The Taliban have suddenly transformed from a ruthless terrorist group into a reliable negotiating partner. The presumption that they will behave responsibly once they cease their militancy mostly underpins the ongoing U.S.-Taliban negotiations. Official statements and media reports talk about the negotiations with language that’s usually reserved for bilateral talks based on the premise that outcomes will be held as non-violable – at least by those directly engaged in them.
But trusting the pledges the Taliban give is based on little foreseeable enforcing mechanism. If the Taliban walk away from them in future, reliable deterring measures are mostly absent; military punishment has already proven ineffective and out of the question, and economic sanctions are unimaginable to stymie a country’s economy that already has little left to lose.
Proclaiming trust in the Taliban might give the negotiations the diplomatic prestige the United States needs to buttress an honorable exit—something both the Americans and the Taliban want. And this would demonstrate to the world that ‘war on terror’ ended only after meeting its objective of making sure the subdued al Qaeda group and other global jihadist militants will not re-emerge in Afghanistan.
This is occurring when Taliban have shrewdly avoided discussions on what tangibles they will deliver in return, like agreeing to a power-sharing future government. They continue using the term “Emirate” instead of “Islamic Republic” in reference to Afghanistan – a term that encapsulates their ideology and perhaps future regional ambitions. Emirate in the Islamic political philosophy refers to a sub-entity under a political confederation encompassing all the Muslim population and centrally governed by a Caliph or Amir al Mu’minin (leader of the faithful) – a title the Taliban have used for their leader and that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi also briefly claimed for himself.
What Al-Baghdadi failed to accomplish in Syria’s Raqqa with brute force and finding himself on the run, Haibatullah Akhundzada may have an eye on accomplishing in Kabul. This would have to be done with a little bit of cunning and deception.
Doing an about-face and using schemes as a legitimate tactic to bring a Muslim warring group closer to victory goes a long way back to Islam’s early days, when the Prophet Mohammed for the first time since declaring his prophethood had to find answers to worldly issues apart from dealing with his followers’ ethereal questions. The period after his migration to Medina witnessed rapid changes and involved regular face-offs with Pagan and Jewish Arab clans who defied Mohammed’s message. Important details of handling governance and war according to religious decree had to be fleshed out and formalized.
The Medina period in Mohammad’s 23-year long prophetic mission transformed Islam from a largely hermetic spiritual creed to a gradually emerging political ideology in the Arabian Peninsula. The process of fending off adversaries and the pursuit to expand territory and expand Islam’s message involved the use of both conventional means in the battlefield, and indirect means to catch the opponent off-guard. One such later tactic was called Khed’aa in Arabic, which translates as ruse or deception.
The tactic permits the warring Muslims caught in a pickle to use misleading tactics to take the non-Muslim opponent by surprise and precipitate their surrender. According to the Iranian Philosopher and professor of Islamic Studies in Duke University Mohsin Kadivar, Khed’aa is a surprise tactic in an armed battle which is consistent with Sharia, fair conduct, and reason. However, in his view, it should fall short of lying, which is repeatedly chastised in the Qoran.
A Machiavellian “end justify the means” strategy, Khed’aa can be extremely useful if viewed from the Taliban’s perspective at this stage of their insurgency – against a non-believing adversary who is also an invader of a Muslim realm.
Once the United States is gone, the Taliban’s narrative of their withdrawal is more likely to be centered on Washington’s defeat and claiming victory for the Taliban – with the attendant rights and claims of a victor – than an honest portrayal of a negotiated settlement of the ongoing stalemate. At the very least, recently released remarks by the Taliban’s chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai interpreted the events as such. Stanikzai spoke of the United States’ impending defeat, congratulating the Taliban for adding another global power to the list of those already defeated in Afghanistan: the British Empire and the Soviet Union.
Withdrawal of international troops without forcing the Taliban to submit to a balancing measure, such as accepting Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution and agreeing to talks with the Afghan administration in Kabul, will relegate Afghanistan to an uncertain fate. The misleading notion that peace should come first and other things will automatically follow will create a power vacuum that is most likely to benefit the Taliban the most.
It isn’t hard to imagine that, by using battlefield achievements as a leverage, the group will elbow out or bring on board pliant rivals in the Afghan politics to revive their 1990s totalitarian regime. By portraying the American withdrawal as a disgrace to the biggest “crusading” force, the group will also inspire admiration among other jihadi groups in the region who will find in them a steadfast sponsor – morally, if not financially. It is a matter of anyone’s guess where the Taliban’s political ambition will stop from there on.
A deal may or may not come out of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations to help withdraw U.S. troops in return for safeguards that Afghanistan will not become a launchpad and breeding ground for global jihadism. But the Taliban’s adherence to its terms shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially when the deal is struck with a foe for whom they don’t feel any moral and ideological obligation. To expect otherwise is unrealistic and misleading. And most importantly, such naïve thinking can entail formidable risks. Firstly, it can threaten gains by the Afghan people. Secondly, it can lead to a regime coming to power in a region that is ripe for extremism. The situation next door in Pakistan, too, can become unpredictable if an emboldened Taliban chooses to support fellow militant groups who wish to see their own Jihad gain victory.
After all, the Taliban have never openly agreed to anything short of re-establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the name they used for their regime in the 1990s with the aim of resurrecting the caliphate in the Muslim world. If they follow through with their word, they will not have violated any religious code of honest politics to their mind.
Kambaiz Rafi is a PhD researcher in political economy at University College London.