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“Too soon to say”. DIIS conference: Prospects of a settlement – the Taliban perspective

February 15, 2019

Summary. At a DIIS conference on prospects for a settlement with the Taliban there were many questions but few answers.  Have the Taliban changed?  Does a US/Taliban agreement to withdraw US troops bring stability or instability?

With apologies for a delay in posting this up, I attended a Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) seminar launching a DIIS paper “Prospects of a settlement with the Afghan Taliban” based on a new DIIS report including recent DIIS interviews with Taliban leaders and foot soldiers.  Here are my notes and a few concluding thoughts of my own.

Introduction – Mona Kanwal Sheikh, Senior Researcher DIIS

  • What might be the timeline for a US withdrawal – should we assume the US is no longer that interested in Afghanistan?
  • Many questions – how many troops would stay, will the Taliban talk to an Afg govt they see as illegitimate?
  • There is also resistance within the govt to talking with the Taliban
  • What do we know about the Taliban’s views on power-sharing, democracy and women’s rights?
  • What will be the role of the IC – how to support a peace process, what conflict resolution mechanisms to use?

Felix Kuehn – Researcher and Taliban expert, Has the Taliban movement changed?

  • Has the Taliban movement changed? Is it still an insurgency – it is two decades older
  • With regard to the Taliban negotiations with Khalilzad, the offers to oppose Al Qaeda and Islamic State presence in Afghanistan is not really a big change. But this is the first time the US has reached out and sat down with the Taliban – previously it was just a list of US demands.  The international community has changed but not really the Taliban.

Background to origins of Taliban

  • Difficult to understand the Taliban – powerpoint wire diagrams do not work. Taliban hierarchies are mixed, with powerful sub-structures.  This complex organisation does not work “top down”.  The Taliban have never been one single group.  The Mullah Omar and origins of the Taliban is “myth” – it is more complex than that – the Taliban emerged from pre-existing networks which had been there for years.  The Kandahar 1994 emergence of the Taliban was the coming together of several groups simultaneously to take Kandahar.  Even in 1994 there were many different opinions in the Taliban.

Prospects

  • We should be careful of assuming that the Taliban have changed but there may be a window of opportunity – the June 2018 ceasefire doesn’t show Taliban internal coherence, it shows that there is war-weariness within the rank and file.
  • There is a growing threat from Islamic State – many IS are former Taliban fighters who have become dissatisfied with the Taliban leadership.
  • Taliban and Mullah Zaeef – everyone is talking to everyone, but the issue is whether to publicise this fact.
  • Insurance policy of Afghans – have one brother in the Taliban, one in the local police – this is a common occurrence. They can end up fighting each other.

Amina Khan – Qaid-i-Azam university, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, Prospects of a settlement in Afghanistan

  • Taliban recognise that they can no longer operate in the way they have done before. Now seeing Taliban “foreign policy” reachout – talks with Moscow and Tehran.  Possibly positive noises about the Hazaras?  The Taliban have evolved under Mullah Mansour’s leadership – recognising the need to reach out to other ethnic groups.  But fringe Taliban elements prefer war.
  • But there are immense divisions within the Afghan population – many government factions do not recognise the Taliban.
  • The Rand report is worth reading
  • There are a number of spoilers in and outside of Afghanistan
  • If the US withdraws, they will come back eventually in a different format – mil bases, CT, development, economic, embassy (and security for the embassy)…
  • Elephants in the room – US is not interested – withdrawing US mil forces an easy win for Trump and the Taliban. Need to think about the Afghan population – women’s rights, warlords, factions.  Mechanics of ending the Taliban war – DDR/DIAG?  Money/employment for disbanded fighters.  Taliban do not appear interested in learning the methods of running a modern government – lack of Taliban contemplation of governance

Cecilia Wiklund – Folke Bernadotte Academy, international support to the peace process

  • The peace process is not simply about US/Taliban talks or Taliban/Afghan govt talks
  • Many questions – what would future government look like?
  • How will Afghanistan modernise (e.g. with women’s issues)?
  • How does the Taliban transform into a political movement?
  • Broader issues – when will the population notice a change in their daily lives? What are the broader and long-term consequences?
  • Most Afghans do not have an understanding of what peace looks like

Q and A

Next elections – impact on Afghan security is too soon to tell.  But Felix was engaging with Jamiat leaders during the last election and there was nearly a government collapse -Jamiat were preparing for fighting in Kabul.

Significant risks from a hasty US withdrawal

How genuine are the Taliban’s intentions?

Future Afghan government models – federalism and decentralisation are two different things

Concluding thoughts

As befitting a situation such as the Taliban’s talks with the US – where little detail is known but there is much rumour, speculation and anticipation – we got a lot of questions but little conclusion.

Discussion seemed to throw up the idea that the Taliban had not changed that much but they had changed enough to recognise that they needed to change a bit.  The list of elephants in the room was long but perhaps best summarised by one question – if an impatient Trump and a victory-flushed Taliban rush to embrace a US withdrawal deal (presumably with “mission accomplished” flags on both sides), where does that leave the rest of the country and the region?  The risk of a civil war in a volatile power vacuum looks plausible.  Other concerns are the mechanics of disarming the Taliban – the Hezb-e Islami example seems to suggest fighters and commanders demand high positions, status and income in exchange for handing in their weapons.  This risks blossoming an already extremely expensive Afghan army – that the US are almost entirely paying for – and probably undermining a whole range of military, staff and training reforms.  This at a time when the government (and US) will presumably be looking to massively downsize the army.  This risks thousands of well trained, heavily armed and unemployed fighters spilling out into society.  Many factions and political groups (think former Northern Alliance) are opposed to the Taliban being allowed back into the social and political fold, after the violence they have inflicted on Afghan society.

Finally, is there any evidence that the Taliban think about governance – how it might work, what their responsibilities might need to be?  I can’t see much.  Even now, a cursory glance at their English-language Twitter feed show breathless lists of stuff they have blown up and people they have killed.  Little in the way of short, medium or long-term political discussion, disputes they have resolved or local development initiatives they have put in place.  Felix Kuehn knows much more than most.  He says the Taliban haven’t changed that much.

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