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The Taliban Deal & U.S.-Jihadist Negotiations


Talks between the United States, the Afghan Taliban, and anti-Taliban factions are likely the prelude to a systemic change in the way Afghanistan is governed, and with the Taliban holding most of the power in the talks, a post-American Afghanistan is likely to more closely resemble a theocracy than a democratic republic. If talks are successful and the Taliban keep to the terms of the deal, this new government could serve as a test of how far the United States is willing to go to negotiate with nationalist jihadists in order to counter those pursuing transnational agendas.

The Trump Administration’s agreement with the Afghan Taliban represents the first-ever substantive peace negotiation effort between the United States and a jihadist movement. The intra-Afghan dialogue component of this process will prove to be extremely difficult because the country is about to undergo another regime change. Assuming the negotiations succeed – which is not a certainty – and given that the Taliban want to alter the current Afghan state into a theocracy while the other side wants to preserve as much of the current democratic setup as possible, the likely compromise will be a Sunni Afghan version of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Washington needs to ensure that the negotiating process does not break down as well as that the Taliban are counterbalanced by its opponents. More importantly, this experiment with the Afghan Taliban could serve as a template for future negotiations with nationalist jihadists in other theaters as a way to counter transnational jihadist forces such as ISIS and al Qaeda.  

Regime Change in Afghanistan

Consider the following three statements delivered on the opening day of the intra-Afghan dialogue on Sept. 12 in Doha: 

“My delegation are in Doha representing a political system that is supported by millions of men and women from a diversity of cultural, social, and ethnic backgrounds in our homeland.”

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation

“[Afghanistan should] have an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities of the country find themselves without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood.” 

Chief Taliban Negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar

“The choice of your political system is yours to make.”

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo

If it wasn’t already, these remarks should make it clear that Afghanistan is once again in the throes of regime change, this time via negotiations. The current state, born out of the 2001 Bonn Agreement to replace the Taliban regime and which the U.S. and the international community has spent 19 years and at least a trillion dollars trying to sustain, will undergo massive transformation.  

This is the essence of the talks between the Afghan jihadist movement and the anti-Taliban camp, which consists of a divided state plus an array of competing actors across the country and has come to the table from a position of relative weakness. One of the reasons why the country needs a new social contract is because of the absence of a national consensus on mainstream politics. Instead, disparate factions opposed to the Taliban are also at loggerheads with one another. The opponents of the Taliban who are part of the current setup wish to concede as little as possible but lack the military leverage to drive a hard bargain.  

Meanwhile, the Taliban know that they cannot go back to their old emirate and will need to compromise because of their need for international recognition. That said, their desire to dominate a post-American Afghanistan is only getting stronger, especially given battlespace dynamics and the U.S. desire to withdraw as quickly as possible. It is thus likely that any agreement will involve large-scale constitutional engineering – even to the extent of a new state architecture. So, if negotiations succeed and the Taliban agrees to abide by the terms of a deal (which is doubtful), what would a power-sharing arrangement or post-American Afghan polity look like? 

The Taliban know that an outright theocratic emirate is not a viable option, so they will have to improvise, most likely creating a hybrid between their medieval Sunni ideal and a modern, Western-style state. There will be a republican component to the future state, but that component will be heavily circumscribed by a thick theocratic layer. In fact, an apex religious leadership post will likely be established. In other words, it would not exactly be an emirate but would feature an emir atop a complex hybrid edifice. 

Most new political dispensations are built on modifying existing models, and the Taliban don’t have to look too far for an example to build on. The Islamic Republic of Iran is next door, and despite it being Shiite, its status as the first government of its kind has influenced a great deal of Sunni Islamist actors – even those who deeply oppose them theologically. The Taliban have actually grown close to Iran since 9/11. 

There is an ironic paradox here. Because the choice is between continued war or regime-change, the only scenario in which these talks succeed is one in which an Islamist polity emerges. The Taliban will likely make some compromises, but their opponents will be making most of the concessions. These talks should not be viewed through the lens of the number of accommodations that the anti-Taliban camp will be making to the jihadist movement but rather in terms of how much of the current setup will it be able to preserve.

That the Taliban will extract far greater concessions than they will concede is not simply a function of the upper hand they have in the battlespace but also because of ideational conditions, both within the current Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Afghan society. Many of the factions within the anti-Taliban camp are also Islamists – remnants of the original jihadist insurgency that fought the Soviets in the 1980s. In addition, the 1992 collapse of the Kremlin-backed People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the last real state that the country had, led to the empowerment of medieval religious interpretations – a key reason why the Taliban emirate emerged in 1996. 

Political Learning

This is also why the existing U.S.-backed Afghan state has had many Talibanesque legal features. The negotiators of the jihadist movement will be heavily leveraging these factors in order to roll back the many democratic gains made in the 19 years since they were last in power. The United States and the anti-Taliban Afghan camp are well aware of these huge risks, but they are hoping that the jihadist movement has undergone some basic modicum of “political learning.”  

They are not wrong, but they are also only correct in a limited sense. Political learning is an extremely complicated, nonlinear, and long-term process. Geopolitical constraints and latitudes may have brought the Taliban to the table, but we are very far from genuine ideational change – to the extent that it is possible.

Taliban reassurances that they are no longer against women’s education and employment does not mean they have actually changed their views; it just means they know what the other side wants to hear. Their goal is not simply to return to where things stood on September 10, 2001: A key part of their political learning involves how to obtain the one critical thing that their last emirate lacked, i.e., international recognition, which they can only gain via the United States. 

Political learning is also taking place on the U.S. side. Until now, the closest Washington has come to participating in negotiations like the current ones in Afghanistan were the 2007 talks in Iraq to weaken Sunni tribal support for al Qaeda, which were tactical in nature and did not involve talking to a jihadist organization per se. The Taliban talks will likely serve as a model for other areas requiring political settlements, such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. At the same time, these negotiations will prove to be a lesson on the limits of aligning with nationalist jihadists to counter transnational ones such as ISIS and al Qaeda.

A Taliban Republic

The Afghan Taliban represent a key case study of the massive barriers in the path of jihadist groups developing political wings, much less political parties. The politburo headquartered in Qatar is not the Taliban version of what the Sinn Fein was to the Irish Republican Army. Born in an Islamist-Marxist conflict that turned intra-Islamist, the Taliban movement is purely insurgent. It has a political leadership, but the group, as a whole, is light years away from evolving into a nonviolent political movement. The Taliban are hardwired to fight and incapable of gaining power via elections.  

The Taliban’s maximalist demand of an emirate is thus not just a function of ideology; it also has a lot to do with the group’s capabilities and tradecraft. And because the Bonn Agreement is dead and the existing political system itself is up for grabs, the new hybrid regime will be dominated by the Taliban while their opponents will have limited authority. The constitutional engineers will have to create a state structure with a complex web of institutions tied together by legal processes, giving the Taliban the upper hand. Let us consider the four main pillars of governance: 

Executive: The Taliban may allow the presidency to remain in the hands of their opponents to manage day to day governance – as long as it has “religious” oversight via an “emir” (analogous to Iran’s supreme leader). Because the new political dispensation will be the result of an international process, the Taliban mullah who gets to become emir may have far more executive authority than Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Legislature: The Taliban are most vulnerable here. They have no political party, much less experience competing in elections. It is therefore reasonable to assume that they will face a sizable opposition in parliament. Thus, the Taliban could seek a clerical body to approve or reject laws – something akin to Iran’s Guardian Council

Judiciary: The country’s Talibanesque clergy serves as a major enabler for the Afghan jihadist movement. Thus, this branch will represent a stronghold of the Taliban under the coming regime. The courts will not just be packed with ultraconservative clerics. There will also be religious oversight over the civil courts and non-religious jurisprudence.  

Security: Being an insurgent group, this is the one power center that the Taliban are most likely to want to dominate. They would want to break the hold of their opponents in law enforcement, the military and the intelligence service under the guise of an insurgent Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration program. The Taliban would want its commanders and fighters to be brought into the state security organs but not in a subordinating role. They may demand a parallel military force like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or they may try to retain their own militia force parallel to the state security forces, akin to Hezbollah in Lebanon.   

Obviously, such a state is not what Washington wants. However, nearly a generation’s worth of efforts have failed to establish democratic governance. More importantly, the U.S. strategic objective is to ensure that Afghanistan not return to being a springboard for transnational jihadist activity. For this the country needs a system (however flawed) that absorbs as many jihadist fighters as possible and limits the room for ISIS and its allies to operate, which again assumes successful negotiations and the Taliban upholding their end of the bargain. The next administration, no matter who wins in November, will have to work extremely hard to ensure the success of this negotiations process – one that is at the very least able to balance between the Taliban and its opponents. That is a terribly tall order. 

Dr. Kamran Bokhari is Director of Analytical Development at the Newlines Institute. Dr. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. Bokhari has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Newlines Institute.

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