On 29 February, the Taliban and the U.S. signed an agreement that commits the U.S. to a fourteen-month phased withdrawal of military forces in exchange for Taliban commitments to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe harbour for terrorists.
The agreement also obligates the Taliban to commence peace negotiations with the Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. This breakthrough comes after a decade of on-and-off U.S. and other efforts to catalyse a peace process, throughout which observers have questioned the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate a political settlement that will require substantive compromise. The group’s willingness to compromise remains an open question, but its interest in probing whether it could achieve its objectives through a negotiated settlement appears genuine – prompted, at least in part, by the elusiveness of a clear military victory.
Are the Taliban Negotiating in Good Faith?
Many Afghans have expressed concerns that the Taliban are not sincere in seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, pointing to the group’s continued violence and rhetoric of victory in jihad. The Taliban have demonstrated sustained interest in dialogue with U.S. and Afghan interlocutors – most overtly and concretely, by engaging in negotiations with the U.S. for over a year, culminating in the 29 February agreement that commits the group to entering talks with the Afghan government.
“We are tired of war”, said a mid-level Taliban commander from Kandahar who was present at the movement’s inception. “Who has suffered the most from this war? Of course, we want peace”. War-weariness aside, some in the Taliban movement seem to regret missing out on the post-2001 influx of foreign aid, as a generation of urban Afghans enjoyed opportunities that skipped past many war-torn villages. To interlocutors such as Crisis Group, they express hope that they could share in continued donor largesse after a settlement. If nothing else, such sentiments suggest a willingness to talk.
The fundamental question, however, is whether the Taliban are willing to compromise on substantive issues of power sharing, a future political structure, governance and rules for public life. That remains unclear and can only be truly tested during intra-Afghan negotiations planned to commence soon.
To date, the Taliban have been ambiguous in their statements on these matters. Some members have told Crisis Group and others that relevant discussions have not taken place comprehensively within the movement. One of the group’s clearly identifiable red lines is the desire to maintain cohesiveness, even in the event of a political transition. Yet the wide variety of individual, regional and factional views within the Taliban make it difficult to assess what compromises might threaten to divide the group.
There may be limited enthusiasm for peace talks among some of the more hardline elements within the younger generation of Taliban fighters, but those ranks also include many who appear to be tired of fighting. If the peace process can be ushered forward and the group’s leadership given time to develop firmer positions on a political settlement, there is potential for those leaders to garner their followers’ adherence to compromises. Fighters across the spectrum of Taliban viewpoints appear to respect their leaders’ strict edicts, as evidence, most recently, by the group’s discipline during the seven-day reduction of violence period that led up to the signing ceremony with the U.S. in Qatar.
Although the group’s political office in Doha has progressed on the path toward intra-Afghan talks, sceptics question whether the agreement the group signed with the U.S. in February was merely a smokescreen. They note that the Taliban has internally trumpeted its success in forcing the U.S. into a timeline for troop withdrawal, without being obliged to commit to reaching a peaceful resolution with the Afghan government or to respect the current constitution. The Taliban’s willingness to accept a mutual reduction of violence before the signing improved the political atmosphere surrounding talks and signalled Taliban buy-in for the process. But, as human rights activists have told Crisis Group, the group’s swift resumption of violence against Afghan security forces after the deal’s signing and its framing of the agreement as a “victory” have again heightened suspicions that the group may simply be biding its time before attempting a military takeover once the U.S. has withdrawn.
The Taliban Lack a Clear Path to Military Victory:
There is legitimate reason to wonder whether, in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal, the group might seek to gain power violently regardless of the status of talks at the time. But there are also several reasons to believe that the Taliban may prefer to explore other options.
First, fears that the Taliban could return to absolute power through military means, even after Western disengagement, are probably exaggerated. The Taliban failed to conquer all of Afghanistan in the 1990s, and their old opponents are far better armed and resourced today. A serious Taliban effort to retake Kabul or other northern cities would meet strong resistance.
Secondly, at least some leading Taliban figures appear to be aware of this. In discussions with diplomatic officials and other interlocutors, Taliban figures have indicated awareness that the group lacks a clear path to military victory – hence, arguably, their willingness to at least test a political pathway back to power.
In addition, the group also must fight on a second front, against the ISIS affiliate in eastern Afghanistan. Taliban leaders have contended that their victories against the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province would free up resources to focus on their main fight against the government, but the trend in 2019 actually showed a rising number of Taliban battles against the small ISIS branch – and the terrorist group continues to claim complex attacks in Kabul.
Why the Taliban May Now See Negotiations as Their Best Option:
Diplomacy might prove more fruitful for the Taliban than pursuing outright military victory. So long as they can sufficiently achieve their objectives through negotiation, they will not only avoid the costs of further war but also gain legitimacy in the bargain. The Taliban have cautiously tested with Afghans and Americans political options for resolving conflict since the days after the U.S. intervention.
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