction and included some “premier league” academics, experts and writers: Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn, Michael Semple, Anand Gopal and James Fergusson.    Under the Chatham House rules of the day, I will not give the more detailed reading of the individual presentations that I would normally do, but, instead, give an overview of the key themes and issues arising.

Researching the Taliban

What came across quite early on and remained as a theme throughout, was little was still known and understood about the Taliban, even 20 years after the movement emerged.  Rigorous academic research was difficult for a range of reasons (security problems, difficulty of accessing individuals, cultural, lack of written info…).  There are still major analytical challenges with only a few analysts in-country undertaking this necessary fieldwork.  The Taliban are shrouded in secrecy – which, to some extent, they appear to deliberately cultivate.  It is still nearly impossible to represent the inner workings of Taliban thinking processes.  New sources are only slowly emerging – other Talebs are writing memoirs (and the archive of Taliban radio broadcasts from the 1990s resides in the Radio archives in Kabul).  Each speaker, in different ways, underlined how complex the Taliban were and are – major problems have been caused over the years by a failure of the international community to appreciate this and a tendency to crudely categorise them with extreme labels of one kind or another (eg “criminals”, “terrorists”, “religious fanatics”, “proxies of Pakistan”, “intractable”…).  Not only this, the speakers noted ways in which the Taliban had evolved in various phases from the early 1990s.  Much pragmatism can be observed as the Taliban attempt to deal with the international community and the dilemmas caused as ideological theory clashes with the challenges of governance in the latter part of the 1990s.

Evolution of the Taliban

Speakers noted distinct phases in the development of the Taliban:

94 – 96: a small, localised, ideological group shaped on the front lines in Kandahar fighting the Soviets, acting according to the few things they really understood – how to fight and religious ideology.  Talebs like to emphasise this history in preamble – long accounts of individual performance during the jihad, this is important.  The Kandahar front of fighters insisted on studying Islam while fighting the Soviets.

96 – 98: rapid expansion, greater interaction with the international community.  Taliban greatly disappointed not to be recognised by the IC and treated in the same way as the corrupt warlords that they, from their perspective, were trying to remove.

98 – 01: increasing splits, divisions and internal and external pressures in the 98 – 01 period.  Increasing split in foreign policy approaches within the Taliban between Kabul and Kandahar circles over what relationship to have with the UN and the US.  There was increasing isolation of the Taliban.

Important to understand the internal structures of the Taliban and why they matter – 2 – 3 different centres of power in the 1990s – Kandahar, Kabul, Mullah Omar.

The Taliban have embraced pragmatic decisions as the years have gone on.  The use of religious rhetoric has reduced, following recognition that the loftier ideological aspirations of earlier, Kandahar years just cannot be applied and enforced across the country at present.  But, conversely, suicide bombing has increased, once the military benefit of this tactic in an asymmetric conflict became clear.

A significant Taliban dilemma is their relationship with crime – they clearly benefit from kidnapping, opium trafficking, etc.  This is partly a function of the pragmatic recognition that funding is needed to maintain a long drawn out insurgency – they would have some major rethinking to do if they were to return to some form of governance.

The criminalisation of part of the Taliban is a challenge for those moral Taliban who want an end to the conflict.  The Taliban Centre of Gravity is perhaps still aiming at military victory and few are prepared to take the risk of questioning whether the Jihad should continue.

From 2011 we are starting to see fissuring – splits deepening into formal divisions – perhaps intensified by the issue of peace talks and the US targeting of mid-level Taliban commanders.  There may be recognition within the Taliban that the Taliban of the 1990s will never return.  Others perhaps still see 2014 as the chance for military victory.  The UN have started to note “Black on Black” clashes – fighting between Taliban groups.

Understanding and talking with the Taliban

Interpreting their messages is hard – and they speak to different audiences.  Many different groups were engaging with the Taliban in the 1990s, with different approaches and mixed results: South American oil companies, the US, Oxfam, the UN, the Swedish Afghan Committee, the Chinese…

Personal relations matter when engaging with the Taliban – establishing a rapport, working relations, trust.  Vendrell scored well by these definitions, Lakhdar Brahimi perhaps not so good.  Framing the issue is key – to decide how you will talk about something before you decide what you talk about.  Avoid discussing matters of principle and get to specifics – eg don’t lecture the Taliban on healthcare, but extoll the value of a polio vaccination programme.  China did well in their discussions with the Taliban, while the US fared worse, being seen as merely presenting a list of demands.

Avoid raised expectations for the outcome of a meeting; don’t expect there necessarily to be a specific, defined, end point to the negotiations; don’t consider a major reversal of progress as a terminal setback, but just keep talking.  Publically messaging is unhelpful when negotiations are ongoing.  Consider how to evaluate Taliban messaging, bearing in mind they are communicating to different audiences.  Oxfam’s talking strategy failed, the Swedish Afghan Committee managed to achieve the establishment of girls schools, the US failed to get the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden, the Chinese seemed to get on well with the Taliban.

Final thoughts

The day was fascinating of course, but it was still striking how little real understanding there is – even amongst the highest level of expertise – of the Taliban’s inner workings and complexities.  And it was gratifying to hear this problem frankly acknowledged several times during the talks.  For example it was suggested that the true role of women in the Pushtun south will only come close to being understood when women academics are prepared to spent 4-5 years undertaking difficult field research within these very closed societies.

The tensions between long-term academic research and the need for simple, politician-friendly recommendations were hinted at.  As the problems of talking to the Taliban were discussed, I couldn’t help reflecting that the international community was having similar problems with President Karzai, with recommendations the same – try to understand his mindset as he plays to several audiences, don’t assume that the talks have finished and if all else fails keep talking.

It is clear that the Taliban are not one-dimensional, are slowly evolving and are capable of pragmatic decisions based on circumstance.  We still do not have a good sense of what vision the Taliban have for themselves after 2014 – a return to an Emirate and dominance or compromise and working within some form of coalition government?  In my view, 5 – 10 years of more fighting looks plausible with both protagonists in the field and willing to continue the fight (assuming the international commnity is prepared to continue bankrolling the Afghan National Security Forces).  But my sense is that the Afghan society is evolving at a slightly faster rate, with the Taliban in danger of getting left behind with fewer options for engaging and expressing themselves.  Does this then push them into a more extremist corner or do they simply dissolve?  Helping to develop an understanding through new research combined with analysis of past lessons is important.

But I also can’t avoid the feeling that the emphasis is still very much on how the West is expected to interact with the Taliban with less consideration given to the role that, amongst others, the Afghan presidency, High Peace Council, parliament, civil society, ethnic and political factions and warlords, both ex- and current might play, both in short-term peace talks and longer-term reconciliation efforts.  During one of the conference pauses, I idly imagined the floor of a dusty non-descript compound in a Quetta suburb as a Taleb attempted to deliver a talk to the leadership Shura: “Dealing with the international community beyond 2014: lessons learned”.  While Western analytical effort attempts to understand the Taliban, I couldn’t help speculating what measures could be taken to assist the Taliban to understand the West and the changing Afghan society – isn’t it better to build a bridge from both directions?

More research needed.

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