Is the Taliban moderating?

Originally posted at Bullets and Ballots.

In this month’s issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan scholar Michael Semple interviews a senior Taliban commander — referred to as Mawlvi — providing insight into the thinking of at least some segments of the Taliban. Much of the comments made by the commander bear on the possibilities for a peace settlement in Afghanistan. (For background on the story, see this report from The Guardian.)

Mawlvi touches indirectly on the three primary outcomes Americans either set as a precondition for beginning peace talks or as the outcome of them, i.e. cutting ties with al Qaeda, renouncing the use violence, and recognizing the current Afghan constitution.

With regard to al Qaeda Mawlvi is rather blunt:

At least 70 per cent of the Taliban are angry at al-Qaeda. Our people consider al-Qaeda to be a plague that was sent down to us by the heavens. Some even concluded that al-Qaeda are actually the spies of America. Originally, the Taliban were naive and ignorant of politics and welcomed al-Qaeda into their homes. But al-Qaeda abused our hospitality. It was in Guantanamo that I realised how disloyal the al-Qaeda people were… To tell the truth, I was relieved at the death of Osama. Through his policies, he destroyed Afghanistan. If he really believed in jihad he should have gone to Saudi Arabia and done jihad there, rather than wrecking our country.

There have been conflicting reports concerning the Taliban’s continued relationship with al Qaeda. Mawlvi’s statements suggest a considerable rift between the Taliban and al Qaeda, which itself is not a new development. But, some American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, claim that documents retrieved after the bin Laden raid demonstrate that al Qaeda and Taliban leaders maintained a “very considerable degree of ideological convergence” and even “discussed” joint operations against NATO forces up until the al Qaeda leader’s death. Semple himself takes a nuanced view of the relationship, arguing there is a variety of opinions within the Taliban regarding the al Qaeda. It may also be that there’s a difference of view between Taliban leaders — who have longstanding personal ties with al Qaeda leaders — and rank-and-file insurgents who are motivated by local, rather than global, concerns.

Regarding Taliban military strategy and the possibility for a future insurgent victory, Mawlvi again doesn’t mince words:

It is in the nature of war that both sides dream of victory. But the balance of power in the Afghan conflict is obvious. It would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taliban to win this war. The Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect. Any Taliban leader expecting to be able to capture Kabul is making a grave mistake. Nevertheless, the leadership also knows that it cannot afford to acknowledge this weakness. To do so would undermine the morale of Taliban personnel. The leadership knows the truth – that they cannot prevail over the power they confront.

This position corresponds to an extent to that of the American intelligence community, which surmised in January that the war in Afghanistan had reached the point of stalemate — in contrast to the rosy assessments offered by American and NATO military commanders.Stalemate is considered by many to be a key condition for the initiation of peace talks. So long as neither side can win through fighting — and to continue the fight hurts them as much as it does their enemies — striking a deal becomes a rational move. This doesn’t mean that a settlement will ultimately be reached, and it does not mean that individuals and groups will continue to place obstacles in the way of peace.
Malwvi also touched on the political goals of the Taliban. From his perspective, imposing sharia law is at best a secondary concern:

The Taliban are fighting to expel the occupiers and to enforce shariat… If they fall short of achieving national power they have to settle for functioning as an organised party within the country. We also know that there are other political forces in Afghanistan – for example, [the warlords] Dostum and Sayyaf. They all have their own political programme. Even when the Taliban were in power there was a difference in the way shariat was practised. There was shariat in Kandahar and Kabul, but far less in Herat and almost none in the north. If the Taliban were ever to return to power they would face enormous problems. But they are a long way from having to grapple with the challenges of power, and for the moment, as long as Mullah Omar is alive, the Taliban will be prepared to follow him in this fight…

In their time, the Taliban gained notoriety over three points – their treatment of women, their harsh enforcement of petty rules on things like beards and prayers, and their international relations. The priority now should be restoration of security. But on the other issues I anticipate that they would soften their tough policies.

Unike many pronouncements made by American commentators, the Taliban may have given up the idea of recreating the Salafist regime of the 1990s and providing a “safe haven” to al Qaeda. The moderation of Taliban political ambitions is again not altogether revealing. The Wall Street Journal reported back in January that the Taliban had seemingly reversed its position on minority and human rights, especially the education of Afghan girls. This moderation, however, rings somewhat hallow when measured against the alleged poisoning of schoolgirls by insurgents — though the claims of Taliban culpability, and the incidents of poisoning themselves, may be unfounded.
The moderation expressed by this single Taliban commander may be a positive sign, though, if the commanders’ statements are anything to go by, they still have not warmed to making deals with the Karzai government: “There is little point in talking to Kabul. Real authority rests with the Americans…The only other serious political force in Afghanistan is that of the Northern Alliance.” This refusal to talk with the Afghan government may turn out to be a significant stumbling block. Despite this, Mawlvi’s statements may indicate that at least some among the Taliban leadership are becoming realistic about their own political future and are perhaps moderating their views accordingly.
The opponents of the Taliban may also be moving in a positive direction. Hamid Karzairecently stated that Mullah Omar “can become a candidate himself for the [presidential] elections…[and] he can take the leadership in his hand” if he wins. American Ambassador Ryan Crocker — who has in the past argued for continued war lest the country descend into chaos — now believes that a civil war following the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan is unlikely, due in part to the number of “moderate” and pragmatic Taliban. According to the ambassador, “Politics is breaking out all over…You don’t see many signs of the people saying `Well, it’s time to start digging the trenches again.'” He also pointed to the attendance of  a Taliban official at a recent Kyoto peace conference — which had previously been downplayed by Administration officials — as a positive indication that some of the Taliban’s leaders were rethinking their strategy and their future.
Of course, any claim that the Taliban is moderating its views must be balanced against the fractured nature of the movement. In addition to there being three groups commonly lumped together as “the Taliban” (the Haqqani Network, Hezb-i-Islami, and the Taliban proper), the insurgency on the ground is anything but monolithic, with local commanders and groupings often operating autonomously. But, if Malwvi’s statements represent wider sentiments within the insurgency, then peace in Afghanistan — however partial — may become a reality. But it will take a long time.

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