What the Taliban are telling themselves about war and peace

Why We Wrote This

What makes for a successful negotiation? One ingredient is the integrity of the negotiators. Another is their ability to deliver their side. Even as internal Taliban messaging seeks unity, it raises questions.

Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters
Members of a Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center, front), leave after talks with senior Afghan politicians in Moscow, May 30, 2019.

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Questions linger for many Afghans about the suspended negotiations the United States and the Taliban were holding in Doha, Qatar. The insurgents still talk of the “Islamic Emirate of the Taliban” and dismiss the Afghan president as an American puppet. So what does the Taliban leadership tell its own foot soldiers?

“Naturally they present themselves as the victors, that they won the fight,” says journalist Abdul Waheed Atif after listening to a speech delivered at the funeral of a Taliban commander. “There is no doubt there are several groups of the Taliban,” he says. “I know some ... don’t care about Doha, about their leaders. Anything they want, they can do.”

The Taliban have been working to curb such dissent, but with mixed results. The leadership consulted local commanders and fighters over the summer, but much was left unsaid, says Rahmatullah Amiri, a political analyst. Many Taliban, he notes, have an “absolute, 100%” expectation of once again ruling.

“The people I speak to on the ground literally tell me: ‘They took government from us, they have to give it back to us,’” he says. “The Taliban leadership did not share the whole thing with the ground troops, such as power-sharing, so this is a huge problem.”

The funeral for the Taliban commander killed in an airstrike was reaching its most critical point.

Just as the corpse of the veteran Afghan jihadist was due to be lowered into the ground – in Taliban territory – an Afghan journalist’s telephone rang in the capital, Kabul.

A mourner at the funeral had made the call and held up his phone, so journalist Abdul Waheed Atif could hear the graveside speech of a local Taliban chief.

Such memorial addresses are one way the arch-conservative Taliban are spreading the word among their followers, part of an increasingly important mechanism of dissemination as insurgents making decisions about war and peace aim to ensure broad compliance among their own.

Just a week earlier, on Sept. 7, President Donald Trump had ended nearly a year of U.S.-Taliban talks about an American troop withdrawal, declaring them “dead” after a Taliban suicide car bomb in Kabul killed a U.S. serviceman, along with nearly 20 Afghans.

So what have the Taliban been telling their own foot soldiers about the future – and their role in possibly ending America’s longest-ever war?

“Naturally they present themselves as the victors, that they won the fight,” says Mr. Atif, describing the funeral speech in Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul, which is one of many local Taliban discourses he has heard.

“They said: ‘There is a break in the peace process, but don’t worry, it will resume,’” says Mr. Atif, quoting from the graveside message, as he fingers a string of green glass prayer beads.

The Taliban often take advantage of such local gatherings to press their case for legitimacy in the community, as well as to overcome widespread unhappiness about continued violence and deprivation in Taliban territory. The Taliban control or have influence in half of Afghanistan, more today than they have held at any point since U.S. forces orchestrated their ousting from power in 2001.

“Peace is coming”

Another message is that “peace is coming,” says the journalist, “and we will have a good life.”

That would be good news for most Afghans. Over the weekend, 40 civilians were reported killed when a wedding party was hit by military helicopters during a raid in Helmand province. That came just days after a U.S. drone strike killed 30 farm workers.

But not all Taliban fighters may be on board with giving up the fight, despite the Taliban leadership’s negotiations with the United States in Doha, Qatar. They have presented themselves as ready for peace – in exchange for the departure of some 14,000 American and 8,600 NATO troops – and as having evolved from their days of ruling Afghanistan in the late 1990s, when they severely restricted women’s rights and forbade education for girls.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP
A suicide-bomb blast ripped through a wedding party on a busy Saturday night in a Dubai City wedding hall in Kabul, Afghanistan, seen here on Aug. 18, 2019.

But critical elements to peace were not part of the U.S. talks, including a cease-fire and power-sharing with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, which the Taliban dismiss as an American “puppet.” Mr. Ghani is vying for a second term in an election on Sept. 28, which the Taliban have vowed to disrupt.

“There is no doubt there are several groups of the Taliban,” says Mr. Atif. “I know some of the Taliban groups don’t care about Doha, about their leaders. Anything they want, they can do, without their permission.”

Indeed, even as the talks with the U.S. were reported to be almost complete, some Taliban commanders in the field vowed to carry on the fight.

“We will continue our fight against the government and seize power by force,” one commander told Reuters in late August.

The Taliban have been working to curb such dissent, but with mixed results. The leadership sent delegations to local Taliban commanders and fighters for consultations over the summer. All Taliban centers of power, inside and out of Afghanistan, agreed on the basics of a U.S. and foreign troops withdrawal, and the need for Islamic government.

Maintaining unity

But much was left unsaid, says Rahmatullah Amiri, a political analyst based in Kabul.

“When we speak about ‘Islamic regime,’ what do we mean? Do we mean this election will be part of that Islamic regime?” says Mr. Amiri. “These are things they didn’t discuss.”

On top of that lack of detail are Taliban assumptions about what postwar Afghanistan will look like, including the “absolute, 100%” expectation of once again ruling from Kabul.

“The people I speak to on the ground literally tell me: ‘They took government from us, they have to give it back to us,’” says Mr. Amiri. “The Taliban leadership did not share the whole thing with the ground troops, such as power-sharing, so this is a huge problem.”

At the same time, the Taliban in recent years have reformed and centralized their leadership structure, so they are in a better position to navigate peace talks, says Mr. Amiri, and only a “very small proportion” are likely to reject any deal approved at the top.

“They very much understand their commanders,” says Mr. Amiri. “The Taliban understand that sharing a lot of information with their fighters could easily crack things in the Taliban lines.”

At stake for the leadership, he says, is their political standing.

“So you can’t just say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to do power-sharing,’ because the Taliban understand that if they do power-sharing, in the way the Western media or Afghan government perceive it to be, that would damage the Taliban,” he says.

Islamic Emirate of the Taliban

Such sensitivities were evident in a key speech in late August, made to commanders and broadcast on Taliban social media channels, to mark the 100th anniversary of Afghanistan independence from British control.

The Taliban’s chief negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, warned repeatedly against being “too proud” of what he called the Taliban victory over American forces. He implied that the Taliban would soon take total control, and – as peace would soon dawn on Afghanistan after four decades of war – he sought to reassure women and minority ethnic groups, while calling on his commanders and fighters to respect all Afghans, to “tolerate” and “accept” each other and rebuild the country together.

Yet in the 45-minute address, Mr. Stanikzai made no mention of the Ghani government, nor that power-sharing was an option. He also did not speak of the heavy toll on Afghans, many thousands of them civilians, who have died at the hands of the Taliban.

“Each bullet we shot at the Americans, and each negotiation we had with the Americans, now we have arrived at this victory,” said the black-turbaned and gray-bearded Mr. Stanikzai.

Every Afghan should be respected, as if “each brother was a commander for the jihad, and each sister is the wife of our martyr,” he said.

Mr. Stanikzai also promised that the “Islamic Emirate of the Taliban will solve all your problems and will be responsible for your security.”

Afghans have heard such platitudes before, over many years and across many battlefields. And as the Taliban have expanded territory under their control, they have also exposed themselves to popular anger for failing to provide services, or for extending the war.

“The Taliban know only fighting and conflict, they don’t have any program,” says Mr. Atif, the Afghan journalist who heard the Taliban funeral speech in Wardak. Fighters have become tired, he says, since hospitality shown them in previous years, like opening homes and providing food, has dried up, as the Taliban shifted from striking military to civilian targets.

“For this reason now, in communities, there is no space for them. People don’t like them. They hate them,” says Mr. Atif. “Unfortunately, when people are under the Taliban they become too tired and hungry.”

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