Comeuppance for the Taliban-US engagement strategy
The killing of Ayman Zawahiri in a successful US drone strike on his Kabul safe house showcases the inadequacies of policies pursued in Afghanistan.
For both the US and the Taliban, the strike can be considered as marking the end of a chapter in their dealings with each other. But, even with the Al Qaeda leader eliminated, the Afghan situation remains a source of misery for the thirty-five million Afghans and of instability for South-Central Asia and beyond. As the dust settles on the scene of the drone strike, all actors in the Afghan conflict face the challenge of rethinking their approach to achieving a more tenable outcome in the country.
The Afghan Taliban Movement has demonstrated remarkable consistency, resilience, and adaptability in its almost three decades long struggle to impose an authoritarian Sunni clerical regime on Afghanistan’s cultural diversity. The movement’s second supreme leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor espoused a doctrine of translating successes of the battlefield into political power, through negotiation with the United States. The Taliban leadership had already embraced this doctrine when, in 2018, the United States accelerated efforts to end its military mission in Afghanistan. The February 2020 Taliban-US Doha Agreement was made possible by this coincidence of US desire for the rubric of a responsible exit with the Taliban’s openness to dealing with the US within their takeover strategy.
In a notable flourish of jihadi rhetoric, the current Taliban leader, Haibatollah Akhundzada, recently informed a Taliban-selected assembly of clerics and local representatives that the movement had negotiated with the US with the sole intent of securing the withdrawal of international troops, which was necessary to set the conditions for the restoration of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. He therefore refuted any suggestion that the Taliban had reached a political accommodation with either the US or the Taliban’s Afghan rivals. According to the Haibatollah rhetoric, the movement never intended to be restrained from pursuit of its vision of constructing a Hanafi-Sunni state and perpetual Manichaean struggle against the infidels.
Haibatollah’s rhetoric was consistent with themes that Taliban leaders have used to mobilise supporters for the jihad since 1994. However, in the year since the Taliban retook power, there has been ample opportunity to observe the movement’s statecraft and practical actions. Since August 2021, Taliban have been obsessed with the process of completing their usurping of the Afghan state. Rather than focusing on policies, the leadership has been busy with appointments of Taliban to virtually every administrative position in the country – a sort of de-Baathification in reverse. Service to the jihad and loyalty to the movement are being rewarded with appointments to government departments, at all levels. The state appointments process has been driven by the urge to distribute status and privilege. But the movement has also been involved in raw power play, anticipating possible sources of opposition to Taliban rule, and suppressing them ruthlessly. The Taliban toolkit has involved military operations, backed up by enforced disappearances and summary executions, directed against areas or figures suspected of rebelliousness. Freedom of expression has been drastically curtailed and Taliban leaders have proclaimed that criticism of the Emirate will not be tolerated. However, in their efforts to secure control of the national territory, Taliban local exercise of power has at times been quite sophisticated. Administrators and security officials, in even the remotest parts of the country, are all drawn from the movement’s cadre of fighters and clerics. But Taliban leaders try to co-opt local elites and persuade them that submission to Taliban authority is their only viable survival strategy.
In this practical exercise of power since the takeover, the Taliban have also revealed the role of ethnic hierarchy within the movement. As has been the case since the movement’s foundation, ethnic Pashtun Taliban have maintained control of all power positions in the leadership. Taliban from the other three major ethnic groups, have been tolerated in secondary leadership positions as long as they show loyalty and submit to the leadership. The Taliban’s Uzbeks, Tajiks and few Hazaras are acutely aware that they have been excluded from real power but are needed to help govern the non-Pashtun areas of the north and centre of the country.
The base of the movement, fighters who endured deprivation to sustain the long military campaign against the US-backed republican government, was largely motivated by the idea of imposition of Islamic rule once victory was achieved. Unsurprisingly, the content of this Islamic rule was little elaborated during the military campaign. Some Taliban actions since the takeover have been totemic nods to Islamisation, such as the partial ban on teenage girls’ schooling and the revival of a “Ministry of vice and virtue” to promote Islamic norms and values. But many Taliban fighters are frustrated at the leadership’s apparent lack of interest in developing anything they would recognise as an Islamic system. Indeed, even Haibatollah himself is now reported to have woken up to the reality that the majority of Taliban he has appointed as officials in the Islamic Emirate seem more materialistically than ideologically motivated. Reports from across the country indicate that Emirate officials have been more interested in cars, houses, and polygamy than in developing ideal Islamic rule.
This political culture of the Taliban in power formed the backdrop to the drone strike on Zawahiri and helps to define the policy-making challenge in Afghanistan. During the Doha talks process, the Taliban developed their “Political Commission” as a body of experienced diplomats tasked with presenting the movement as a responsible actor, capable of maintaining security in Afghanistan and open to compromise on domestic social and political issues. The veterans of the Political Commission have been re-badged as Foreign Minister, deputy ministers and head of a commission to draw exiled Afghans home. But they have continued to lead the movement’s diplomacy, while studiously avoiding giving any substantive or time-bound commitment on moderation of policy or transition to a broad-based government. On the issue of restricting the activities of foreign militants present in Afghanistan, a key Taliban undertaking in the 2020 agreement, assurances given by the old Political Commission team have largely been divorced from reality.
Since grabbing power, the Taliban have hoped to obtain international recognition as the way to unblock access to finance, thus consolidating their control of the state. They hoped that recognition would persuade neighbouring powers to deal with their Islamic Emirate to the exclusion of any other Afghan party, because a strong regional backer is considered a sine qua non for the success of any Afghan opposition movement. The Taliban calculated that international recognition would boost their domestic legitimacy, persuading Afghans that they had no alternative but to submit to the authority of the Taliban’s Amir. However, the Taliban charged with pursuing recognition and cooperation short of recognition (such as the unfreezing of assets), consistently demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to make and deliver on commitments which were important for the international actors they were dealing with. The old Political Commission team failed to deliver on an inclusive political system, the reopening of girls’ schools or curtailing human rights violations. They blocked proposals for central bank independence and thus threw up the opportunity to have assets unfrozen. And, vitally, they could do nothing about the increased freedom enjoyed by Islamist militants from Pakistan, Central Asia and the Middle East.
In line with their approach to negotiating the 2020 Doha Agreement, the Taliban had hoped that, by persisting in their demands and repeating their claims to be responsible and reformed, they would obtain recognition and secure their hold in power. In this sense, allowing the Al Qaeda leader to base himself in central Kabul, until the US found him, was a strategic policy blunder for the Taliban. The presence of Islamist militants is something that the regional powers, whom the Taliban have sought to charm, are as concerned about as the US. As the US labels Zawahiri’s presence a gross violation of Taliban undertakings under the Doha Agreement, Afghanistan’s neighbours are bound to doubt any counter-terrorist undertakings the Taliban may give them. The Taliban’s spectacular failure to honour the single most important international commitment they have made in the history of their diplomacy leaves them without a credible path towards consolidation of power via achievement of international and domestic legitimacy.
For the US, the drone strike may have been a tactical success and striking demonstration of hard power without the need for an army on the ground. But it still leaves the US in need of a viable Afghan strategy. After all, it is deeply problematic that a movement which has prioritised loyalty to fellow mujahideen of AQ, the TTP and multiple offshoots, over adherence to international commitments, still controls the Afghan state. Since the Taliban takeover, the US has pursued a pragmatic, cautious engagement with the Taliban de facto government. The rationale for this engagement has been that the US should adapt to the reality of Taliban power and establish whether it is possible for the US to secure its key interests through dialogue. But the topmost Taliban leaders were implicated in the sheltering of Zawahiri. Top of the list of those implicated is Interior Minister Khalifa Seraj Haqqani who remains deeply involved in the Taliban’s dealings with foreign militants. But other Taliban leaders such as Defence Minister Mawlvi Yaqoob, also share responsibility, as they have had a hands-on involvement in managing the Taliban security infrastructure, and Taliban attempts at total control the territory. The Taliban resistance to compromise on all the softer issues discussed with the US, alongside their gross recalcitrance in hosting the active foreign militants, have, regrettably, demonstrated that engagement with the Islamic Emirate is not a viable approach for the US to secure its interests.
The challenge posed by this twin Taliban and US policy failure is that Afghanistan is too big to ignore and is a source of multiple potential sources of instability. The economic collapse combined with chaotic authoritarian rule is driving a new wave of mass migration, towards Iran, Turkey and Europe. The country remains the epicentre of the global heroin trade, with potential to develop into a regional crime hub. Everyone is trying to work out the significance of natural resources and trade routes in the latest round of global strategic competition. Islamic State, Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and multiple other militant groups remain ensconced, even if they are considered as less of a strategic issue than at the height of the GWOT. And, although it is not fashionable to say so, Afghanistan has become another of the fronts in the confrontation between authoritarianism (represented by the Taliban) and free societies (represented by the Afghan political class and civil society).
The Taliban’s steadfast exclusion of the vast majority of the population from governance and the failure of the Taliban’s preferred consolidation strategy put the onus on the rest of the Afghan political class to present a viable alternative to the Islamic Emirate. A year after the collapse of Afghanistan’s Islamic Republic, organised political opposition to the Taliban remains fragmented. The main military resistance retains a toehold in several northern provinces but is holding back from any concerted effort to retake territory until it secures adequate external support. Meanwhile, although Afghanistan should still be considered one of the main active global conflicts, since August 2021, there has been no concerted, internationally backed peace process. While the US recalibrates how it engages on Afghanistan, having drawn a blank from post-August Taliban dialogue, the key policy challenges confront non-Taliban Afghan leaders. If the Islamic Emirte cannot be trusted to manage Afghanistan, those who aspire to represent the swathes of society excluded by the Islamic Emirate, must work out how to mobilise a population in the face of Taliban ruthlessness and international indifference.