Delusion could be the best word to summarize the Taliban’s stubbornness in its push to hold talks with the Afghan government. The roots lie deep not only in the militants’ momentary victories against the ill-equipped and ill-trained Afghan security forces, but also the recent flurry of diplomatic engagement from their erstwhile hostile neighbors.
Iran, for example, recently hosted a Taliban delegation to “discuss the freshly-launched reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.” Days later, during his India trip, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told NDTV that “it would be impossible to have a future Afghanistan without any role for the Taliban.”
Interestingly, the Taliban leaders who visited Iran were from the group’s high-powered military wing instead of the political office in Doha, Qatar. In 2016, Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike while on way from Iran to Pakistan.
Although Zarif stopped short of asking for a lead role for the ousted militia, his words suggest a change of mind, if not heart, on part of Shiite Iran which had narrowly escaped a full-fledged war with the Sunni Taliban regime in the late 1990s.
Besides not being friendly, Iran continued to extend diplomatic and military support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance until the overthrow of the hardliner regime as a result of the U.S./NATO invasion in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Russia was another country that was highly concerned about the Taliban victories in the 1990s and covertly supported the anti-Taliban alliance to ward off the perceived menace at the borders with Central Asia.
However, the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan has forced Russian leaders to embrace the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. Over the past two years, Russia had increased its contacts with the Taliban and lately sponsored a meeting to find a negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict. The Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have also hosted mid-ranking Taliban leadership for negotiations.
Whether fear of the Islamic State in their neighborhood or hate for the United States, the Sur Kafar or red infidels (as was known during the days of Afghan “jihad”) Russia and Iran’s new approaches to the hardliner Taliban is definitely boosting the latter’s buoyancy in the Afghan quagmire.
Afghanistan’s third neighbor, China, had mostly remained aloof from the anti-Soviet jihad as well as the post-Taliban anti-terror war. But it did host the Taliban in 2016 and offered itself in a mediation role to help restore peace to the war-torn country. China’s contacts and friendly approach is certainly a big boost for the Taliban.
Besides Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the other two countries that recognized the Taliban regime immediately after the militia took over Kabul in 1996. However, the UAE and Saudi Arabia cut ties in 2001 for the Taliban’s insistence in supporting “criminals and terrorists.” The U.S.-Taliban talks in Abu Dhabi in December last year, co-sponsored by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, signified the royals’ renewed interest in the Taliban and Afghanistan.
India is the only regional country so far unable or reluctant to establish contacts with the Taliban, but New Delhi may open an informal diplomatic channel once the initial rounds of talks show positive signs.
Taliban leadership, since the Obama troop surge, used to say that the foreign troops have the watches, but the Taliban have the time. With the support of their Pakistani backers, the Taliban were prolonging the war in order to exhaust the 39-nation military coalition.
That exhaustion was visible when reports suggested that U.S. President Donald Trump was considering a possible withdrawal of half of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The news came days after the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan’s Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad held the first-ever formal talks with Taliban representatives in Abu Dhabi.
Trump’s reported withdrawal plan is in line with changing public opinion about the Afghan war in the United States. Earlier, the Washington-based Pew Research Center had reported that by the end of 2018, the Afghan war had become very unpopular.
In an interview with the MSNBC television, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who has declared her intention to run for the presidency in 2020, and who is also member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that “I think it is right to get our troops out of Syria, and let me add, I think it is right to get our troops out of Afghanistan.”
Lastly, the Taliban’s suspected hideouts in Pakistan are still believed to be intact despite increasing pressure from the Trump administration. Notwithstanding Pakistan’s promises of support in finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict, analysts believe a change of mind is possible only after a bargain purely on Pakistani terms.
“Pakistan takes the Taliban to the goalpost, but then turn them back once they get there,” says Sami Yousufzai, journalist and close observer of the Afghan conflict.
And Here Lies the Delusion
The neighboring countries embracing the Taliban are more interested in securing their own interests in case of U.S. withdrawal that may take place with or without the Afghan reconciliation than a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.
While Iran seeks a role for Taliban in the future Afghan set up, the country also does not want that should be a lead role. “But we also believe that the Taliban should not have a dominant role in Afghanistan,” Javad Zarif was quoted as saying during his recent India visit.
Despite being considered as the Taliban’s key sponsor over the past two decades, neither Pakistan’s security establishment nor the civilian authorities favor a full-fledged Taliban government in Kabul. The militia’s brief rule in Kabul in the mid-90s sparked a wave of extremism that culminated at the Pakistani Taliban militancy in Pakistan’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.
China’s multibillion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will not bear fruit unless there is full peace in the region. Hardliner Taliban rule in Afghanistan will always hang as a threat to peace and security in the region.
The Taliban victories, mostly in sparsely populated remote and rural areas, may embolden the militants to downplay the strength of the Afghan security forces, but the militia needs to keep anti-Taliban public opinion, particularly in the urban centers, in mind while dreaming of taking over Kabul the way they did in 1996.
The mid-90s civil war had forced the war-weary Afghans to welcome the Taliban as their emancipator. There will be no one to garlands for them in the streets of Kabul this time. This is the age of social media and Afghanistan’s revolution 2.0 is no less than other countries, which means the awareness level is much higher and the flow of information is faster than any time before.
The best approach for the Taliban is to accept the reality of not being able to take over and peacefully rule Afghanistan even if the foreign troops announce their full or partial withdrawal. Becoming partner in the government, however, will enable the militia leaders to endear themselves to the Afghans.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.