Of all the militant groups waging insurgencies in the Muslim world, the Afghan Taliban movement is the only one that has experience of forming a national government. The memory of the Taliban wielding state power has helped them and their backers to sustain their protracted armed struggle against the new state structures put in place in Afghanistan after the Bonn Agreement of 2001. But two other aspects of the Taliban’s political practice are remarkable. First, they have maintained their internal cohesiveness for approaching two decades. Second, they manage to operate from behind an iron curtain, with tight central control over communications between the movement and the non-Taliban world.
The Taliban’s compunction to trade on their status as a former governing party helps ensure that there is a certain corpus of political thinkers within their ranks. However, because of the movement’s shyness, those studying it from outside only get to hear a carefully controlled message, delivered by authorised spokesmen, through the movement’s propaganda websites and in its periodic set-piece communiqués from Mullah Omar. Yet understanding Taliban politics is as important as ever. Afghanistan still matters and despite a protracted international intervention the prospects of the country lapsing back into civil war are great.
To probe the Taliban’s latest political perspectives for this special edition of the New Statesman, I conducted an exclusive interview with a veteran of the movement. He is one of the most senior surviving Taliban commanders and a confidant of the movement’s leadership. The significance of his interview, which I conducted over Skype in Pashto and then translated into English, is that he speaks with authority and inside knowledge about the Taliban, but because he is doing so unofficially he is not bound by the “party line”. This is important, because the movement has Stalinist tendencies and members talking in an official capacity often have to adopt positions that are contrary to the observable facts and/or their conscience.
We have to protect his identity because the movement is acutely sensitive about unauthorised contacts between members and the outside world. I refer to him as Mawlvi. However, I have verified his identity and status within the movement and am confident that he has given a faithful account of how he and the senior Taliban view the present political challenges.
To put this particular Talib’s ideas in context, one should say that he is from the original generation of Taliban and so has been active in the movement since the mid-1990s. He held a senior position in the movement’s administration during this period and for his pains he did time in Guantanamo. That establishes his credentials as a peer of the group of men who are now leading the fight, and one who knows and understands them well. He remains loyal to the movement but has astutely avoided holding any leadership or command position in recent years. He is best thought of as a critical loyalist – someone wise enough to have a sense of what is wrong with the movement yet discreet enough to avoid airing criticism in forums where it would be misconstrued as disloyalty. This senior Talib speaks thoughtfully from behind the iron curtain.
Does the Taliban movement hope for military victory over the Afghan government? Does the movement think it can capture Kabul?
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.
Now that Nato has clearly announced a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, what is the justification for the Taliban to continue their armed campaign?
The Taliban believe that they are obliged to fight for a certain period to gain acceptance as a power that people have to deal with. They also believe that over time they will become stronger than the Karzai regime. Their situation is like the Pashtun tale of a bird seen sprinkling water from its beak on the forest fire. When asked why it was trying to do the impossible, the bird answered that it simply carried as much water as it was capable of carrying.
How does the Taliban movement assess the pledge that Nato countries made in Chicago to sustain support to the Afghan government long after the end of Nato’s combat mission?
The Taliban have observed that Nato does everything to prop up the Karzai regime. The regime’s political power is entirely dependent on the military backing provided by Nato. We have listened to Nato statements that they will never allow al-Qaeda or the Taliban to return until they accept the current constitution, an unrealistic condition. The Taliban consider the announcements in Chicago to be a signal that the Nato presence continues, but in a different form, as part of a conflict imposed on the Afghan people.
Does the movement aim to restore its Islamic emirate to rule Afghanistan and is it prepared to fight for this if other Afghans resist?
The Taliban are fighting to expel the occupiers and to enforce shariat. They are sufficiently far from achieving their objectives that now is not the time for a realistic discussion of whether they will re-establish an emirate. Any side involved in a conflict like this has decided to fight for power. 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.
How should Afghanistan’s head of state be selected?
While the Taliban were in power they had their own way of electing a head of state. Now that others are in power they do it their way. Under the Taliban, 2,000 religious scholars, including people from every district, gathered to elect Mullah Omar. The point of this election was to establish who can be a just ruler, who knows how to respect fellow Muslims, how to apply the shariat and how to maintain peace and eradicate narcotics. Voting is very important in the Muslim tradition.
The choice of political system in Afghanistan is between a republic and an emirate. I believe that, fundamentally, Afghanistan will always be a republic. The Taliban opting for an emirate was dictated by the conditions of war. Afghanistan faced multiple external and internal threats. Many of the measures the Taliban took when in power, even the banning of television, were related to the prevailing state of war. Our religious scholars promised to find another way of approaching these issues, consistent with the shariat, after the war.
In the meantime under the current system, we believe that it is basically the Americans who get to pick the president.
If there were a political settlement with other Afghans, what role would the movement expect in the government?
It is difficult to predict what role the Taliban might accept in a settlement. What is clear is that they will not accept what has been offered many times – surrender and slavish bowing to the authority of their enemies.
How has Taliban social policy changed since it achieved a reputation for banning female education and using force to make people comply with petty rules?
The international community has little right to ask the Taliban about their social policy when the internationals have failed so miserably in everything they promised. The international community vowed to render Afghanistan secure, prosperous and free of drugs. Instead, Afghanistan has become the most insecure place in the world, and Afghans must face daily the indignity of house searches where foreign troops separate their women from their men. A single soldier can run amok and kill a hundred people. The international community is now notorious for its own deeds in Afghanistan.
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.
What were the Taliban’s objectives in participating in the Qatar talks process?
The world has long been keen to portray the Taliban as wild and uncivilised, ignorant of international norms and uninterested in government. Nato has long claimed that it wants peace but the Taliban are an obstacle who refuse to break links with al-Qaeda. The Taliban wanted to turn the tables on Nato and show who are the real obstacles to peace. It has been argued that they only wanted to use Qatar to get their people out of Guantanamo, but this is untrue, because in this case the Taliban would not have talked about a political office in Qatar; they would have told their members that they have established a commission for prisoner exchange.
Under what conditions will the leadership of the Taliban be prepared to meet with representatives of the Afghan government?
The Kabul regime has no authority in the issues that matter in a war – power and control of the armed forces. There is little point in talking to Kabul. Real authority rests with the Americans.
Which other Afghan political groups does the Taliban leadership expect to have to deal with if ever there is to be a settlement?
If we look at the political figures who have come to prominence in the current regime – Dr [Rangin Dadfar] Spanta, Mirwais Yasini, Karim Khalili – none of these people has real standing as a national leader. The only other serious political force in Afghanistan is that of the Northern Alliance. The other creatures of the current regime are actually businessmen, who only do politics to build their houses.
Is the current Taliban leadership capable of making peace?
In truth, no one knows whether the Taliban leadership has the authority to make a peace deal. But the same question could well be asked about [Hamid] Karzai, except that, with regard to Kabul, we know that authority is in the hands of someone else. With regard to the Taliban, it is only a suspicion. As far as I am concerned, they have established a political structure and they are running it. We are not allowed to ask whether there is one God or two.
What lessons has the movement learned from the experience of being allied with and providing shelter to al-Qaeda?
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. Taliban who returned from Cuba have refused to let al-Qaeda operate in their provinces. Part of the problem with al-Qaeda was that the Afghans round Jalalabad are in the habit of welcoming everyone who comes. They do an attan [Pashtun dance] for them. To tell the truth, I was relieved at the death of Osama [Bin Laden]. 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.
Why has the Taliban movement delayed making an unambiguous break from al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations?
Al-Qaeda has at most a few hundred fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban have thousands of mujahedin and have no need of them. The leadership’s delay in breaking from al-Qaeda is simply based on a fear that it might alienate some Islamist constituencies.
Is the Taliban movement free to make independent decisions in the interest of Afghanistan when its leadership has been based in Pakistan for over ten years?
The one thing I dare not talk about is the relationship with Pakistan.
Does the movement want Afghanistan in future to have normal, friendly relations with the international community? And how is it prepared to help achieve this?
You cannot be human and refuse to recognise others. The Taliban have no fundamental disagreement with the international community.
Mawlvi offers a nuanced assessment of the movement and those associated with it, which is generally lacking in the movement’s authorised communication. He presents the Taliban movement as committed to a struggle for power in Afghanistan. Anyone inclined to take literally the leadership’s rhetoric about ambition ending with the exit of Nato troops, or the struggle being in defence of religious values, should note that Taliban actions are deeply political.
The challenge for them, as Mawlvi acknowledges in his first response, is that they are locked into a military campaign but have no prospect of achieving their political objectives. It is a problem with parallels on the other side.
Some of us have long hoped that the logic of the impossibility of the Taliban winning a military victory will persuade the movement to engage politically and open the way for conflict resolution. Mawlvi argues that the movement’s leadership was serious in engaging with the US in Qatar this year, yet his description of the movement’s stance suggests that there is a long way to go before reconciliation delivers. Even if everybody agrees on the basic notion that there can be no military solution, there is still little sign of agreement on the political route forward.
His comments confirm that the Taliban and Afghanistan’s international allies have totally different views of the structures put in place in Kabul over the past ten years. The Taliban see the Karzai regime as a puppet of the United States, with little natural constituency and no staying power. But the west has much invested in this regime and is not ready to ditch it, and therefore the Americans constructed a strategy predicated on cajoling the Taliban towards negotiating with Karzai’s team. The movement hopes to be able to subvert the Karzai government, not negotiate with it.
Mawlvi anticipates that the Taliban will fall short of regaining national power. But the prediction that they will end up carving out a place for themselves as one party within the system is his personal conclusion and not the leadership’s strategy. He points out that if there is any Afghan political force they expect to have to reckon with, it is their old enemy of the 1990s, the non-Pashtun “Northern Alliance”. This view of Afghan politics, essentially dismissing the significance of the numerous interest groups that have associated with the Kabul government over the past ten years, is antediluvian and it suggests that the Taliban leaders are locked in the outlook of the old civil war era. And yet, in conflict resolution, such perspectives count. Even getting agreement on which Afghans have to sit round a table to talk peace will be difficult.
I asked about how a leader should be selected to gauge how Mawlvi would deal with the challenge of winning legitimacy for a national leader of this country, with its many different peoples. He knows that Afghans will not accept a repeat of the Taliban’s effort to impose an emir and that, ultimately, democratic elections make sense for Afghanistan. But he dismisses the idea that what has been practised over the past decade constitutes democracy.
His attitude to the al-Qaeda conundrum is more encouraging. Mawlvi and his peers feel that they have paid a high price for the earlier association with al-Qaeda and will be delighted to ditch the alliance when it becomes expedient to do so. This echoes the findings of Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn in An Enemy We Created. Indeed, the lack of progress over a ten-year period towards orchestrating this break between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is one of Washington’s biggest failures. The implication of Mawlvi’s words is that a little out-of-the-box thinking by the US might long ago have allowed the break to take place.
Unsurprisingly, the issue Mawlvi found too sacrosanct to address was that of the movement’s relationship with intelligence and jihadi constituencies in Pakistan. The Taliban have depended on their “iron curtain” approach to shirk transparency on these links. The movement’s pragmatists fear that a long period of operating from Pakistan has left the leadership incapable of autonomous decision-making. To put it in simple terms, they worry that the leaders would not dare to halt the war if their Pakistan-based supporters thought the fighting should continue. In an authoritarian environment, expect double entendres. As such, when Mawlvi criticises Karzai for prolonging the conflict by accepting dependence on outside forces, the criticism is intended for both sides in the conflict.
Finally, any discussion of the Taliban in the west is bound to home in on their social policies. Mawlvi is aware of concerns about the movement’s track record on women and is reasonably confident that it has learned it must avoid alienating the population and the international community by reverting to any enforcement of obscure rules and bans. But in the meantime, pragmatists of his kind are engaged with issues of life and death and how to avoid a civil war, rather than social policy.
Thinking Taliban veterans such as Mawlvi have few illusions about their movement but are deeply concerned about the future of their country and comrades. Hopes that Afghanistan will avert another civil war depend on such pragmatists making their mark on the opaque world of Afghan conflict politics.
Michael Semple is the author of “Reconciliation in Afghanistan” (United States Institute of Peace Press, £10.95)