Talking in Qatar, bombing in Kabul. How to explain the Taliban?

Why We Wrote This

As U.S. peace talks appear close to a milestone, a surge of attacks is questioning the logic of the Taliban’s “fight and talk” approach. What does it signal about the durability of a deal?

Omar Sobhani/Reuters
People pass the site of a car bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed 14 people and wounded nearly 150 on Aug. 7, 2019.

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The news on Afghanistan this week was decidedly mixed. U.S. and Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, made “excellent progress,” according to a tweet from U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad. But he also condemned a Taliban bombing in Kabul, which killed 14 people and wounded nearly 150 Wednesday, as “indiscriminate.” The “focus should be on immediately reducing violence as we move closer to intra-Afghan negotiations that will produce a political roadmap and a permanent cease-fire,” he added.

But it is far from clear whether the Taliban at the negotiating table – who describe their movement as evolving to accept power-sharing and women’s rights and education – have the means or desire to control their own military commanders in Afghanistan.

“If the Taliban were to deliver on a cease-fire and participate in a power-sharing government, this would open up a genuine way to end the 40-year conflict,” says Michael Semple, a conflict resolution specialist at Queen's University Belfast. “But the Taliban have taken no practical steps in support of the fine words. And the fighters I am in touch with do not take the peace process seriously, but expect to continue the war until victory.”

The news is hopeful from Qatar, where Afghanistan peace efforts are underway, and where both the United States and the Taliban this week indicated a deal might soon be announced on a U.S. troop withdrawal from America’s longest-ever war.

But on the ground in Afghanistan, the news is far more sobering. In Kabul Wednesday, Taliban militants claimed responsibility for a suicide truck bomb that killed 14 people and wounded nearly 150 others.

It was the latest in a monthslong surge of attacks that is raising questions about whether the Taliban role in diplomacy is less about peace, and more about an extension of the military campaign to seize control of the country.

President Donald Trump has vowed to quickly end the war. But as the 10-month peace effort led by U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad appears close to reaching a milestone, the spike in attacks is intensifying concerns about the logic behind the Taliban’s “fight and talk” approach. What does it signal about the durability of any deal?

The Americans have outlined a conditional withdrawal of the 14,000 U.S. troops that remain, with the core deal being an exchange for Taliban promises to prevent Afghan soil from being used to launch attacks abroad.

But a cease-fire is not yet part of the deal, nor is a power-sharing plan. Both are potential stumbling blocks that could stall any U.S. drawdown. Those critical elements are meant to be worked out in direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government, with which the Taliban have so far refused to speak.

“We have defeated the Americans”

“The Taliban have specifically been broadcasting that [the U.S. withdrawal] is not conditions-based,” says Michael Semple, an Afghanistan and conflict resolution specialist at Queen’s University Belfast.

“They are telling their people: ‘We have defeated the Americans, the Americans are fleeing, and as they are fleeing they are handing us the keys to Kabul. We’re taking over.’ There is no reconciliation message,” says Professor Semple.

The Taliban have also vowed to disrupt elections scheduled for Sept. 28, in which President Ashraf Ghani – who leads what the Taliban call a “puppet” government – is seeking a second term.

July was the most lethal month for civilians in two years, with 1,500 dead or wounded, according to the United Nations. And this fighting season the insurgent violence has been matched by stepped up U.S. and Afghan security force airstrikes and operations against the Taliban, which in the first six months of 2019 caused more civilian deaths than insurgent actions.

“There is a complete disconnect between the reality of what the Taliban are doing on the ground, and what their political representatives are discussing in peace talks,” says Mr. Semple, who was in Afghanistan last week. “On the ground, Afghans experience relentless Taliban violence and the tightening of their grip over areas they control, while in peace talks Taliban promise respect for everyone’s rights.”

“If the Taliban were to deliver on a cease-fire and participate in a power-sharing government, this would open up a genuine way to end the 40-year conflict. The happy ending would be a peaceful Afghanistan,” adds Mr. Semple. “But the Taliban have taken no practical steps in support of the fine words. And the fighters I am in touch with do not take the peace process seriously, but expect to continue the war until victory.”

Positive sounds from Qatar talks

Ambassador Khalilzad and senior leaders of the Taliban – the arch-conservative jihadist group that hosted Al Qaeda when it ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s before being ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001 – have held multiple rounds of negotiations and are making positive sounds.

The two sides this week made “excellent progress” in the Qatari capital, Doha, Mr. Khalilzad tweeted, and “mechanisms required for a successful implementation” of the four-part deal are being discussed.

But he also condemned the Taliban attack in Kabul as “indiscriminate,” causing “injury to civilians,” and tweeted that the “focus should be on immediately reducing violence as we move closer to intra-Afghan negotiations that will produce a political roadmap and a permanent cease-fire.”

The Taliban, however, are divided, and it is far from clear whether those at the negotiating table – who describe their movement as evolving to accept power-sharing and rights for women that include education and working outside the home – have the means or desire to control their own military commanders in Afghanistan.

“Time, as always, is on the Taliban’s side,” says Javid Ahmad, a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, contacted in Kabul. “The Taliban are violence entrepreneurs. The only leverage they seem to have at the moment is an active fighting force, which they don’t shy away from using.”

“Although it’s early to make a judgment until we see the final details of the deal, the very fact that the U.S. is hurriedly trying to reach a paper deal has made the Taliban see themselves as victorious,” says Mr. Ahmad, who is also a fellow at the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy. “This has motivated them to see themselves as the incoming government, and they are busy rallying national and international support for themselves.”

Indeed, in Qatar the Taliban have insisted on using the words “Islamic Emirate” to describe any new political entity created by the deal. It is the name they used to describe their hyper-religious state when they ruled Afghanistan two decades ago.

No concrete Taliban concessions

Such signs are yielding doubt among critics of the emerging deal.

“The Taliban still refuse a critical component of actual peace: negotiations with the Afghan government. This leads many to believe that what the Taliban want is to get powerful foreign forces out so that the Taliban can win militarily,” wrote Ronald Neumann, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, in an opinion article in The Hill.

“An agreement on paper does not mean peace, particularly if it is only a commitment to talks or procedures that are supposed to fill in the details,” Mr. Neumann wrote. “In Afghanistan the list of those who relied on promises is long, and they are mostly dead.”

After nearly a year in Qatar, the Taliban have so far made no concrete concessions, while their political chiefs enjoy all-expenses-paid luxury hotels, cars, and per diems.

“Until now, everyone has gone along on the basis that it is all quite serious and a remarkable process of diplomacy,” says Mr. Semple of Queen’s University Belfast. “But, if we do not get tangible results soon, somebody could turn around and say the emperor is stark, stark naked. The Taliban haven’t done anything.”

“A harsh reading of it would be that the only apparent progress that has been achieved at any stage is through U.S. concessions,” adds Mr. Semple, noting that initial expectations of a cease-fire appear to have been dropped at this stage.

“Without evidence to the contrary, the Taliban are still committed to the fight,” adds Mr. Semple. “Nobody’s told them to change gear. They have no intention of doing so yet.

“But obviously, if we get an initial U.S. agreement, move toward political talks, and get a cease-fire, this will be a moment of truth to see if the Taliban military is prepared to hold back.”

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