Clashing incentives risk splintering the Taliban as its leadership seeks an end to decades of conflict.
Internal fissures within the Taliban have continued to jeopardise the Afghan peace process by preventing the establishment and maintenance of a credible ceasefire, precluding the building of trust that is a prerequisite to any potential intra-Afghan peace deal.
– The Taliban’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura, has become alienated from tactical level commanders and troops, complicating the maintenance of a ceasefire
– Kabul and Washington have remained resolute in demanding that the Taliban demonstrate their ability to maintain peace through a persistent ceasefire prior to continuing negotiations in Doha
– Without a ceasefire in place, intra-Afghan negotiations have stalled and violence has once again begun to escalate
As the US-Afghan War lurches to a finish, intra-Afghan negotiations have remained frozen at the intersection of Kabul’s demands for a ceasefire and the Taliban’s relentless aggression. Unable or unwilling to keep the peace, the Taliban continue to insist they want an end to this conflict and free reign to reshape Afghanistan into an Islamic Emirate with themselves at its helm. Although such radical demands would subvert the Bonn Agreement that formed the modern state of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s objectives look to be within reach as the US withdraws its forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA) has proven incapable of countering the Talibs. Yet, the Taliban refuse to agree to or abide by a ceasefire, continually stalling negotiations, eroding trust and raising serious concerns regarding their ability to maintain any established peace. The Taliban’s refusal to agree to a ceasefire, however, is not indicative of their position towards negotiations but of their inability to control the armed cadres who fight their battles.
After the Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan following 2001’s Operation Enduring Freedom, their leadership fled to Pakistan, eventually establishing a base of operations in Quetta, Baluchistan. They have since transformed their organisational structure, creating Shuras (factions) that conduct operations in specific regions. The leaders of each Shura together form the Quetta Shura, a leadership council that dictates the affairs of the Taliban in all but the northeastern province of Badakhshan where the Shura of the North presides. This transformation, by and large, divested the Taliban’s leadership from tactical level of operations and gave individual Talib cells on the ground greater initiative. With their skills honed by US and NATO forces following former president Barack Obama’s 2009 troop surge, this structure has proven proficient in defeating the largely incapable ANA forces. But due to the divestment of responsibility and funding, the Quetta Shura has become estranged from Talibs at the tactical level.
SPOILS OF WAR
While the Quetta Shura wants an end to the current conflict as well as a permanent place in Kabul, the rank-and-file Talibs want jihad and money. These Talibs, mostly raised in strict Salafi Islamic Gulf-funded madrasas and indoctrinated to believe they are in an endless holy war against the West, do not want peace or governance. They made for deadly combatants during the US and NATO surges, reinforced by their belief that their cause was a religious one with existential consequences. Likewise, the commanders have fought off the ANA and NATO in the execution of their jihad, but also to protect their newly found narco-fiefdoms. During the reorganisation in the early 2000s that saw the creation of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leadership fell into bed with already-established opium trafficking networks in Afghanistan. While the goal of the leadership was to ensure the financial sustainability of their newly-fragmented military structure, their plan may have worked too well — regional commanders now have massive financial incentives not to return to lawful governance. Thus, neither the religiously motivated ground troops nor their illicit-profit motivated commanders see a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan as serving their interests.
It is telling that the most successful ceasefire so far has been the Eid al-Adha ceasefire as the Quetta Shura was only able to guarantee a reduction in violence by wrapping their commands to lay down arms in the pages of the Qur’an, granting their orders legitimacy in the eyes of their ground forces and framing commanders who disobey the orders as heretical. Since then, each new call for ceasefire has been met with resistance, silence or vague demands that Afghanistan become an ‘Islamic’ state before violence ends, but behind these prevarications lies in the Quetta Shura’s unwillingness to reveal the lack of control they possess over the Taliban.
In an October interview with Taliban spokesman Dr. Mohammad Naeem, TOLONews journalist Karim Amini pressed the topic of the Taliban’s attempt to capture Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province. Naeem distanced the Taliban from the attacks and claimed he had no knowledge of Mawlawi Ghafoor, the mastermind of the attack. Naeem’s anxiety demonstrates the Quetta Shura’s current dilemma: how can leadership end violence in Afghanistan when the current peace process does not serve the interests of those who took up arms under their banners? Thus, while the Taliban’s political bodies negotiate for peace, its forces are still attempting to take cities.
Expect continued violence in Afghanistan in the short- to medium-term as the Taliban press the attack against ANA forces weakened by US withdrawal. Likewise, the establishment of a ceasefire agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government in the short- to medium-term is highly unlikely. Any ceasefire agreement would be broken by rogue Taliban factions and in doing so, greatly diminish the Quetta Shura’s legitimacy as the Taliban’s leadership and subsequently, their authority to speak on behalf of the Taliban at the negotiating table.
Expect the Afghan government, with little recourse, to push ANA forces to continue engaging the Taliban, thereby maintaining a mutually painful stalemate and creating pressure at the negotiating table in Doha. Still, the Afghan government is unlikely to continue negotiations with the Taliban until the group has demonstrated its ability to reduce violence through the establishment and maintenance of a long-term ceasefire. As such, talks will remain frozen in the medium-term as Kabul struggles to build trust with the Taliban, a vital prerequisite to any potential power-sharing agreement.
Diverging from his predecessor’s willingness to end the US-Afghan War at any cost, US President Joe Biden will likely respond to frozen talks and rising violence by maintaining a slim US troop presence in Afghanistan after reviewing the established US-Taliban peace deal. The current deal does give Biden the ability to backstep troop withdrawals under the pretence of escalating violence and the Taliban’s persistent ties to terrorist organisations. Yet, given Biden’s preference for a “counterterrorism plus” strategy, US troops will not directly engage the Taliban, focusing instead on the use of airpower to support ANA forces, advising ANA and Afghan police forces and using Special Operations forces for precision attacks on terrorist cells.
At the negotiating table, Biden will likely push Washington’s chief Afghan negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, to pressure the Quetta Shura to establish a ceasefire and clamp down on Talibs who transgress said ceasefire to move forward in building trust. Yet, given the fragmentation of Talib forces, it is unlikely the Quetta Shura can do so. Still, the Quetta Shura is likely to respond to Biden’s moves by encouraging Shura heads to take greater initiative in punishing rogue Talibs, citing their common goal to see a total withdrawal of US forces. However, as the Quetta Shura’s own internal cohesion — having been solidified only under the pretence of US troop withdrawals — is now put into question, this strategy also retains a significant risk of failure. Even if Shura heads have remained aligned in their desire to seek a political solution, their commanders still lack interest in ending the current conflict as the Taliban’s political solution would end their lucrative opium operations. As such, their attempts to pull rank may further alienate religiously-motivated Talibs and their illicit profit-motivated commanders. This might cause increased fractionalisation with the possibility of splinter movements breaking off of the Taliban, similar to the disintegration of Mujahedeen forces following the Afghan-Soviet War.
Taken together, Afghanistan is unlikely to find respite from the war in the medium- to long-term. The US will continue to sit on the sidelines of the conflict, the Taliban on the ground will continue to press the attack, their commanders will continue profiting off the drug-terror nexus, the Quetta Shura will continue to make demands at the negotiating table, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will continue to contest control of Afghanistan, and Afghans will continue to suffer.