The future role of the Taliban

“As a result of the U.S. Military, the Taliban is no longer in existence.”

It is with tragic irony that these words reflect the naivety and brazenness of then U.S. President George W. Bush’s bullish confidence in exclaiming victory in Afghanistan. The best part of two decades of military intervention have come nowhere near to stabilising Afghanistan and now a palpable sense of lethargy currently imbues all Western discourse surrounding the country. Chief among western disillusionments is the reemergence of the Taliban in vast areas of the Afghan countryside.

The Taliban currently controls more land in the country than it ever has since the U.S. military commenced Operation Enduring Freedom, over 16 years ago. A lot has changed since 2001, but one of the most sobering developments is the possible future role of the Taliban in the region.

At the outset of the U.S.-Afghan war, one would have scoffed at any idea of the Taliban playing a pivotal role in the future of Afghanistan. Yet, that is the reality the U.S., the West and the International Community have slowly had to come to terms with in 2017. 

The appearance of ISIS in Afghanistan is not only a new threat to multiple global powers in the region but is also a direct competitor for recruits with the Taliban. This competition for combatants between the two groups illustrates the porous nature of non-state actors in the region with fighters often shifting between groups for economic reasons rather than ideological.

Given the relatively weak capacity of the Afghan security forces outside of Kabul therefore, it is the Taliban standing on the front line in preventing ISIS from making significant inroads in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s purely domestic ambitions in comparison to the more expansionist and extremist outlook of ISIS has meant several regional and global powers have begun to reassess their relationship with the former.

Russia and China are especially concerned by the presence of ISIS within their respective vicinities and have both sought their own back channels with the Taliban. Even traditional enemy Iran has engaged and hosted the Taliban leadership in Tehran.

Iran’s willingness to host the traditionally Sunni Taliban is an indication of the latter’s future role in the region. Apart from securing its own interests, covert Iranian support for the Taliban is seen as a leveraging strategy if, as Iran expects, the Taliban are incorporated into the national government as part of a peace deal.

Although the idea of the Taliban forming part of a unity government in Afghanistan would have sounded absurd back in 2001, in 2017, its possibility is more than tangible. For it is in times of deadlock that the once illogical suddenly appears logical. Without continued foreign support, the Afghan security forces are almost universally considered incapable of maintaining control of the country. At the same time, under severe financial constraints, the Taliban are unable to build upon their current power base in the countryside.  It is for this reason the U.S. and others have made several attempts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the NUG.

When the Taliban’s core goals are considered in the context of the Afghan conflict, it becomes clear there are avenues for cooperation and peace. Effectively, the Taliban only have two central demands: 1.) the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and 2) the formation of a state under Sharia law. Beyond these simplistic demands, the Taliban have been unable to formulate any coherent conception of what a future Afghan state would consist of. The first condition is obviously the major stumbling block regarding negotiations but in terms of the second condition, several Taliban leaders have already stated that the current constitution would require little adjusting.  

Just as the U.S. and its allies have had time to reflect on their aims in restructuring Afghanistan, so the Taliban have also come to terms with their previous mistakes. In a study conducted by the NYU Center on International Cooperation, several Taliban leaders confided to interviewers that the leadership no longer seeks a political monopoly in Afghanistan and understands the necessity to share power with other factions.

These apparent concessions in the Taliban leadership’s thinking must be taken with a pinch of salt, however, for the group still does not consider the promotion of political and social equality nor human rights as necessary state functions. Moreover, there appears to be a significant chasm between the Taliban leadership’s thinking and its military wing which is more reluctant to any propositions of power sharing.

Nevertheless, what is in no doubt is that whatever course history decides to take in the coming years, the Taliban are set to remain a permanent fixture of it. Whether it is in the fight against ISIS, the founding of a peace deal in Afghanistan, or remaining a major point of contention for relations between Kabul and Islamabad, the Taliban will play their part.

As President Bush Jr. once infamously misquoted, “fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, well, you can’t fool me twice.” In our dispassionate reflection, we can recognize this proverbial blunder as an uncanny harbinger for what awaits us if the U.S.  fails to confront its previous shortcomings in Afghanistan. History should have taught us that we can be fooled twice.

Charlie Elkins is a former teacher with an MA in peace and conflict research. He has volunteered at NGO’s in East Jerusalem and is now working at the EastWest Institute in Brussels as part of the organisation’s ‘Afghanistan Reconnected Program’.