Afghanistan's Future Emirate? The Taliban and the Struggle for Afghanistan.

AuthorJones, Seth G.

On September 15, 2020, representatives from the Taliban and Afghan government gathered in Doha, Qatar, to begin face-to-face peace negotiations. Foreign leaders attending in person and by video conference lauded the start of peace talks as a historic moment. (1) But the Taliban's reaction was more subdued. The Taliban's senior negotiator, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, sat hunched in his chair in the grand ballroom, hardly looking at the video screen and refusing to put on a translation headset even though the speeches were in English (a language he does not speak). (2) Perhaps the Taliban had a point. The history of intrastate wars is littered with failed peace attempts. (3) Since World War II, nearly three-quarters of insurgencies have ended because of a military victory by the government or insurgent side on the battlefeld, and only a quarter have ended because of political negotiations or other factors. (4) Afghanistan itself is a graveyard of failed peace talks. (5)

These challenges raise important questions. Among the most important--and the focus of this article--are the following: Who are the Taliban today? What are their main objectives, ideological underpinnings, organizational structure, military strategies and tactics, and relationships with state and non-state actors? Based on answers to these questions, what are the implications for peace negotiations?

An agreement with the Taliban that ends the war and decreases the possibility that Afghanistan will once again become a sanctuary for international terrorism would be a welcome development. It would end several decades of war that has killed over 157,000 people (including 43,000 civilians) in Afghanistan, created massive sufering among its population, and decimated its economy. (6) It would also allow the United States and other countries to withdraw their military forces and reduce their military and other foreign assistance. After all, the United States has deployed combat forces to Afghanistan for nearly two decades (including a peak of over 100,000 U.S. troops), spent over $800 billion in military expenditures and development assistance between 2001 and 2019, and sufered over 2,300 soldiers killed. (7) Around the globe and at home, there are more pressing problems, from countering and recovering from COVID-19 to competing with major powers like China and Russia.

As this article argues, however, a close look at the Taliban today suggests that their leaders remain committed to an extreme religious ideology, an authoritarian political system, and the continuation of relations with militant groups that will not likely be acceptable to the current Afghan government, many Afghans, and many foreign governments. In addition, the United States announced on November 17, 2020, that it would reduce its force posture in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 troops. (8) These realities make a lasting peace agreement with the Afghan government unlikely in the near future. In this author's view, a precipitous U.S. withdrawal without a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government would be highly destabilizing and would ultimately undermine U.S. national security interests.

To examine the Taliban today, the rest of this article is divided into several sections. The first outlines the Taliban's ideology and objectives, including in historical context. The second section examines the Taliban's organizational structure. The third analyzes the Taliban's military strategy and tactics. The fourth section explores the Taliban's relationship with other militant groups, including al-Qa'ida. The ffth assesses the Taliban's links with the governments of other countries, such as Pakistan, Iran, and Russia. Finally, the sixth section outlines implications of this analysis for peace talks and the future of Afghanistan.

Ideology and Objectives

The Taliban's ideology is deeply rooted in Hanaf school of Islamic jurisprudence. (9) While the ideology of the Taliban has been evolving since the movement's establishment in the 1990s, Taliban leaders today generally support the establishment of a government by sharia ('Islamic' law) and the creation of an "Islamic Emirate" in Afghanistan. (10) The Taliban elevate the role of Islamic scholars (ulema) that issue legal rulings (fatwas) on all aspects of daily life. The ulema play a particularly important role in monitoring society's conformity with their view of the prescriptions of Islam and in conservatively interpreting religious doctrine. (11) The Taliban has also been described as a "nationalist" movement in the sense that their leaders advocate for an "Islamic Emirate" in Afghanistan, rather than as part of a broader pan-'Islamic' caliphate. (12) One of the most useful documents to understand Taliban ideology is the Layha, or code of conduct, which has been updated several times. (13) It outlines the rules of behavior for Taliban members based on the movements core 'Islamic' principles.

Armed jihad has been an integral means for the Taliban to establish an "Islamic Emirate," along with education and preaching (or da'wa). (14) For Taliban leaders, armed jihad is obligatory for all Muslims, particularly Afghans, and must be undertaken against all enemies of Islam. Taliban leaders have been particularly adamant about armed jihad to coerce the withdrawal of U.S. and other international forces. (15) For example, Taliban propaganda celebrated the February 2020 deal with the United States as a major victory and urged supporters to continue armed jihad in publications on their website--appropriately called "Voice of Jihad"--even as Taliban leaders discussed the start of peace negotiations. (16) In March 2020, a number of Taliban feld commanders informed civilian populations that following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, they were confdent of the "victory of the Islamic Emirate" and that the "Afghan government would be toppled within three months" through armed jihad. (17)

In addition, the Taliban's ideology includes an important component of Pashtunwali, an evolving system of customary law, culture, and conflict resolution followed by many ethnic Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (18) Pashtun tribal structure has undergone dramatic changes over the past several decades of war, and local versions of Pashtunwali (or nirkh) can difer significantly across areas. (19) Local militia commanders have sometimes usurped the power of tribal leaders. Nevertheless, Taliban commanders have adopted some components of Pashtunwali. The Taliban strictly segregates the sexes, a practice known as purdah, and an Afghan man's honor (or nang) is closely tied to how the women of his family are treated. The Taliban's views are more popular in conservative, rural areas of Afghanistan, including Pashtun areas. (20) As one assessment concluded, the Taliban movement "is characterized by horizontal, network-like structures that reffect its strong roots in the segmented Pashtun tribal society." (21) But the Taliban has expanded its support in areas of the country with fewer Pashtuns, such as the north and west. (22)

During the Taliban's time in power from the mid-1990s to 2001, the movement enforced a stringent interpretation of the Islamic dress code for men and women. (23) The Taliban mandated that all men grow beards and refrain from wearing Western clothes. The Taliban closed cinemas and prohibited music. (24) The Taliban banned almost every conceivable kind of entertainment, such as television, videos, cards, kite-fying, and most sports--except, ironically, public executions in Kabul's main soccer stadium. The Taliban also defaced and destroyed hundreds of cultural artifacts that it called polytheistic, including museums and private art collections. Perhaps the most outrageous was the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues in the Afghan city of Bamiyan. In March 2001, Taliban fighters used dynamite to demolish the statues, which had stood for nearly 2,000 years. The Taliban's first leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, defended such actions by saying they were orchestrated to protect the purity of Islam. (25)

More recently, the Taliban has moderated its views on some issues, such as the education of girls and the use of modern technology and digital platforms. (26) Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in February 2020 that the Taliban would "build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam--from the right to education to the right to work--are protected." (27) But the Taliban has a well-documented record of repression, intolerance, and human rights abuses against women, foreigners, ethnic minorities, and journalists. (28) The Taliban's persecution of women is particularly concerning. Women who are victims of domestic violence have little recourse to justice in Taliban courts, and the Taliban discourages women from working, denies women access to modern healthcare, prohibits women from participating in politics, and supports such punishments against women as stoning and public lashing. (29)

Since 2001, when the United States helped overthrow the Taliban regime, the Taliban's objectives have generally been consistent: to coerce through military force or political negotiations the withdrawal of U.S. and other international forces from Afghanistan, overthrow the government in Kabul, and replace it with an "Islamic Emirate." (30) In a March 2020 speech to Taliban military commanders in Pakistan, senior Taliban figure Mullah Fazl insisted that the movement was committed to establishing an "Islamic Emirate" based on the Taliban's interpretation of sharia. (31) While there are different views of what a future Taliban government might look like, a number of prominent Taliban leaders support the creation of an authoritarian high council of religious scholars and perhaps an unelected emir--somewhat akin to a Sunni version of the Islamic Republic of Iran. (32) Taliban...

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