Afghan security personnel and militia fighting against Taliban stand guard in Enjil district of Herat province on July 30, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hashimi

Afghan districts are falling to the Taliban at a rapid pace as the insurgents also push their advantage diplomatically in their quest for international legitimacy.

More than 90% of the US forces have wrapped up their missions in the longest war in American history. There are multiple questions, and lessons, for the students of conflict in this long war against the Taliban and their affiliates. 

  • First among the important questions that everyone in the region is asking these days is whether the US abandoning Afghanistan.
  • The second question, which logically follows, is: What is next?
  • Another question, important for students of conflict especially, is whether or how entering an agreement with the US has affected the Taliban’s legitimacy as a political actor.
  • Last, but not least, is the question of why the intra-Afghan peace negotiations have stalled without leading to a ceasefire and post-conflict inclusive government.

A lot is being said about these questions by the governments involved, many experts on Afghan affairs and commentators in the news media.

Conflict in continuum

With all its peculiarities, the conflict in Afghanistan also exhibits the pitfalls of conflict resolution in much the same ways as have other insurgencies and civil wars in some fundamental ways: information asymmetries, commitment problems and the limitations of externally imposed democratization.

Past research indicates that neutral external mediation often helps to resolve commitment problems. The problem in Afghanistan’s case is that the US is a party to the conflict and not neutral. But with its flawed agreement, the US has fundamentally changed the Taliban’s quest for legitimacy in their favor, and there are state actors in the region who find it prudent to engage them diplomatically rather than fighting them.

Amid the conflicting claims, there is a blame game going on, state actors involved in the process pointing figures at others for their respective failures. A lot of people see the last 20 years of Afghan conflict in isolation. They forget that history works in a continuum and that Afghanistan has been a battleground since 1979. The last time Afghanistan was a “normal” place was more than 40 years ago. 

Their brutal ways notwithstanding, the Taliban emerged as a rebel movement in 1994, when the Afghan state capacity had already collapsed. The warlords ruled their fiefdoms with utter lack of regard for any law or central authority, and through their respective versions of tyranny.

There is no clear answer to the question of legitimacy of an insurgent group that emerged during a civil war in a failed state. Realpolitik, on the other hand, has more pressing concerns than such philosophical considerations.

US mission then and now

In fighting the Taliban, the US relied on those same corrupt and lawless warlords who didn’t trust one another either. Those warlords were not just part of the problem; they were the problem, whose infighting and corruption provided the vacuum in which the Taliban were born.

With more than 100,000 boots on the ground at one point, the Americans soon forgot why they came to Afghanistan in the first place. Was it to eliminate al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies? Was it democratization or responsibility to protect the oppressed people of Afghanistan? Or was it nation-building?

We remember the US frequently changing objectives all too well. But this blame game is futile. What matters more now is what has been done to the Taliban’s quest for legitimacy – and how the world should deal with them now.

In the answer to the first question above, there are already indications that the much-lamented US withdrawal may only be tactical. If true, it holds a critical and stark implication for the region.

In a recent disclosure, the Pentagon confirmed that air strikes have recently been conducted against the Taliban. General Kenneth McKenzie also promised that these strikes would continue in support of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in the coming weeks.

The reason for these renewed attacks, and the US commitment to provide “over the horizon” support to the Kabul regime, is stepped-up violence by the Taliban. The additional motivation behind renewed air strikes by the US is to deter the Taliban from a hostile takeover of Afghanistan, significantly weakening them so that they are more inclined to a negotiated settlement.

This thinking in the Pentagon appears premised on two key assumptions: first, that over-the-horizon attack capability can damage the Taliban more than keeping boots on the ground for 20 years, and second, that the Taliban will find no way to retaliate and, therefore, will have no choice but to concede in the negotiations.

This is a dangerous gamble. Withdrawing boots on the ground will indeed benefit the US by saving precious dollars and lives, while air-strike preponderance has been instrumental in warding off insurgent pressure in Afghanistan. However, it has not defeated them in 20 years. How likely is this new strategy to succeed?

The Taliban perspective

The Taliban insist that these renewed attacks by the US violate the Doha agreement signed in February 2020. Despite the official claims by the US and its allies, there is nothing in the agreement that binds the Taliban to put down their guns against the Kabul regime before reaching any negotiated settlement.

This is one indication that the agreement was poorly negotiated. From the point of view of the Taliban, it only makes sense that the insurgents would not want to disarm and demobilize.

The Taliban believe they are holding to the agreement by stopping attacks against foreign forces and diplomatically engaging the Kabul regime and other state actors active in the process. Russia seems to echo this belief.

The agreement outlines timelines not just for withdrawal of the foreign forces, but also for the release of Taliban fighters from prison and lifting of sanctions against their prominent members. The US promised to complete the release of all prisoners by June 10, 2020, and lifting all of its sanctions by August 27, 2020.

The US additionally promised to work with other members of the UN Security Council to have their respective sanctions removed by May 29, 2020 (read points C, D, and E of Part 1 of the agreement).

The release of prisoners has only been partially achieved, whereas not all of the sanctions (by the US and UN) have been lifted. The reason for not keeping the promises is the desire to beef up leverage against the Taliban. In any case, the Taliban find it a gross violation of the signed deal.

The text of the Doha accord reveals that either the American interlocutors were in a hurry to deliver “results” to then-president Donald Trump without pausing to reflect what they were agreeing to, or the battlefield momentum had already been lost to the Taliban to the point where the US couldn’t sufficiently press them for reciprocal concessions. At best, it is a sloppy agreement.

That the intra-Afghan peace dialogue has dragged on and on without result is a different matter and may have been intentional by both sides to gain leverage enabling negotiations from a position of strength. However, from the perspective of the Taliban, the reasons for deadlock in intra-Afghan dialogue, which they insist they have continued in good faith despite broken promises, may at least be twofold.

First, the Taliban appear to believe that the externally imposed democracy in Kabul has no legitimacy. They also appear to believe that the US deposed their regime in 2001 and so now as it withdraws, it is their legitimate right that political power must be restored to them under the Doha agreement, in which the US, without recognizing their emirate, has inadvertently granted them a certain level of legitimacy.

The Taliban also probably see themselves as the only rightful political actor in the war-torn country and believe it is up to them to decide which other factions may be included in any future regime, if any at all, and not the other way around.

Second, the Taliban’s view that the Western conception of secular popular democracy (which was also externally imposed in this instance) is in direct contradiction to their view of Islamic governance to which the US has agreed in the Doha agreement. Points 2 and 3 of Part 3 of the agreement specifically speak about US relations with the future “Islamic” government of Afghanistan devoid of interference in its internal affairs.

The Taliban, however, do seem very conscious of their international perception. They seem to understand the importance of international legitimacy. They are on an aggressive diplomatic drive attempting to assuage regional and global concerns about their future ambitions and their relations with other jihadist organizations, as well as the treatment of women and minorities in their possible future regime.

Any future Taliban regime would require regional recognition as well as considerable support from a major power, be it the US, China, Russia, or any combination thereof.

This, in my opinion, is their Achilles’ heel, and provides others room to bargain for “reasonable behavior” in exchange for recognition, and the economic and humanitarian support that is sorely needed in Afghanistan.

Contradictions and legitimacy

It is important to consider that the Islamist conception of statehood does not conform with the idea of statehood as it is understood today in the West. It is possible these two conceptions are not only different but contradictory to each other. If so, it logically follows that the Islamist model of government has no place for secular popular democracy.

This leads to a very important question: Did the US interlocutors figure these fundamental ideological differences into their plans as they engaged the Taliban in negotiations? If they did, why does the agreement look like they are conceding to the Taliban’s preferred form of government? If they didn’t, who is to blame for this sloppiness, and why complain now?

There are reasons, structural and otherwise, that the Taliban simply cannot give up on the cause of sharia. While the transition to a legitimate political process has incentives for any group of insurgents, there also remains a deep predicament. They must carefully estimate their potential for success on the ballot without losing any of their perceived legitimacy.

In the world of Islamism, the Taliban must be wary of losing their “jihadist legitimacy” if they are seen as condoning externally imposed Western democracy or giving up on the cause of sharia. If that happens, that “jihadist legitimacy” may quickly shift away from the Taliban to, for example, Islamic State Khorasan, to which they are bitterly opposed.

IS Khorasan’s failure so far to gain any significant foothold in the region is partly explained by the greater “jihadist legitimacy” the Taliban enjoy. This shift of perceived legitimacy may rupture the rank-and-file structure of the Taliban, and the support system on which the movement thrives may also shift in favor of other jihadist actors.

What happens next?

If the air strikes continue, the intra-Afghan peace process will remain stalled, and the Afghan Taliban and their many affiliates that a recent UN report talks about will be incentivized to find and hit the US or its regional allies. This is a bad omen particularly for Pakistan, which fears the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan (TTP) drawing strength from Afghan Taliban gains, and India, which is actively supporting the Kabul regime.

Pakistan’s perceived status as the Taliban’s patron is a thing of the past. Although the US keeps pointing out the “key role” Pakistan must play, the reality is that the Taliban have changed significantly in the last 20 years – and not in a progressive way. A new generation has come to the fore.

The current Taliban rank and file comprises people who don’t harbor very amenable feelings toward Pakistan. Many of the Taliban’s father-figures in Pakistan such as Maulana Sami ul-Haq and General Hamid Gul (the former spymaster) are also no more.

There is also a lot of bad blood between the Pakistani security apparatus and Taliban sympathizers such as the TTP. The Afghan Taliban do maintain contacts with Pakistani decision-makers, but that falls short of any controlling influence.

Pakistan would ideally want the Taliban to join the “democratic government” in Afghanistan instead of implementing sharia, which might embolden their Pakistani sympathizers to fight for the same.

It also doesn’t suit the current Pakistani strategic course for the Taliban to monopolize power in Afghanistan. Islamabad just wants them to acquire enough power to deny any nationalist claims on the British-made Durand Line that now functions as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. While the Taliban may not really consider the Durand Line an international border, they neither prioritize nationalist sentiments nor do they have belligerent designs against other countries.

Popular perception is that Pakistan seeks to employ the Taliban to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. With the Gilgit-Baltistan region reportedly about to become a new province, Pakistan would grant de facto recognition to India’s changing the status of Kashmir in 2019 contrary to UN resolutions, and that long-standing issue over which India and Pakistan fought four wars will finally cease to exist.

This has happened in the backdrop of the secret ceasefire brokered by the United Arab Emirates between India and Pakistan. Pakistani policymakers seek to bury the past with India, and look at separatism and extremism on their western border as the new enemy. At the same time, the Pakistani military seems determined to see that the Taliban don’t overrun Kabul.

The Kabul regime stands no chance against the Taliban blitz without external support. Any external military support in favor of the Kabul regime either by India, Pakistan, or a new coalition will further fragment and bleed the war-torn country.

If the past is any indication, more war will follow and expand beyond the Afghan border. Such a scenario does not bode well for the region at large even if the US finds itself safer in the short term.

The safer path for the whole region might be for the US to follow through with its flawed agreement instead of fracturing it by continued air strikes. A more sensible way forward would be to work with the regional actors, particularly Russia and China, to capitalize on the Taliban’s need for international legitimacy to rein in their more utopian, wilder instincts.

Bilal Khan

Bilal Khan is pursuing a PhD in political science at the University of North Texas. His research interests include IR theory, hegemony, political violence and conflict in South Asia.