It is not easy to report on current events in our times when most conferences, workshops or seminars on Afghanistan with an interesting audience, including people with inside information, are held under Chatham House Rules. For those unfamiliar with this term: It means that you, as participant of such a meeting, can quote what was said but not by whom(*). AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig gives it a try.
Yesterday I attended a workshop organised by the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP in the original) in Berlin headlined ‘Withdrawal or Commitment? Scenarios for Afghanistan in Transition’. One of the topics discussed – under Chatham House Rules – was whether to talk/negotiate with the Taleban and, if so, with whom; this, in turn, brought up the discussion about how the intensified targeted attacks of US special forces on Taleban leaders have influenced the organisation as such. Most striking for me was how different the conclusions of participants were.
One scholar, with access to special forces assessments, warned to draw too wide ranging conclusions too early but seemed to be rather sure that while a ‘traditional insurgency’ is continuing in the South (only) in the rest of the country there is ‘less coherence’ amongst the Taleban. The movement is disintegrating into ‘criminal gangs’ and generally taking on another shape – the character of which, however, is not clear yet. According to this account, Taleban commanders become younger, being mainly in their twenties now, while the fighters are mostly in their late teens. This is a result of the Taleban being ‘hit hard’ so that, in some areas, the special forces had ‘no targets left’.
Maybe, maybe not. The headline of an article from November last year has stuck in my mind, ‘Most Of The Stupid Taliban Are Dead’, There, US official and officers are quoted saying that while there are ‘some indicators that suggest some Taliban may be experiencing lower morale […], morale problems are actually rare among the […] Taliban […], and they are fighting better than ever – and apparently a lot smarter – despite taking years of heavy losses. […] “Most of the stupid Taliban are dead,” said one senior U.S. counterterror official in Washington, in an exclusive war briefing. “Even in the south, the adversaries are becoming more tactically capable.”’ (Read the full article here).
Another scholar – who had worked as an official of his country before and recently was part of a study tour to Pakistan and Afghanistan about which a report will be released soon – agreed: the Taleban are disintegrating into ‘gangs’, are diverse because they are motivated differently (mainly by local or tribal grievances) but are also getting closer to al-Qaida at the same time. He also sees some Taleban progress in non-Pashtun areas of the North ‘but that will not make them win the war’. In talks with ‘Taleban representatives’ (see below) he detected a willingness on their part to seriously ‘talk about talks’. He added that the Taleban did not want to have the Pakistanis as brokers for such talks.
Most people in the discussion emphasised the diversity of the Taleban, described it as an array of different groups with different agendas. The other side of the coin was not mentioned: that there also is astonishing cohesion amongst the Taleban, in a broad sense. All these groups recognise Mulla Omar and what is called (by us) the Quetta Shura as their leadership. Never any serious group has broken ranks with the Taleban Movement, except for tactical reasons (Jaish-e Muslimin, the abductors of three UN staff members in 2004); the Khuddam ul-Forqan probably came too early and never took off politically.
My impressions on the Taleban movement’s evolution that result from travels to the region (Kabul and the Southeast mainly), a number of meetings with analysts on the ground and reading papers of the most-well informed people about other core regions of the insurgency – like Anand Gopal about the South (read it here) and Giustozzi/Reuter about the North (here and, more in detail, in a forthcoming AAN follow-up report by the two authors soon) – as well as the reports of journalists who travel there and add most valuable detail information, are quite different.
I have already reported (see here, for example) that briefings off the records often were much more sceptical about what the special forces strikes achieve. This was particularly the case in the Southeast – an area in which the first scholar saw the local Taleban (i.e. the Haqqani network) disintegrating.
Here, too, prudence seems to be advisable. As far as I see this, we cannot be sure whether the Haqqani network which undoubtedly had been subject to a series of heavy strikes has really been decimated or just evades the strikes. Really prominent names have not come up yet under the victims, and I am doubtful about how important the alleged killing of a high number of so-called ‘second-level leaders’ – which, as I also learned in Berlin, are equated with ‘facilitators’ by some – really is. My impression from the ground is that they are still easily replaced. And Giustozzi/Reuter point to the very important fact that the Taleban recruitment drive in the North is partly led by the non-Pashtun clergy, and this has not much to do any more with ethnic boundaries standing in the way of insurgent forays.
In the case of the Haqqani network, the second most important network of the Taleban (after the Kandahari Taleban core), I am also doubtful with respect to a ‘disintegration’, i.e. that it becomes more distant from the Taleban mainstream represented by the Quetta Shura. With Haqqani junior (i.e. Serajuddin) taking over from his ailing father Jalaluddin more and more, it seems that its tribal character is diminishing because the younger Haqqani does not command the level of respect as his father, both as a tribal leader and as an Islamic scholar. As a result, it could move closer to the Kandaharis – and also to its Arab allies and supporters. At least publicly, in an interview given to a jihadist website, Serajuddin Haqqani insisted that there was nothing like a ‘Haqqani network’ and that he is a follower of the amir ul-mo’menin.
Different understanding of certain terminology also comes into play here: For example, what does ‘ideological’ Taleban mean? I always had assumed that means people fighting for some Islamist version of a future Afghan state – in contrast to people motivated ‘just’ by local grievances. During the Berlin discussion it occurred to me that some people associate this term with mainly insurgents linked to al-Qaida. For me – and also according to the recent most interesting report of Strick van Linschoten/Kuehn (find ithere) -, these are two ideologies, however: first, some sort of ‘national Islamism’ which predominantly sets a domestic agendas (the Afghan Taleban) and secondly ‘internationalist’ militant Jihadism (al-Qaida) that not only looks at one (their own) country but has worldwide aspirations.
My impression was that the first – national-Islamist – tendency was growing, probably also in connection with the ‘radicalisation’ trend. The younger fighters indeed seem to tend more to fighting ‘the infidel invaders’ and for a ‘really Islamic’ state than local predatory representatives of the Kabul government. They also might be more ‘ideological’ than their leaders in the sense that they have a lot to lose when the leaders go and strike a political deal.
I was also puzzled about the ‘Taleban representatives’ the second scholar was referring to. Since he did not elaborate further I can only speculate: In Kabul, this group only can have talked to former Taleban officials like Mulla Zaif or Mutawakil (some of whom surely sometimes say ‘we’ when talking about the Taleban, and it often it remains unclear whether they refer to the pre- or post-2001period) or with captured Taleban. At one point of the discussion, reference was made to interrogations as a source. In Islamabad, they will not have talked to anyone the ISI did not want them to talk to. It would be naive to assume that the ISI would follow a laissez faire approach in this key issue. Or the group has met Taleban leaders in Pakistani custody – which might be prison, ‘guest houses’, house arrest or people apparently free but on the long leash.
I think the different assessments have to do mainly with two things: the sources available and the involvement of vested interests. On the sources, the main difference seems to be whether you rely on what you can collect inside the wire (briefings, phone taps, interrogation protocols etc) or outside it, talking with people in less oppressive environments. To be very clear: It is extremely difficult to find out how the Taleban really ‘tick’ even outside the wire. There is not much direct access, and no one is immune against pretenders and wannabes. The vested interests lie in those governments and government-related institutions who want to tell a certain story in order to get the political decisions they desire – and not necessarily the whole story.
Therefore, we will stick to raising and discussing assumptions and putting a question mark behind the processed cheese that comes out of some of the public information departments.
(*) This is to allow officials or semi-officials to speak out even when they do not follow their respective institution’s party line (which would be boring in most cases). But it is also a form of what we Germans callHerrschaftswissen, which means both knowledge or information deriving from access to restricted sources. The other side of this coin is that it allows you to project your own power of access and position because you belong to the selected ones ‘who really know’. This game is most popular when Afghanistan is discussed today – simply because the simple truth is considered too hurtful pour le peuple. For them, you get ‘public information’ which is already has been ‘processed’.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020