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Oscillate wildly: the Taliban world is changing…

June 17, 2015

Summary: Things are changing for the Taliban.  Talks with internationals and a potential confrontation with Islamic State can make things stressful and unpredictable.

You have to feel slightly sorry for the Taliban. Their environment seems to be changing in ways that they are struggling to understand and control. They are now having to refute, dispute or “clarify” any meetings they have outside of Afghanistan in which Westerners and other Afghans are present. But the process of engaging in any forms of dialogue in the margins is helpful. It develops understanding between protagonists – a training session warm up before the tough issues are tackled. The Taliban’s exposure to the wider world has been limited over the years and they could certainly benefit from a little dose of political and international norms of behaviour and human rights. Ahmed Rashid gave a talk a couple of years ago in Copenhagen, in which he said: “lets open the minds of the Taliban”.

The period of an insurgency before talks start is a more fluid and potentially more nasty one. The pressure to secure military advantage and other bargaining points is high, as is the risk of fragmentation of the insurgents. Some groups inevitably will want to fight while others are weary.

IS mapBut an external dimension is emerging to complicate things. The Islamic State (IS) flag is being waved with increasing vigour over Afghanistan. This part of central and southern Asia is known as “Khorasan” to Islamic State, whose influence, once “virtual”, is picking up groups of disgruntled former Taliban, likely concerned over the lack of tangible battlefield success against the Afghan army.

ISIS logoThere have been reports of clashes between IS and Taliban in Afghanistan. Most recently an IS group are believed to have captured and beheaded a Taliban member. The Taliban have issued a letter to IS essentially (the translation I have seems to be a crude Google Translate) telling them to keep out of Afghanistan

I once asked Ahmed Rashid what would happen if the international community killed Mullah Omar. He said this would not be helpful, as the lack of a leader to talk to would put the Taliban at risk of fracture and the emergence of more extreme groups.The strengthening of an IS presence in Afghanistan could cause a similar outcome.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2015 6:42 pm

    The Taliban *are* fragmented, but for different reasons. Mullah Rauf Khadim was radicalized in GITMO, others think that Mullah Omar is either dead, or unable to exercise control because the ISI will not permit him to do so. Commanders in the field are thinking “why should my fighters die, so the Taliban can sit down with an illegitimate Afghan government and agree to ‘concessions.'” As far as “opening the minds of the Taliban,” fourteen years in, I still almost weekly read crap about “The Taiban banned white shoes (or was it socks) and forbid women from leaving their houses.” That’s the state of journalistic knowledge of the Taliban. There are great analysts, who produce excellent work, but it’s ignored by both the political and journalistic spheres.
    Remember “we lost our Emirate for one man,” why would the Taliban let another group wreak even worse havoc, and destroy their gains? Their emphasis on cohesion is too essential to the movement; cooperation will occur when it’s adventageous, but the Taliban are not going to abandon their core structures.
    (Will someone PLEASE organize a conference, on this topic, soon, and in a nice holiday spot?)

  2. June 18, 2015 1:45 pm

    Hi Suzanne and thanks. Well, I definitely sense the risks of fragmentation, beginning with the baseline “military” Taliban versus “political” Taliban but I don’t know ultimately where it might end. Does it push the Taliban into the arms of the government in a hasty (and likely botched) “peace deal”?. Or maybe a three-way civil war? (Or four way, if the Dostums, et al decide they need to be heard)…
    I hear you on the conference request 🙂 Am prepared to compromise on the “nice holiday spot”…

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