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Hurting stalemate? Are the Taliban weary and ready for peace?

February 2, 2017

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne Schroeder permalink
    February 4, 2017 7:23 pm

    Tim, I’m waiting to read this, since I’m trying to write something up myself. I do very much look forward though, to hearing your views on the RUSI paper.

    • February 6, 2017 8:53 am

      Thanks Suzanne – if you would like to send me what you have written, I would be very happy to link it in. Cheers, Tim

  2. February 6, 2017 6:58 pm

    Hi Tim, I really enjoyed reading this, and am very envious that you were able to attend the event. Here is my very cursory summary:

    • February 11, 2017 2:56 pm

      Suzanne – any chance you could paste or send me the whole text of your thoughts??

      • sues57 permalink
        February 11, 2017 5:12 pm

        Hi Tim,

        I finally had a chance to edit this, and here it is:

        []sues57-blog Overview of RUSI Briefing Paper

        On Monday, January 30, the Royal United Services Institute released a Briefing Paper, titled “Ready for Peace: The Afghan Taliban after a Decade of War,” authored by Michael Semple and Theo Farrell. The paper examines the current state of the Taliban, and how present dissent within the movement, might lead to a new model for reaching negotiations.

        Main Takeaways from the Paper:

        The Taliban is deeply fragmented. The August 2016 death of Mullah Mansour, and the subsequent choosing of Mullah Haibatullah as the new Emir, has led to factionalization. More importantly, these divisions have broken with the well-established tradition of “Obedience to the Emir.” This obedience was an Islamic core value, since the founding of the movement by Mullah Omar (whose death was announced in 2015, although he had died two years earlier.) This deception contributed to the rivalries and confusion that subsequently followed. The authors attribute this strong loyalty, that was an hallmark of the Taliban, directly to the character of Mullah Omar, that “fit” the vision of what an Emir should be. Excerpt here:

        “These interviews present a picture of Taliban discipline progressively unravelling following the death of Mullah Omar. The scrupulous obedience to the emir was intimately linked to Omar’s character: his frugality; his reputation for even-handedness; and his role in ending the detested warlordism in Afghanistan. In contrast, under Mansour we saw the rise of tribalism and factionalism, and this process has gone even further under Haibatullah. The ad hoc way in which the post-Omar emirs have been appointed has undermined their legitimacy. Multiple interviewees complain that Haibatullah was appointed by a small conclave without consultation. Also counting against Haibatullah is that he was Mansour’s deputy while Mansour was trying to eliminate his internal enemies, and Haibatullah is credited with sanctioning the killing and involvement in what Taliban refer to disparagingly as musalman jangi (‘fighting among Muslims’)”

        It was impossible to definitively predict what the consequences of Omar’s death would be for the movement. However one of the examples given in this paper, is that the processes of choosing both Mansour, and Haibatullah, lacked, to use the ubiquitous term, transparency. One question raised is: If the state of internal fragmentation is so acute, how has the Taliban been able to gain and hold territory, stage spectacular operations, and sustain ambitious campaigns? The paper claims that battlefield victories are becoming so costly, as to create questioning logic of continuing the conflict, without an end goal in sight.

        The turmoil over the choice of successor, that followed the public announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, allowed factions to form. Now, the “Mansour network” is operating autonomously, building its power through opium revenues. This comes dangerously close to appearing very much like the “warlordism,” that the Taliban formed in reaction to.

        The report goes on to describe various conditions that are leading to discontent among Taliban rank and file. These conditions include the lack of a clear end goal, the distastefulness of Muslims killing Muslims, and high Taliban losses. Another interesting source of disruption has been Pakistan’s increasing unfavorable conditions for Afghan refugees, and the sense that there is now closer scrutiny on the Taliban who find sanctuary there. (One comment: if the Taliban were able able to provide some level of aid and organization to the returning Afghans, such actions, if carried out successfully, could potentially contribute to building a support base for the movement within Afghanistan.) This is an opportunity for the Taliban to take on a role that is assigned to the government. Since the Taliban is always attempting to gain political capital and legitimacy, this might be a test for them to be seen as something more than a violent actor. More information on returning refugees can be found here:

        The most significant aspect of the RUSI paper is the author’s proposal of a “new approach to peace.” This new approach advances the cause for “insurgent peace making.” What does this mean? The established knowledge is: insurgent fragmentation if always weakening, and can force groups to the negotiating table, from the desired position of said weakness. The new approach would essentially bypass the Political Commission, but would seek participation from movement member who remain highly invested in founding, core principles.

        “Participation in such a peace dialogue should be open to all Taliban with standing and influence in the movement who can obtain a mandate from their supporters rather than from the leadership. Insurgent peace-making would therefore be a practical expression of Taliban protest at the incumbent leadership’s failure to develop a credible strategy for the movement.”

        Here is the most important part of this proposal:

        “ Furthermore, the interviewees clarified that the insurgent spirit within the movement is based on a resentment of leadership corruption and the corrosive effect of involvement in protracted conflict. At the same time, interviewees said that adherents retained a sense of their core political identity as Taliban and a belief that their movement was meant to be a force for reform. Therefore, for insurgent peace-makers to retain their legitimacy within their core Taliban constituency, while participating in the peace process, they 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.”

        Since the Taliban were born out of “resistance to corruption,” there is potential that current fragmentation may lead to a an internal “reformation.” That of course,does not mean that the movement would change its essential religio-political character, nor would that outcome be expected.

        The presentation new approach is nascent; and the paper does not explore the potential for spoilers, and who they might be. Also there is little mention of regional stakeholders, and how they might respond, if an insurgent coalition was to reach out. All the contingencies would need to be worked out in the future, for the very difficult process for peace making to go forward.

        Your text here



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