Taliban’s peace options limited?

By Brian M Downing

Over the past 10 years, the Taliban have recovered from their ouster and established a presence in half of Afghanistan’s districts, where they have become a de facto government in many of them. The Afghan government is frail and unwilling to reform. The United States is war-weary and looking for the way out. Negotiations are in the offing.

One American and two Britons were killed this week by Afghan soldiers in separate incidents, bringing the number of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops killed in 2012 to 16. These 16 service members – 18% of the 84 foreign troops killed so far this year – have been shot and killed by Afghan soldiers and policemen or militants disguised in their uniforms.


Such attacks are a severe test of the relationship between the  foreign troops and the Afghans they are training to take over security of the country after the United States-led coalition withdraws most of its combat forces by the end of 2014. They also serve to speed up the peace process with the Taliban.

At the same time, the recent Koran-burning incident by international forces and the massacre of civilians in Kandahar by a US soldier have raised the ire of Afghans and reduced the US’s bargaining position with the Taliban. The Taliban’s position seems quite strong and many see them eventually reasserting control over the country. They are indeed strong, but they have little chance of conquering the country or imposing a settlement on it. 

The Taliban will eventually resume talks with the US, a former commander said, but it will depend on how Washington repairs trust damaged by a string of incidents, notably the killing of 16 Afghans blamed on a US soldier, Reuters reports.

The Taliban suspended earlier contact, blaming the US for failing to deliver on a promise to transfer five of its leaders held by the US military in Guantanamo Bay.

Stalemate, attrition and the limits of insurgency
It is often noted that the US is mired in a stalemate, but it is seldom noted that the Taliban are as well. Generals since Antiquity have known that stalemates, long sieges and lack of momentum can take larger tolls than battles can. 

In the mid-1990s, Taliban bands swept up from the south and took control of Kabul and a good deal of the country, though by no means all of it. Unlike today, their successes were not based on insurgency. The Taliban cobbled together various madrassa(seminaries) and tribal militias and fought in a more or less conventional manner. Using trucks and captured Soviet armor, they seized strategic crossroads, outmaneuvered their enemy, and pushed them into a northern pocket of resistance, where the Northern Alliance maintained a foothold until the Taliban were ousted by the US-led invasion in 2001. 

The Taliban’s resurgence has been much slower and has been based on insurgency, not conventional warfare, and this presents serious limitations for them. Taliban bands parley with local tribes, identify grievances, then form a shadow government and operate guerrilla bands in the district. 

In 2007 and 2008, the Taliban began to attack in larger formations and tried to hold positions, thereby approximating conventional war, but they took heavy casualties doing so and had to retreat to mountain sanctuaries. 

Since then, the Taliban have relied more on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and assassinations than on ground engagements, idling many fighters. Large-scale attacks occasionally take place, likely to show the capacity to strike unexpectedly, appease firebrand commanders, and maintain morale in guerrilla bands that are otherwise unoccupied.

The Taliban have gained as much control of the country as possible. They have been successful in the Pashtun areas of the south and east, but have made only limited headway in the north among the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Most of those northern peoples despise the Taliban and will not abide their return. 

Furthermore, in the estimation of those who have faced them, whether in the present war or in the Soviet war of the 1980s, the Pashtun mujahideen or Taliban are tenacious and knowledgeable of the terrain, but unskilled in basic ground tactics and infiltration/exfiltration techniques. This is the baleful result of basing warfare on tribal customs, which served them well since the days of Rudyard Kipling and before in the 19th century, but which an adaptive enemy will recognize, exploit, though never honor.

Limited use and almost no progress may be taking a toll on Taliban bands. They are not fanatical warriors eager for heavenly reward. They are mainly practical soldiers, dedicated to ridding their district of corrupt officials and foreign troops. As many districts are now rid of both and as the US withdraws from many others, Taliban fighters may be less motivated to stay on with their bands rather than return home. 

The Taliban faced desertions and flagging morale in the mid-1990s as their siege of Kabul dragged on for months, until al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden convinced some eastern Pashtun bands to reinforce them. The stalemate of the past two years presents them with a similar problem. The tedium of being simply lookouts for IED teams and hefting supplies across long distances, the frustration of sudden and lethal fire from unseen snipers and drones, and the toll from the elements and treacherous paths along mountain crags will weaken resolve and morale. 

Northern peoples, then and now
The opposition of northern peoples form a serious obstacle to a Taliban-dominated country. After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996, the Taliban drove the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias into a northern pocket, but could not vanquish them. It was essentially the same pocket from which the famed Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud had held off the Russian army for many years. 

Following the September 11 attacks in 2001 on the US, the northern militias, with only a modicum of US air support, rolled up Taliban position one after another. The Taliban could not stand up to the Northern Alliance once the latter obtained US support. Since then, the Taliban have lost their mechanized infantry and armor assets and they fight solely as networks of small guerrilla bands and bomb-makers. 

The northern militias have allegedly disbanded – their armor, artillery and troops now parts of the Afghan National Army (ANA). 

Americans think of military service as an institution that integrates disparate people into a national whole; Afghans see it as an institution in which one people tries to dominate others. Historically, that has meant the Pashtuns over the others. Northerners predominate in the rank and file while southerners (Pashtun) the officer corps, especially battalion commands and higher.

Northerners greatly mistrust the Kabul government as another Pashtun-dominated nuisance and one that may be so weak and foolish as to give too much to the Taliban in a settlement. Northern officer networks remain intact while the rank and file resent and mistrust Pashtun officers forced upon them. Northerners are capable of reforming in the non-Pashtun regions and fighting the Taliban once again.

As the Taliban have little popular support there, the war would not be an insurgency. It would be a conventional campaign, as it was in the 1990s – a form of warfare at which Taliban guerrillas do not excel. As noted, the northerners thrashed them in 2001 with US help. Even should the US abandon Afghanistan once more, the northerners can rely on a considerable amount of help from other sources.

Regional powers
The interests of neighboring countries greatly disfavor the Taliban and pose a serious if largely unstated warning to their ambitions. The Taliban have the open support of only Pakistan, which sees them as an ally against India and a partner in Central Asian commerce. Pakistan’s interests are strong; its stability is not.

Saudi Arabia and China may be silent backers as well. The Saudis see them as Wahhabi cousins and staunch enemies of Shi’ism and Iran. China sees Afghanistan as rich in commodities, especially copper, iron, rare earths and hydrocarbons. 

It has many enterprises already in operation and has delivered handsome subsidies to the Kabul government, or at least a minister or two. But China is hedging its bets as some of its assets are in districts with strong insurgent groups which have thus far not interfered with business for one reason or another. Perhaps China has also delivered handsome subsidies to the Pakistani government, or at least an insurgent commander or two.

Northern peoples have much more substantial international support. They have long been backed by Russia, India, Iran and the Muslim republics to the north – all of whom oppose the Taliban and will use their resources to prevent their return, perhaps by reconstituting and rearming the Northern Alliance. 

Russia views the Taliban and other militant groups arrayed in eastern Afghanistan as an Islamist threat to it and client states in Central Asia as well. Islamism is a rising movement in the world and could spread into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where militancy is in ferment. 

Remnants of the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan operate with al-Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan and seek to regain influence up in the “Stans”. Ties between al-Qaeda in the AfPak region and terrorist movements in Chechnya and Dagestan are also worrisome. Better to halt such groups in southern Afghanistan, Moscow reasons. And the northerners will be key partners in that endeavor.

Iran plays both sides in Afghanistan, but long-term interests lie with northerners. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps delivers some supplies to the Taliban and trains some fighters inside Iran, but this is more of a warning to the US: attacking Iran will have consequences in Afghanistan. 

Tehran recalls the Taliban’s inhuman treatment of Shi’ites in central Afghanistan, where thousands of Hazaras were killed in rampages. The Taliban also took over the Iranian consulate in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif (1998) and killed several diplomats and a journalist. 

The Taliban are deemed a volatile intolerant Sunni sect tied albeit indirectly to Iran’s chief rival for mastery in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, which bestows generous sums on the Deobandimadrassas that impart their militant, anti-Shi’ite teachings to students on both sides of the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Iran has cultural ties to the Tajik people, who make up about 25% of the Afghan population. Tajiks fielded one of the more effective fighting forces against the Soviet Union during the 1980s and later against the Taliban, holding out against each foe in their Panjshir Valley redoubt. Paradoxically, perhaps even unknowingly, when the US intervened in 2001, it sided not only with the Tajiks and other northerners, but also with Iran.


The Tajiks also have built one of the more coherent political movements in the fragmented country and Iran supported one of its leaders, Burhanuddin Rabbani, to be the post-Taliban president, but deferred to the US’s choice, Hamid Karzai, who is still president. Rabbani’s assassination in September of last year was but the latest and most prominent in a series of targeted killings of northern leaders, probably performed by the Taliban’s Haqqani network associates and directed by Pakistani intelligence. 

The northerners’ third regional partner is India, one of the larger and most dynamic countries in the world. It has had long and sound relations with both Russia and Iran, but poor relations with Pakistan and China. Though a partner with the Soviet Union  during the latter’s Afghan war, India did not play a combat role. Instead, it engaged in developmental programs, chiefly in the north.

Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, India maintained ties to northerners, supported the Tajik-led government in Kabul, and backed them against the Taliban. 

India’s support for the north is even firmer as it has become increasingly clear that Pakistan supports a passel of anti-Hindu groups with at least loose ties to the Taliban and with base camps just inside Afghanistan. One of them, Lashkar-i-Toiba, executed the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks. India wants to maintain a presence in Afghanistan, where it can position itself to be a trading partner with Central Asia and a nuisance to China.

Even in the unlikely event that the US washes its hands of Afghanistan once more, or is required to leave in accordance with a peace agreement, the northern peoples will have firm allies in Russia, Iran and India who will not accept a second Taliban emirate. They will provide arms and money to northerners almost endlessly and are willing to fight to the last Afghan.

Military and political limitations 

The Taliban military is a coalition of tribal levies and Pakistani volunteers held together by the desire to expel foreign troops and by leader Mullah Omar’s authority. Foreign jihadis from outside AfPak are often thought to be in Taliban bands, but it is more accurate to say they serve in the Pakistani army’s client groups in eastern Afghanistan.

Older Taliban leaders who fought the Russians will recall that once foreign troops left, mujahideen groups suffered large-scale desertions. Most soldiers fought to expel the foreigners, not to advance the agendas of commanders. Further, many commanders fought each other over local resources and personal rivalries. The mujahideen fell apart as a unified force. 

Taliban commanders must worry about these same problems as US and other international forces effectively cede many districts to them. What will come from a complete withdrawal?

Control of the south would, paradoxically, present political and military problems. The assortment of guerrilla bands would have to evolve into an army capable of defending the south against the forces of a reconstituted Northern Alliance or International Security Assistance Force forces that had consolidated in the north. 

The Taliban would have to prepare to defend cities, maintain lines of communication, and master the intricacies of logistics. They would have to become a conventional army, at least of sorts, or risk being swept back across the Durand Line as swiftly as in 2001. 

The Taliban would also have to put aside being a guerrilla force that spirits about and capitalizes on the failings of Karzai and the US. They would have to govern, and owing to their presentation of self as harbinger of fairness and equity, they would have to govern well – something they never did in their six years in power. 

Taliban courts settle local disputes, its cadres form shadow governments, and Mullah Omar has a good deal of authority, but they will face extraordinary difficulties in maintaining support in war-ravaged provinces. 

Fighting foreigners is not good training for building irrigation ditches, treating sick people, increasing harvest yields and convincing young men who have known nothing but war to put aside their AKs and adopt the more mundane callings of agriculture and herding. Taliban officials will look at hundreds of foreign development projects now abandoned and wonder how to get them back in operation.

Need for international assistance 

The Taliban know well that they failed to develop the country during their rule and faced emerging insurgencies, even in the heartland of the south. Many on Mullah Omar’s high council recommended seeking help from the international community, though this meant compromise. Many are likely still there.

Pakistan, as both the US and China are realizing, is not a reliable partner. It is unstable and too poor to provide anything but export routes. China is a viable partner and a non-Western one, but it is a practical power that will prefer a stable business partner, not a zealous band executing a cultural revolution of sorts. 

Squabbles between Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks are of less interest in Beijing than world demand for commodities. Already facing international criticism for ties to unsavory regimes and increasingly concerned with the presence of Uyghur militants with al-Qaeda in eastern Afghanistan, China will press for certain accommodations and guarantees. 

Unless the US quits the region entirely, the Taliban will have to come to terms with it. The US is concerned with the Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda and kindred groups and also with human-rights issues. Absent a settlement, the US could cede the south to the Taliban and consolidate in the north amid more hospitable peoples and deal with the Taliban from there. This could take the form of exchanging reconstruction aid for the Taliban to turn against al-Qaeda and moderating their rule. 

Alternately, the US could support insurgencies among anti-Taliban tribes of which there are many, launch disruptive special forces attacks for which the US is training, and direct drone strikes on any target the Taliban is so unwise to build, from an administrative center to a bridge. Northerners and regional powers will wholeheartedly endorse the latter alternative.

The Taliban’s return, then, to its 1996-2001 position of controlling most of Afghanistan is unlikely if not impossible. The Taliban lack the conventional military structure to retake the north; a reconstituted Northern Alliance, backed by regional powers, would pose a powerful obstacle regardless of the US’s disposition; and the Taliban have deep political limitations and greatly need international help for reconstruction.

Many Taliban principals will have less ambitious objectives than they had in 1996, when they drove headlong against disorganized northerners amid a largely indifferent world community. They may seek a more limited and manageable settlement of several provinces in the south and east, a few portfolios in the Kabul government, and a share of the state revenue drawn from the development of natural resources. Surveys performed by Soviet geologists and more recently by Americans suggest that this revenue will be considerable for many decades.

Things don’t come easy on the Afghan plains and more than one difficulty comes readily to mind – not all of them centered on the Taliban. Though the archives of the Taliban government found after 2001 and interviews with some leaders indicate practical or at least less zealous factions in the Taliban council, their influence in present-day negotiations isn’t clear. Nor is the position of Mullah Omar, the rarely seen leader who settles disputes between factions.

Western human-rights groups, especially those concerned with women, will watch negotiations attentively. They have long voiced concerns with the Taliban’s brutality, detailed them extensively to the media and legislative bodies, and played important roles in blocking a pipeline deal in the 1990s. They will not be amenable to ceding territory to the Taliban without assurances of human-rights monitoring – a rather unlikely condition. US Secretary of State Clinton’s position is uncertain.

Between 2002 and 2010, the Taliban’s military fortunes were impressive and they could well have instilled the conviction that divine favor was manifest, total victory was within reach, and negotiations were simply to facilitate the foreigners’ withdrawal and Kabul’s surrender. Two years of stalemate and attrition may have brought more caution, but the recent massacre and Koran burnings could well have brought unreasoning wrath.

The long war may have replaced the Taliban’s insularity with an international agenda. Archives and intercepts show that many in the Taliban high council sought to rebuild Afghanistan’s economy and advised against more aggressive policies toward the outside world, especially al-Qaeda’s hare-brained schemes. 

International interventions and occupations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, however, may have brought more internationalist factions to the fore, who will counsel for spreading the revolution near and far and never compromising with foreigners and their collaborators in the north.

The US’s drone and kill/capture programs may on balance be unwittingly making a settlement more difficult. Older Taliban commanders tend to be more pragmatic and less zealous than the young ones now coming up the ranks. The latter have no recollection of a peaceful country and place far more trust in war than in parley to achieve ends. Unfortunately, it is the older hands who are being killed and captured and being replaced by the young lions.

Pakistan will have a good deal of say in any settlement. The Pakistani intelligence services (Inter-Services Intelligence) supply the Taliban, provide safe havens for fighters, and protect Taliban principals in safe houses in Quetta and Karachi. Pakistan may use its leverage to press for a settlement ousting its longtime enemy India from Afghanistan, which neither India nor the northerners will likely warm to. 

Pakistan will also seek a generous share of the revenue from Afghan resources in the form of high transit fees to ports on the Arabian Sea. And assurances must be made, if possible, that the victorious Pashtun Taliban will not attempt someday to unify the Pashtun people on both sides of the Durand Line at the expense of Pakistan’s territorial integrity – an obsession in the officer corps since the loss of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the 1971 war.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.) 

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