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?

In Afghanistan, the most misleading thing about using the term “the Taliban” is the word “the.”

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.

Knowing Semple, I am certain that the person he is quoting is who Semple says he is, a senior Taliban commander, and probably a man with considerable influence. It is entirely likely that this commander represents a significant faction of opinion within the Taliban, a group that may be persuaded that their best course of action in furthering their political goals would be to lay down their weapons, start talking with the Karzai government, and reintegrate into Afghan politics.

Yet one of the challenges that both the Americans and Afghan governments have faced is the problem of knowing who they are dealing with. When the Obama administration announced this year that it would be willing to open talks with the Taliban, and the emirate of Qatar agreed to allow the Taliban to open an office in Doha, it was with the understanding that a certain number of known Taliban leaders would represent the organization. Some Taliban leaders welcomed the idea of talks, while others publicly denied talking with the Americans.

The truth is that there are several competing factions within the Taliban movement – just as there are different interest groups, ideologies, and egos in the Republican and Democratic parties of the US. Talking with a senior leader from one particular faction does not guarantee compliance by the organization as a whole.

That is why on the same day that you read about Taliban admitting they can’t win the war, you can also read a story about Taliban claiming responsibility for a roadside bombing that may have killed six US troops, and a separate story about how Afghan security forces killed a Taliban commander and bombmaker who had been disguised as a woman.  

It may also be why you can hear the distinctly non-pacifist comments of Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, this week, who denied rumors of talks with “the powerless and puppet government of Karzai” as ''a wave of enemy propaganda … by some officials of the stooge Kabul regime.”

Which of these contradictory viewpoints – pragmatic negotiation or stubborn vows of warfare – truly represent “the Taliban?”

They both do.

And while these various factions debate, or even fight amongst themselves for dominance, the war in Afghanistan is likely to drag on, guaranteeing that America’s decade of intervention in Afghanistan ends with a costly flourish.

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