Views from the Occident has recently published translations of two very interesting statements from the Taliban. When taken in the context of some remarks last fall by Mullah Omar, these statements suggest that maybe the Taliban is coming within the international fold. If this is true, this is good news for us. Not merely because there would be some hope for peace in AF/PAK, but also because it holds out the prospect of actually containing and eventually decisively defeating the Taliban
First, of course, one has to address the question of who “the Taliban” are because it is not at all clear that all “Taliban” are moving in the direction that I think I discern.
- Mullah Mohammad Omar is the head of the Quetta Shura Taliban. This group, which styles itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is the government-in-exile, if you will, of the Taliban regime that the Northern Alliance and the US-led coalition overthrew in 2001.
- Then there is the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistan-based group led until apparently a few days ago by Hakimullah Mehsud.
- Finally, there are the Taliban of south Waziristan, whose Emir is Mullah Nazir Ahmad.
So, what leads me to believe that the Taliban (whichever “Taliban that is) is coming into the international fold? Several data points:
The first item, which Views from the Occident ran on 30 January says that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan had denied that it was negotiating with the United Nations. In my former life as an intelligence analyst, I routinely learned about things for the first time when somebody denied something. Indeed, Reuters has reported these negotiations, or at any rate, a Taliban for a “meeting to talk about talks.”
The second item also courtesy of Views from the Occident says that the “Taliban”—it’s not clear which, but apparently either Mullah Nazir Ahmad’s group or the TPP—has agreed a ceasefire with the Pakistani Government.
Third, what happened last fall? Last fall as reported by Jihadica, Mullah Omar said in an Eid al-Fitr message that his organization was a “robust Islamic and nationalist movement,” which “wants to maintain good and positive relations with all neighbors based on mutual respect.” He went on to “assure all countries that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan … will not extend its hand to jeopardize others, as it itself does not allow others to jeopardize us.” (See also here, also a link to Jihadica.)
It’s also worth remembering that when Mullah Omar’s Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, it had diplomatic relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan and did engage in talks with the United Nations and the United States. (There is a lot of material on the Taliban-State Department talks to be found at the National Security Archive.) In 1998, Mullah Omar himself even called the head of the Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh office in the State Department.
Certainly, the degree to which the Taliban has bought into Al Qaida’s global jihadist agenda has varied over time. But, it looks like Mullah Omar’s Taliban may be willing to be a bad neighbor but live in the neighborhood. If there is a quality of “Taliban-ness,” it may even be that one or more of the Pakistani Taliban’s might be willing to follow suit. This is quite different from al Qaida which would prefer to burn the neighborhood down via what I call an “all jihad all the time” approach.
If this is true, then the Taliban is choosing to play our game and we are the best in the world at it. (By “we” I mean the United States and its friends and allies.) We’ve dealt successfully with bad actors like this before. Among the state actors I refer to are the Soviet Union, Libya, and Serbia. We have yet to achieve our goals vis-à-vis other state actors, it is true, but would you bet on North Korea, Cuba or Venezuela to defeat us? On the non-state actor side, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood come to mind as groups that I wouldn’t bet on, at least as far as their competition with the United States are concerned. Similarly, think about the silent evidence, about all the states and groups who don’t even mess with us and our friends and allies because they know it is a losing proposition.
I can only add that negotiations with “infidels” and “apostates” come at a great cost to jihadist groups, or at least so they say. Ayman al-Zawahiri talked about this in his book Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner. Negotiations not only sap momentum but they sap the fighting spirit out of a movement. Zawahiri talks about being concerned that his son might look up to his father and see a weak politician instead of a strong warrior mujahid. This is precisely the risk that the Taliban are running. Let’s help them.