Hurting stalemate? Are the Taliban weary and ready for peace?
Summary: Very interesting RUSI report based on interviews with seven key current and former Taliban figures suggesting significant fragmentation and low morale amongst the Taliban as they attempt to prosecute a costly war against fellow Muslims. Military gains cannot be built upon and commanders are serving their own interests, eroding the pure values of Mullah Omar. The writers suggest this opens up opportunities for new peace initiatives with the Taliban. I am not yet convinced.
There was a time, certainly embracing a ten-year period of the post-2001 period of Afghanistan’s troubled history, when you couldn’t move for new Afghan papers being launched. Political, military, thinktanks, government, NGOs were clamouring to push their old and new solutions. Some of these ideas were attempted “in the field”. Occasionally (and sometimes unwittingly) they were attempted two or three times. It is much quieter these days. I attended a very useful RUSI presentation from Michael Semple and Theo Farrell earlier this week. They have a new paper out based on interviews with key Taliban commanders. The meeting was well attended – particularly given we only had an hour. What they came up with was very interesting. In essence they give the clear sense that the Taliban leadership is weakening, morale is flagging and there are many indicators of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war. Lets go through some of the key points from the presentation:
Interviews based on long-standing contacts. Seven quality one-to-one interviews with well-connected current or former members.
- The conflict has dragged on and is very costly for all sides.
- What is going on inside the internal Taliban political arena is a key and greatly neglected variable
- Although the Taliban are officially united, there are concerns over the quality of the current leadership which is poor – no Mullah Omar “magic touch”
- Current leader, Haibatullah, is struggling to stamp his authority – this is a leadership crisis
- The Taliban have had some “spectacular” military wins (Kunduz fell twice). But the gains come at great cost and have limited utility – they can overrun towns but cannot hold them
- Taliban morale affected by clampdowns in Pakistan, refugee movements: the Pakistan sanctuary is looking vulnerable and the military campaign has lost direction and purity of vision/values and purpose
- Discontent amongst mid and low level fighters – leadership is pursuing its own interests: “the Emirate no longer exists”, “the Emirate has become a mafia”…
- Role of regional players? Iran and Russia happy to have their roles talked up but they lack the strategic clout as yet. And progress should not have to wait for Pakistan to take the first step
- Why is the war still being fought – poor Afghan Muslims being killed on both sides? Farrell – Taliban need a process that does not undermine or defeat them
- What kind of “defection model”? The Taliban still want to be able to assert their identity as “Taliban” – they will only come over if they can retain that credibility
- Haven’t we heard this all before? Why now? Semple: The Taliban interviewees are now saying the same thing – and more strongly – and this was very striking
- What does success look like? A trend of violence decreasing slowly over a period of 2,3 years to create the expectation of a political agreement. Socially the Taliban will continue to be an important force – only not a military one
Analysis and Outlook
This is all very tempting. It is very encouraging that there are such channels open between key Taliban members and Western analysts. At one point Michael Semple (rightly) cautioned us that local actors are very good at pretending to do and say what other groups want, eg, UK, Russia, Pakistan etc. Perhaps there is an element of this in the interviews he presents. But Christina Lamb’s “why now” question gets to the heart of it. Many of us have heard a lot of this before. The paper is mainly about the problems of a fragmenting Taliban and poor morale. This is very useful in itself. But there is much less about specific reach outs and evidence of a desire for peace talks. The concept of “insurgent peace-making” offered by the authors is attractive, but becomes quickly full of “ifs, woulds, coulds and shoulds”. The solutions are loose and quite optimistic.
For insurgent peace-making to work it would require a mechanism to assemble a broad Taliban pro-peace coalition…while participating in the peace process, [the Taliban] will necessarily have to assert their loyalty to the spirit of the movement and avoid any appearance of capitulation to government. This will require careful accommodation among Afghan stakeholders.
Well, absolutely. And good luck with that. Afghan stakeholders. Remember that, in the end this means handing the process to a disparate group of fractious actors: Afghans (and Pakistanis), with government, parliament, a host of factions, and even the population, all demanding input, including, I suspect, accountability for war crimes. Many of these actors are having their strings pulled by other actors. The question I wanted to ask but was thwarted by the time was whether there were any lessons from the – I hesitate to use the use the word – reconciliation of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His name did not crop up, although it has been seen as a possible model for future deals with some or all of the Taliban. But the term “defection model” was used in the discussions, i.e. what kind of process do we use in order to get the Taliban to lay down their arms. It struck me that this is precisely the type of terminology (victory, defeat, surrender, defection) that has unhelpfully been employed in the past. With a thick layer of shame and humiliation dripping over these words, this accidental thoughtlessness surely works against encouraging those Taliban wanting to come back in.
I think it more likely that, with both government and Taliban forces still in the field and ready and able to fight, the fighting will continue. The ideas in the report are certainly valid, but my sense is that we could still be waiting for a breakthrough in 5-10 years time. And in many ways, the report suggests not that there is now a growing opportunity for peace, but, quite the reverse. Splintering and fragmentation of an insurgency doesn’t necessarily mean readiness – or even desire – for peace talks. Multiple competing factions can also point to new and more complex forms of warlordism, insurgency and civil war. I once asked Ahmed Rashid what would happen if Mullah Omar was killed in a drone strike. He replied “then who do you talk to?” If the Haibatullah leadership is on the way to decapitation and disintegration (albeit for different reasons of inability, factionalism and disobedient sub-commanders), maybe the problem is the same.