Abdullah Abdullah (center), chairman of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation, speaks with members of delegations during the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on September 12, 2020. Photo: AFP

The first-ever peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government that started this weekend in Qatar have raised expectations for a lasting truce. After nearly 20 years of war, the mere thought of Talib leaders seated around a negotiating table prompted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to declare it a “truly momentous” breakthrough

Yet despite the heady rhetoric, uncertainties cloud the proceedings. For starters, violence persists in the country, while Talib fighters insist that their jihad will continue until Afghanistan is governed by Islamic law. This is prompting some to question whether the Taliban are even ready to be part of the political solution. Despite their presence in Doha, the answer is not as straightforward as many might think.

Who are the Talibs?

One of the biggest problems with the peace deal as structured is that it begins with the premise that all parties support electoral politics. In reality, the Taliban have repeatedly refused to discuss peace with elected members of the Afghan government, working instead to undermine the authority of President Ashraf Ghani’s administration by portraying it as incompetent, immoral, and shameful. 

For instance, when the Taliban ceded to US pressure and met with an unofficial Afghan delegation last year in Moscow, they showed little interest in finding consensus on different visions of Afghan society.

Taliban negotiators claimed that “so-called women’s rights activists were encouraging women to break Afghan customs,” and added that Islam already gave women rights. But when Afghan delegation member Fawzia Koofi suggested that women should be represented on both sides of the table, the Taliban “laughed immediately.”  

Based on this and other signs, it would seem that the Taliban are intent on ruling by fiat, and without bothering with what we might call the “mere politics” of consensus.

The Taliban’s anti-politics

If we look beyond the common narrative of radical Islam or terrorism, the Taliban’s governing approach is what political scientists refer to as “anti-politics,” defined by Italian academic Vittorio Mete as the “sum of the critical discussions, attitudes, and actions directed against political actors and institutions by individuals who play different roles in the society,” such as artists, experts, religious leaders, or militants.

To borrow from Andreas Schedler, co-author of The End of Politics, what the Taliban are looking to do is “banish and dethrone” the political establishment. When seen from this perspective, the Taliban’s goal is less to replace those in power than to rewrite the rules of social regulation. 

The Taliban’s “anti-political” approach to governance was already on display when the Talibs began taking control in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. In 1996, after assuming power in Kabul and most of the country, the Talibs proclaimed their leader, Mullah Omar, as the Commander of the Faithful (Amir al-Mu’minin).

According to the Taliban spokesman at the time, Omar’s ascension was “based on the advice of the Amir al-Mu’minin … [and so]… consultation [elections] is not necessary.” In other words, the people’s voice was irrelevant.

During this period, it became clear that the Talibs did not conquer territories or strike power-sharing deals with former commanders with the intent of governing. Rather, Taliban members worked to minimize the scope of government to focus almost exclusively on issues of morality and social norms.

Friends recall an era of little freedom and reckless restriction. One friend named Hoshang, which means “intelligence” in Kurdish, was not allowed to go to school at times because his name was not “Islamic” enough. Another friend who worked in the ministries recalled how the Talibs replaced all the tables and chairs used by the previous regimes with toshaks (seating mattress), and implemented a dress code – no ties or suits, beards mandatory.

Everyone recalls how girls were excluded from school while most women were not allowed to work, their public mobility monitored. 

Even after their ouster in 2001, democratic values continued to collide with the Taliban’s vision of control. For instance, in 2008, many rank-and-file Taliban in Kandahar, according to Graeme Smith’s What Kandahar’s Taliban Say, described themselves as religious students, farmers and laborers, and said it made no difference to them who was in power in Kabul. 

Some Taliban members have even argued that the concept of politics itself is evil and un-Islamic. An article titled “Cancer of Civil State,” published in 2013 on a Taliban website, said that freedom, equality and liberty are “catchwords and slogans shouted from the lips of the infidels … in the greatest attempt of disbelieving man to install himself in the place of the Allah Ta’ala.”

The article concluded: “The modern vehicle for this self-destructive endeavor is the civil state.” 

A return to ‘mere politics’

Much has changed since those emotive words were written. Today, Afghanistan has an elected government, and Afghans themselves are demanding a new future.

Since 2001, the number of children attending school has surged from 900,000 (with very few girls in classrooms) to 9.2 million, including 3.6 million girls. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product has also grown exponentially during this time, from US$4 billion in 2002 to more than $19 billion last year, while other development indicators – such as literacy rates, life expectancy, and infant mortality – are all trending in the right direction.

And yet Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 40% of the population living in poverty. The Taliban’s preference for moral judgments failed to tackle the practical problems that still plague the country.

Until recently, Talibs viewed themselves as dissidents, detached with respect to electoral governance. The peace deal suggests this self-assessment may be changing. The next step is to accept that there is a need for different type of politics than what the Taliban have historically offered, and that “mere politics” is more productive than an “anti-political struggle.” 

In the Czech Republic, where I live, we have experience with a variation of the anti-political movement. During the Soviet period, the philosophy was used by dissidents to morally survive the totalitarian Communist regime and, in a non-violent way, contribute to Communism’s demise.

What was important to us – and what could be inspirational in the context of the Taliban and Afghanistan – is what happened after freedom was achieved. When the old regime was buried and a new one created, eventually, even former dissidents gave way to politics. It is time for the Taliban to follow a similar path.

Before the peace deal was signed, the Taliban – along with the Afghan government, political parties, and US negotiators – had ample time to take the public’s pulse. Unfortunately, the Taliban followed their old script. To make amends, the Taliban must recognize who they are and how they are conflicted about their relationship to power, and make the proper adjustments.

Afghanistan is desperate for peace, but to achieve it, the Taliban must lead by listening to the public. If they did, it would be another first in Afghanistan’s long-troubled political history.

Vera Exnerova

Vera Exnerova is regional director for Asia with People in Need (PIN), a Czech non-governmental organization. She lived in Afghanistan from 2007-2009 and continues to return to the country either as a researcher or in her current role. Before going to Afghanistan, she was the Fulbright-Masaryk fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian studies at Harvard University.