The Changing Taliban

A recent New York Times article revealed that the Obama administration is considering withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan ahead of the planned 2014 withdrawal date, raising questions about what the country might look like after foreign forces exit - whenever that may be. The answer is critical, as the future of post-withdrawal Afghanistan has implications for the entire Asian continent.

Recent developments in the Afghan security situation are encouraging, but remain fragile. With the stakes so high, the survival of a stable Afghanistan requires a commitment from internal as well as external actors - chiefly from the Taliban and Pakistan - to the state’s sovereignty, in accordance with its 2004 constitution. The Taliban’s recent actions suggest a change in their internal calculus which reflects recent developments, opening a window for the U.S. and other parties to work toward bringing the Taliban into the Afghan political system - and away from the battlefield.

While the opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar indicates the group’s nominal willingness to support, in its words, a “political process and peaceful solution” to the Afghan conflict, it does not signify the Taliban’s actual acquiescence to the political order in Afghanistan or even a renunciation of violence. On the contrary, the Taliban has continued its fight against the current regime and foreign military forces, and has vowed to maintain its resistance until a ceasefire is concluded. Meanwhile, the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, threatened that his forces would take Kabul “as soon as the Americans leave.” And in protestation of the Karzai government’s demand that the group remove references to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” throughout the Qatar compound, the Taliban temporarily closed the office. All this demonstrates that the group projects itself as an alternative political order to the current one, not a player in it. However, this front does not square with recent Taliban actions induced by changing realities.

Previous to its closure, the Taliban office embarked on a charm offensive - attempting to convey to all parties, foreign and domestic, that it is capable of governing Afghanistan. Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the office in Qatar, said that Afghanistan’s government should be one “in which all our people and their representatives can participate and be a part of.” The group courted systemic opposition parties in Afghanistan, and even made an ethnic Tajik - not a Pashtun, who form the bulk of the Taliban - a representative in Qatar. As a nod to foreign players, members of the Taliban delegation traveled to Iran - a country the Taliban almost went to war with in the 1990’s. These officials have also met with Chinese leaders, promising the safety of Chinese assets in Afghanistan. To NATO countries, the Taliban guaranteed that it “would not allow anyone to threaten the security of other countries from the soil of Afghanistan.” The office was in touch with Russia and India as well.

The aforementioned efforts suggest that the Taliban has been forced to alter its tactics; if the group believed that it could win power militarily, these overtures would not have been made. Although the group may project itself and the current Afghan regime as equals in a deadlock, this is not the case.

Firstly, as William Dalrymple notes, the Taliban is not strong enough to retake Kabul or the north of the country. Afghan forces now encounter “ill-trained” foreign insurgents. Secondly, the quality of life for many Afghans has improved under the current order - especially for women - evident in growing numbers of enrollment in primary education, telephone users, and gross domestic product.

Lastly, the Taliban’s longtime patrons - the Pakistani military - appear to have had a change of heart about supporting violence by groups like the Taliban in the name of furthering Pakistani national interests. Pakistani Army Chief-of-Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, affirmed in an April speech ahead of Pakistan’s presidential elections, “the menace of terrorism and extremism has claimed thousands of lives ... [A] small faction wants to enforce its distorted ideology over the entire nation by taking up arms and for this purpose defies the Constitution of Pakistan and the democratic process.”

There exists an opportunity to engage the Taliban to end the struggle between it and the Afghan government, and ultimately to bring the group into the domestic political fold in line with the 2004 constitution. Still there are many hurdles to overcome, such as negotiating prisoner swaps and arranging diplomatic niceties,  yet the Taliban is changing - albeit slowly - in response to changing realities. The time is ripe for the U.S., along with other players, to begin reconstituting the Taliban as a stakeholder in the future of a stable, democratic Afghanistan.