Taliban commander admits war cannot be won. What does that mean?
Taliban commander's comments, in interview with Afghan expert Michael Semple, suggest that Taliban might be ready for negotiation. But are the Taliban unified enough to act as one?
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Using the word “the” suggests that there is a single entity called the Taliban, with a unified group of leaders who share common goals, devise strategies to reach those goals, and who recruit and manage a core of individual foot soldiers who implement those strategies.
Not to diminish the dangers faced by NATO and Afghan troops, but the entire point of guerrilla warfare is that small, loosely affiliated groups of insurgents can strike quickly, and then melt away into the countryside. If one group is neutralized, the rest of the “organization” continues.
“The Taliban," like “the Mujahideen" who fought the Soviet occupation, are often simply a collection of village militias of varying levels of training, discipline, and commitment. Many of them share common belief in the role of Sharia, or Islamic law, in daily life, and in theory, all may show their allegiance to a common leadership: the Quetta shura, including Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, for instance. But all too often, that is where their common mission ends. Once an American or Afghan army unit leaves this valley for another one, many Taliban units go back to their day jobs of farming, herding sheep, and keeping shops in the local bazaar.
Mission accomplished, right?
It is with this in mind that I read excerpts of an interview with a Taliban commander, conducted by the noted diplomat and Afghan expert Michael Semple. Mr. Semple, who has maintained backchannel contacts with Taliban leaders for more than a decade, published his interview in The New Statesman magazine.
One quote, attributed to a senior Taliban commander, identified by Semple as “Mawlvi,” has attracted the most attention:
“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.”
This is a remarkable statement, a rare sign of doubt or realism from a group that is generally given to boasting.