The enormous transformation of the Afghan Taliban


By Rustom Shah Mohmand

The US- Taliban agreement has at last been signed triggering hope for long-awaited peace in war-torn Afghanistan. By all accounts, the signing is a historic breakthrough– but it is still just a beginning.

The deal stipulates a timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign forces. It also mandates both sides to release prisoners held in their custody. The Kabul government is to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners and the Taliban 1,000 members of security forces in the next two weeks. The Taliban have pledged not to allow Afghan soil to be used by any militant group including Al Qaeda or Daesh. The US has agreed to take off Taliban leaders’ names from the blacklist of the UN and US. The blacklist barred leaders from travel and movement beyond Afghanistan.

Within days, the Taliban and other factions of the country including representatives of the Kabul government will meet to begin an intra-Afghan dialogue that seeks to find solutions to the myriad problems of governance facing the country .

There is an underlying assumption that the ‘reduction in violence’ or partial cease-fire will continue to hold as intra-Afghan talks proceed.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has welcomed the accord, which reflects the current mood in a Kabul government fighting for its legitimacy after a disputed election. But the question is: How much power will Ghani concede to accommodate the Taliban in a new dispensation?

This is by far the most crucial question and the response of the Ghani government will determine the future course of events. The agreement contains a clause that says the Taliban will not allow militant outfits to use Afghan soil- an indication that decisions in all vital sectors will be taken by or in consultation with the Taliban. Is it then a ‘given’ that the Taliban will soon head a new coalition government?

For their part, Taliban leaders seem optimistic about forming a multi-ethnic, broad-based government that includes representatives of their opponents. But bringing that about will require sustained dialogue, flexibility in approach and policy, some pressure, new alignments and new groupings. For that to happen, the Taliban will have to consider converting their movement into a political organization with a manifesto and a leadership hierarchy. The US will have to bring pressure to bear upon the Kabul government to become aligned with the new emerging realities of a Taliban-led government which will not be easy to accomplish. But given the loss of legitimacy as a consequence of a controversial election outcome, the Kabul regime may be pressured into accepting a new political scenario with the Taliban in a dominant position and in a new power-sharing formula.

It must be noted that the Taliban movement has undergone an enormous transformation. In 1996 when they captured Kabul, they were a hardcore ideologically motivated group relying on support for their cadres educated in seminaries. But the long war, their isolation, and adversity have taught them many lessons. Today they talk frankly of allowing women to acquire higher education. They support the right of women to seek jobs in public or private sectors. They admit they will form a broad-based government that will include other factions and groups that were opposed to them. They are no longer talking about setting up an exclusive government. They look forward to developing close relations with all countries including Russia, China, and India. Even as part of the resistance, they cultivated close formal relations with Russia, China, and Iran. That is a huge change and this pragmatism could continue to guide their approach to issues both domestic and external. 

More importantly, they have to grapple with huge challenges facing the country– unemployment, poverty, uncontrolled opium production, the spread of drug addiction. These and other issues can only be addressed when Afghanistan becomes a responsible member of the international community.

For these reasons, the Taliban will not only show flexibility but also make clear their intention to become part of a pluralistic, inclusive dispensation that encourages women to seek an education and seek employment within the framework of the Islamic system they expect to introduce in Afghanistan. They have already very forcefully spoken of a desire to maintain close relations with the US in a number of sectors. That should augur well for their strategic vision in a multi-polar world and with its fast-changing political landscape.

Taliban have been fighting against Daesh ever since the group appeared in Afghanistan more than five years ago. Daesh is now on the retreat, but it continues to pose a threat to the border areas of China, Russia, and Iran. And that explains why these countries have now established formal contacts with the Taliban.

The release of prisoners too will create a conducive environment for peacebuilding. As prisoners long held in custody return to their loved ones, there will be euphoria and a desire to pursue the peace process relentlessly. 

There are many bottlenecks on the road to ending a long conflict. Those who do not expect to gain anything from the agreement or fear to lose their power and influence will try to sabotage the deal, and the Taliban and the Afghan government will have to watch carefully and keep an eye out for such forces or groups.

But when all is said and done, the signing of the deal was a momentous occasion offering a unique opportunity for elusive peace. The Kabul government must think of the country, its future, and its destiny rather than getting bogged down in seeking control, hegemony and power. A new dawn awaits the people of this ancient land.

(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)