Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Understanding Hurdles to Afghan Peace Talks: Are the Taleban a political party?

Khalilullah Safi Thomas Ruttig 22 min

Following his February 2018 offer of peace talks to the Taleban, President Ashraf Ghani proposed that they run as a political party in the upcoming elections. In 2011, his predecessor, Hamed Karzai, had offered something different, that the government would support the Taleban’s recognition by the United Nations Security Council as a “party to the conflict.” The Taleban understood this would give them a place at peace talks. The proposal never came to fruition because of the assassination of High Peace Council chairman Ustad Borhanuddin Rabbani and the death of Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. However, AAN guest author Khalilullah Safi* and AAN’s Thomas Ruttig argue that, for the Taleban, the difference between being seen as a political party or a party to the conflict is crucial – and therefore also crucial for any attempt to find peace through negotiations.

Chai ne-khorda, solh ne-mesha. Photo: Thomas RuttigChai ne-khorda, solh ne-mesha. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

One of the authors, Khalilullah Safi, has worked on the peace process for the United Nations and various NGOs and helped to organise and participated in most of the meetings described in the text. This and follow-up conversations with current and former Taleban officials participating in those meetings have informed this text.

Recognition of the Taleban as a party to the conflict – an idea from 2011

It was during the heyday of US-Taleban talks in 2011 that the offer to recognise the Taleban as a party to the Afghan conflict was first made. Both sides had been in touch since around 2009 (read more here)  and were talking about confidence-building measures. This included exchanging prisoners and opening a Taleban liaison office outside Afghanistan to facilitate further negotiations. Both eventually happened. In 2014, five senior Taleban who had been detained at Guantanamo were exchanged for captured US soldier Bowe Bergdahl (AAN reporting here). They were transferred to Qatar where, in June 2013, a Taleban office had been opened. Although it was swiftly closed, it is here that the movement’s Political Commission still sits (AAN analysis here).

The US-Taleban talks had also made informal contacts between the government in Kabul and the Taleban easier, and it was the Afghan government which took up a Taleban demand for recognition. On 23 July 2011, two high-level officials representing the Afghan government – then still under President Hamed Karzai – and the High Peace Council met with an authorised representative of the Taleban, an advisor to their leadership, in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Both sides came to a verbal agreement that the Afghan government would send an official letter to the United Nations Security Council requesting that the Afghan Taleban would be recognised as an “independent political party to the Afghan conflict” – in the Pashto original: “de Afghanistan pe qaziye ki yau mustaqel siasi jehat.

While the English translation might be confusing, the Pashto original is very clear: the word used – jehat (جهت) – means a party or ‘side’ in a war or also in a sports match. A different term would have been used for a political party – siasi gund (سیاسي ګوند; see, for example, Article 35 of the Afghan constitution). Several things were understood by the use of the phrase “independent political party to the Afghan conflict.” Firstly, the Taleban would meet on equal terms with what they see as their main adversary in the conflict, ie they would be talking to the United States, and in a later stage with the Afghan government. Secondly, the Taleban were not giving even indirect consent to joining the existing political party system. However, their demand did acknowledge that they were interested in a political solution to the conflict; by this phrase, their adversaries should recognise that the Taleban movement was a player in the conflict and wanted a political solution to it.  The use of the word ‘independent’ possibly hints at and rejects the regular allegation that the Taleban are nothing more than puppets of Pakistan.

The agreement was for the letter to be written in the name of the High Peace Council. The next step would then have been the Taleban starting official negotiations with the Afghan government. The agenda of the talks was to include certain Taleban demands, such as a phased withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan – and a timeline for this – and the revision of the constitution (the current one, they said, was ‘insufficiently Islamic’). (1) In the July 2011 meeting, the Taleban also demanded that the government agree to their opening a political office for negotiations, the deletion of Taleban from the UN sanctions list, the release of all Taleban prisoners in Afghan and US custody and changes to the national security and judicial institutions, including the Attorney General’s Office. In this meeting and in subsequent discussions, the Taleban also brought up the idea of creating an interim government (hukumat-e mu’aqat).

The Taleban also mentioned in the 23 July 2011 meeting that a discussion about the future structure of the government and their possible participation in it would be necessary. However, they did not elaborate further on this.

The talks between Taleban and Kabul continued via a messenger into September 2011, with both sides agreeing to hold another face-to-face meeting in Dubai on 28 September 2011. It was also decided that the agenda for this meeting would include scheduling future negotiations, setting an agenda and looking into the question of whether an international mediator should be proposed.

The 28 September 2011 meeting was to have been between then chairman of the High Peace Council, former president Borhanuddin Rabbani, and a well-known senior Taleban member who had been a top diplomat during the Taleban regime and went on to become a member of their Political Commission. On 20 September 2011, however, Rabbani was assassinated at his home in Kabul by a suicide bomber masquerading as an envoy from the Taleban leadership (see part one of five AAN analyses on this murky case). The Taleban did not take responsibility for or deny the attack, choosing to remain silent about it (AAN analysis here). However, the movement was widely blamed, including by the Afghan intelligence service (AAN analysis here). Talks between the government and the Taleban faltered.

The deputy and de facto leader of the Taleban at that time, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, according to one of the authors’ interlocutors, hoped to continue the unofficial dialogue in spite of the killing of Rabbani. At the same time, Mansur was investigating whether anyone had leaked information about the talks to spoilers who might have carried out the assassination in order to sabotage them. However, all channels to the government remained closed for eight months.

Contacts resumed in the middle of 2012 through messengers. At that time, the Afghan government was ready again to engage with the Taleban. It had found a replacement for Professor Rabbani as the head of the High Peace Council in the person of his son, Salahuddin Rabbani. He was appointed in April 2012. Then education minister Faruq Wardak also assumed a leading role in the process. In these exchanges, both sides agreed, among other points (2) and again verbally, that the UN Security Council should be asked to recognise the Taleban as an ‘independent political party to the conflict’.

On 17 December 2012, a Taleban delegation took up the same proposal during a meeting with an international third-party mediator (3) who was trying to work out a road map towards peace through talks between the Taleban, the Afghan government and the United States. The meeting took place in Dubai again, with a three-member Taleban delegation led by former Taleban health minister Mullah Abbas Akhund (who would also lead the Taleban delegation to the Murree talks in 2015, read AAN analysis here). Abbas had been involved in the Taleban’s Political Commission since 2010 again. He was authorised by the Taleban’s de facto leader Akhtar Mansur as his khas astazai (special representative). However, Mansur had not revealed the character of this meeting to the Taleban’s Political Commission as a body, nor to its then director, Sayed Tayeb Agha who had been appointed by Mullah Omar as his special representative and the Taleban’s chief negotiator (AAN portrait here).

Then, within five weeks, developments of fundamental importance took place on the Taleban side. On 22 January 2013, their leader and amir al-momenin (commander of the faithful), Mullah Muhammad Omar, died. Only close relatives and the team handling Omar’s security, who reported to Mansur, knew about it. Mansur had to use all his skills to hide the fact of Omar’s death from other leaders – and particularly from Tayeb Agha. He managed to do this for two years. (4)

This event somewhat delayed further talks, but a second meeting did take place in May 2013 in Doha. The Taleban delegation again confirmed their willingness to have an international mediator appointed and their intention to request through him [sic] that the movement be recognised as a ‘political party to the conflict’. Over the following years, the Taleban brought up this demand repeatedly in meetings with international contacts in meetings described below, but it was never acted on.

There were several factors that came in the way of this. The Taleban office in Doha was opened in June 2013, but quickly closed again; President Karzai had been furious that the group had been allowed to display the trappings of a state, including raising their flag. Although the ‘Doha office’ continued to function as a point of contact, including for Afghan government representatives (read AAN analysis here and here), bilateral relations cooled. Then, after the 2014 presidential election when Ashraf Ghani took power in a National Unity Government, he decided to focus on multi-party formats, reaching out to Pakistan which he saw as the Taleban’s main backer to try to end the war. The Pakistan track failed to make any progress as did various other faltering multi-party formats. (5)

In all of this, the Karzai government’s offer to recognise the Taleban as a party to the conflict was not repeated. In late February 2018, President Ghani offered the Taleban “unconditional” peace talks (AAN analysis here) and followed this up in mid-April by urging them “to act as a political party and participate in the elections” (parliamentary and district elections are scheduled for October 2018). The wording of the second of these two proposals indicates that it was not informed by the preceding discussions over this topic.

Are the Taleban a political party, or do they want to become one?

Whether or not it would be good for the Taleban to function as a political party, now or in future, there is the question of whether they are or could be one. In their own eyes, they do not consider themselves a political party. Originally, before they took power in Kabul in 1996, the Taleban called themselves a movement, De Talebano Islami Ghurdzang, sometimes also De Talebano Islami Tahrik (both mean Islamic Movement of the Taleban). They set themselves up in opposition to the various mujahedin tanzims, the term Afghans use for organisations such as Hezb-e Islami, Jamiat-e Islami and Hezb-e Wahdat and which signifies their dual military and political character. The Taleban said they were fighting to end the tanzims ’factional wars which had broken out after their takeover following the collapse of the Soviet-installed Najibullah government in 1992. (6) The Taleban also insisted they were not fighting for political power; at this time, they said they did not even aspire to ruling the country beyond a transitional phase. This changed in 1996.

After they captured the capital, Kabul, the Taleban started calling themselves the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (dropping the term ‘movement’) and established a government, beginning to use terms such as ‘minister’ for their highest government officials. This was even though most ministers also remained active battlefield commanders. The real abode of power remained in the Leadership Council under amir ul-momenin Mullah Omar who stayed in Kandahar.

In power, they did not allow any political party or group to be openly active. Even former mujahedin factions that had endorsed the Taleban and urged its members to join them, such as Harakat-e Enqelabi-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan (more AAN background here) and Hezb-e Islami (Khales), were not allowed to maintain separate political structures. (7) One could describe Taleban rule as a ‘one-party state’ – but without an organised ruling political party.

After 2001 when the Taleban re-emerged as an insurgent group, they formed shadow government structures, in the form of commissions, which resemble ministries, and provincial and district structures, with district and provincial governors, health, education and other commission representatives. Militarily, the Taleban mainly organise around ‘fronts’ (mahaz), ie commander-driven groups of armed men, with provincial military commanders and a military commission (more about this here).

Whether in power or out, the Taleban have never behaved like a political party. They have never had a structure or modus operandi that resembled one. They are primarily a military organisation and have always, even when in government, prioritised the military struggle over governing or using political means for (re-) gaining power. There is no grass-root membership except in the form of the local military fronts, no political mobilisation, no party congresses and no clearly spelling out of any political programme beyond the Taleban leaders’ regular Eid messages (see for example the earliest detailed Eid message from 2011 and the most recent one, published in June 2018).

The Taleban have also never had an organised political wing, in the way other armed groups have done. In Northern Ireland, for example, Sinn Féin operated as the ‘political face’ of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and ran in elections on both sides of the British-Irish border, while the IRA conducted its ‘armed struggle’ against British rule in the north. Sinn Féin was also one of signatories to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles. The same pattern can be seen in the Philippines where the Communist Party (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, have repeatedly conducted negotiations with the government via its political arm, the National Democratic Front, a CPP-dominated umbrella group. Yet, this is not the model chosen by the Taleban.

The Taleban even share the widespread antipathy among ‘traditionalist’ Islamic groups – as which the authors of a 2017 AAN report about the evolution of the Taleban’s ideology characterise them in their initial phase – against political parties as such, as they see them splitting the umma, the community of believers. This is not withstanding the fact that some ‘modernist’ Islamists, for example in Egypt, Algeria or Palestine, have set up in parties and contested in elections. Indeed, it was telling that the mentioned AAN report did not find it necessary even to discuss whether the Taleban could be considered a party or not.

All in all, the Taleban have shown less ‘political’ activity even then the tanzims showed during their years of armed struggle when, for example, the latter had ‘party’ offices inside and outside the country and were engaged in coalition-building. (Since the fall of the Taleban regime, they have all registered as political parties and contest elections, although they also maintain the ability to mobilise armed groups at any time.)

The Taleban have shown no desire to organise or participate in elections. Even if they did, it would be questionable how successfully they would compete. Although they currently control or influence up to 70 per cent of the country’s districts, according to a January 2018 BBC study, and up to a third of the country’s population, according to the latest SIGAR quarterly report, they could not claim that this translates one-to-one into political support. They could not assume the entire population in those areas would vote for the Taleban if there were free elections and the movement was ready to participate. While the Taleban likely have some genuine political support, there is also a strong element of coercion in their current control.

It is only individually that a handful of former Taleban officials have run in elections and this was generally earlier on and few won seats. Before the 2005 parliamentary elections, so-called reconciled Taleban were encouraged by the Afghan government and its international allies to run as candidates and also to start a ‘moderate Taleban party’. Former Taleban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakel and Deputy Interior Minister Mullah Abdul Samad Khaksar, for example, both ran as candidates in Kandahar as independents, unsuccessfully so. (8) They refused the party idea. (Khaksar was assassinated in 2006.) In contrast, Mullah Abdul Salam, known as ‘Raketi’ (the Rocketeer), and Mawlawi Muhammad Islam Muhammadi won seats in Zabul and Samangan, respectively; but both were not as close to the Taleban leadership as Mutawakel and Khaksar and Salam was originally Jamiat-e Islami and had retained good links with Jamiat, one of the winning factions in 2001.

Currently, there are Taleban dissidents who continue to view the Taleban as a ‘movement’ (tahrik), and not a state (although they still use the Emarat title) or a government-in-waiting. The dissidents suggest the Taleban should adopt their position in order to secure a role in future Afghanistan. Abdul Wase Mutasem Agha Jan, for example, head of the Taleban’s Political Commission from 2005 to 2007 but a dissident since then and disowned by the Taleban, repeated this view in a Skype discussion with the author on 4 March 2018. In his view, the Emirate failed and was finished in 2001. He thinks the best path for the Taleban now would be to accept a role as a ‘political party’ and join a broad-based Islamic government. (9)

What future political system?

All this, however, does not mean that the ‘mainstream’ Taleban do not have a political project. Gopal and Strick van Linschoten argued in their above-mentioned AAN paper that the Taleban have in fact become more ‘political’ since 2001:

While the movement once typified a ‘traditionalist’ Islam – that is, it sought to articulate and defend a particular conception of Islam found in the southern Pashtun village – it is now, during its insurgency phase, closer to the form of political Islam espoused in the Arab world.

In the absence still of any political programme in writing, the Taleban have laid out somewhat more detailed positions on their preferred future political system in their Eid messages.

From the start of their movement in 1994, the Taleban only stated their political objective for Afghanistan in very general terms: ending the factional wars; the implementation of a ‘true Islamic system’ (waqe’i Islami nezam) based on sharia and; later, after the US-led intervention of 2001 and the downfall of their regime, the ‘re-establishment’ of the country’s ‘independence’ through the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Only after this last prerequisite is fulfilled, they insist, will they be ready to hold talks with the Afghan government and all other ‘influential’ Afghan parties on domestic issues.

Over some years now, the Taleban have also developed the idea of a “prakh-benseta Islami hukumat” (broad-based Islamic government). This was stated, for example, in their already quoted 2011 Eid message. Also, at a conference organised by a French think tank in Chantilly, near Paris, in December 2012, Taleban representatives Mawlawi Shahabuddin Delawar (ambassador in Islamabad and Riyadh during the Taleban regime) and Muhammad Naim Wardak, both members of the Political Commission, read a statement (English translation and AAN analysis here; Pashto original here) that explained for the first time that by ‘broad-based Islamic’ they mean that all “ethnic groups” and “political parties” should have a representation in future political institutions. When asked by international and Afghan interlocutors in this and subsequent meetings held with Taleban how this could be achieved, they gave the following options, all of which would be able to protect and guarantee the “political and civil rights of all Afghans.”

The first option would be an Islamic style body called a shura-yeahl al-hal wa’l-aqd. It can be composed of representatives suggested by various political parties as it was the case in 1992 when various mujahedin tanzims extended the term of then interim president Borhanuddin (see here). The Taleban also used this phrase for the body that chose their current leader in 2016 – this was not a multi-party body (read AAN analysis here) (10) The second option would be a Loya Jirga, a body traditionally convened when decisions about the country’s fate are at stake – see for example the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga (AAN analysis here) and 2003/04 Constitutional Loya Jirga (AAN analysis here) – and widely accepted by Afghans as a decision-making body. (11) Finally, there could be a melli shura (national shura). Interestingly, this Pashto term (shura-ye melli in Dari) is also the official name of the current Afghan parliament (which consists of two chambers, the Wolesi Jirga with its elected MPs and the Meshrano Jirga with its appointed senators and members elected from the provincial and – theoretically only so far – district councils).

However, at a meeting in Doha in 2014 at which one of the authors was present, Taleban representatives from the Doha office said the current parliament was unacceptable for them due to what they said was the dominance of warlords and criminals among its members. They said the prevalence of organised crime and armed political factions over the formal state institutions created in Afghanistan after 2001 delegitimised all the current claims of the Afghan government to guarantee the civil rights of its citizens. Saying this, they mighthave indirectly indicated that they did not reject the parliament as an institution in principle. However, they were not necessarily saying they saw themselves becoming members of a reformed parliament. Asked for elaboration, they were evasive.

In general, the Taleban have claimed in recent conversations with one of the authors during research for this article that they want “reforms” (eslah) of the current governmental institutions which they consider to be “insufficiently Islamic.” This includes revising the constitution. According to Taleban thinking, the drafting would be done exclusively by Afghan religious scholars, jurists and law specialists – (ulama, fuqaha au qanun-pohan) – and without international expertise and excluding anyone they feel is “under foreign influence” – as Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai, then head of the Political Commission and member of the Taleban Leadership Council, put it in a meeting in January 2016 in Doha that had been organised by Pugwash, an international non-governmental organisation involved in mediation between the Taleban and Afghan actors since 2012 (AAN reporting here). (12)

Taleban representatives have also indicated in various meetings that they largely want changes in the personnel of the security and judicial institutions, but do not want to abolish them – to prevent, they argue, a repetition of events “after the fall of Dr Najib’s regime” when the government’s security forces disintegrated and members joined the various competing mujahedin factions. None of our interlocutors among the Taleban have had convincing ideas on what should happen to the current leadership personnel – including ‘the warlords and criminals’ in the words of the Taleban – currently occupying state institutions.

The Taleban’s stated preferred ideas of political pluralism, inclusivity and decision-making is based on the shura principle which, in practice, amounts to a top-down selection of representatives of certain parties for decision-making political institutions by their respective leaderships. (The existing Afghan tanzims function the same way; democratic participation of their often large memberships does not occur in practice very often (see AAN’s recent political parties paper). This has been reiterated again in an article by the spokesman of their political office in Doha, Suhail Shaheen, for a 2018 international publication (here, p72).

The Taleban statements on wanting a broad-based Islamic government and not wanting to enjoy a monopoly of power themselves (more on which below) do not mean, though, that they have given up the idea of re-establishing an Emirate. Theo Farrell and Michael Semple, in a 2015 paper, describe the Emirate as still the “central Taliban political concept.” Taleban statements, however, show that they do recognise the balance of power on the ground in Afghanistan and the need for some political pragmatism and adaptability. Or at least, they want to pretend that they do.

No claim to a monopoly of power?

As a sign that they recognise they are not the only force in Afghanistan, the Taleban have repeatedly said they do not aim to re-establish a monopoly of power such as they enjoyed in areas of the country under their control during the 1996-2001 Emirate. In the 2011 Eid message, for example, they stated that their ‘Emirate’ “does not have a monopoly-seeking policy.” At the Chantilly conference in December 2012, the Taleban representatives presented the official Taleban position:

In the future Islamic government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the balance of power or participation in government of by all Afghan parties [they use the Pashto word arkh (اړخ) here, a synonym for jehat, in clear distinction from gund, for ‘political party’] must be [stipulated] in the constitution. […] With the blessing of [the future] constitution, [the] way shall be paved for political power balance and all Afghan parties to participate in the upcoming government.

In Chantilly, the Taleban also reiterated that they would “respect political rivals.” However, they also rejected Kabul’s demand to “join the government” based on the 2004 constitution, saying this would amount to “surrender.” At two later conferences, organised by Pugwash in Doha in May 2015 and January 2016 (see here), Taleban representatives led by Abbas Stanakzai repeated this same position.

Since then, Taleban representatives have repeatedly spoken, in the presence of international, including American, and Afghan interlocutors, and on various occasions, about wanting a “broad-based Islamic government.”

Furthermore, starting from the Chantilly meeting, the Taleban have frequently sought direct interactions with representatives of other Afghan political forces. For example, Political Commission members held side meetings after the May 2015 Pugwash conference in Doha with Mawlawi Atta al-Rahman Salim from Jamiat-e Islami, who is currently serving as one of the deputies in the High Peace Council, Engineer Qutbuddin Helal a senior member of Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan, Assadullah Saadati, MP and representative of Hezb-e-Wahdat (Khalili), Dr Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, former leader of the Afghan Mellat party and now with the New National Front, Haji Rohullah Wakil, leader of the Afghan Salafis, and Sayed Eshaq Gailani leader of the National Solidarity Movement of Afghanistan. They reported that the Taleban had assured them they do not aspire to a monopoly of power, but do want to revise the constitution and establish a “broad based Islamic system.” (13) They said the Taleban even used the word ‘elected’ in connection to this system – seemingly, however, not referring to ‘one person, one vote’ democracy, but to the Islamic shura mechanisms outlined above.

Participation in elections?

This brings us on to what the Taleban say about elections. During a 2016 meeting organised by Pugwash, the Taleban were asked whether power-sharing with other Afghan political parties would mean they would participate in elections. They were evasive in their answer. Delawar cited verse 38 from Sura 42 of the Holy Quran, al-Shura, which is typically referred as their source by proponents of the Islamic shura system: “[God will reward] those who answer the call of their Lord and establish worship, and whose rule [could also be affairs or command] is a matter of counsel among themselves, and who spend of what We have bestowed on them…” Delawar explained that the Taleban “accept elected shuras (muntakhab shuragane) at the national, provincial, district and village level.” It appears that the Taleban see the role of other political forces in their future proposed system as participating in such councils. This idea is, of course, not identical with the current (at least in theory) “one person, one vote” principle.

When Taleban interlocutors were asked for clarification about how elections could be conducted, their answer would be a standard statement that it was “the right of the Afghan nation to choose their political system and the leadership of the country.” This was reiterated to one of the authors again by Abbas Stanekzai when contacted in early 2018.

Women’s political rights

Another political issue about which many would like more detail is what the Taleban’s policy on women is, including education, work and participation in public life. At the 2014 Doha meeting, Taleban representatives said they saw civil rights as including all human rights not in conflict with Islam and that they extended to both men and women. In several meetings with both Afghans and foreigners, members of the Taleban Political Commission admitted they had not observed human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech or freedom of the media when they ruled the country. They pledged not to repeat these mistakes. They said Afghan women would be able to fully participate in public and political life, becoming ministers, governors, members of shuras or active in trade.

However, they also reiterated their standard qualifier of the need for observing Islamic moral codes for women in accordance to the provisions of the Hanafi interpretation of sharia, eg compulsory veiling of the body except the hands, feet and face, but that in practice they would leave this issue be determined by ‘the traditions’ and ‘the woman’s choice’ (which might contradict each other). On political rights, sharia limitations, they said, would include women not being able to stand as the national leader (president), act as prayer leaders in mosques or adjudicate cases reserved for hududpunishments (prescribed penalties) in sharia courts.

Conclusion: Taleban as Party to the conflict’ or ‘political party’?

The Taleban’s organisational structure is military with some quasi-governmental aspects. It is not that of a political party. This does not mean that they have no political project. Nor does it mean that they would be unable to turn into a party. However, they have been unwilling to do so up till now, first, because they have always prioritised the armed struggle and secondly because their ideas about how the Afghan state and political system should be organised is not based on the ideas of a political parties-based, parliamentarian, one-man/one-woman-one vote system.

From the point of view of the government and for large parts of the political class and population, Ghani’s offer to the Taleban to function as a political party makes perfect sense. To them, the Taleban are one armed faction among many: why not pursue their aims through politics like everyone else does? However, for the Taleban, Ghani’s proposal amounted to asking them to act within the existing legal framework and to become part of the political system they are fighting against and which they have said they want, at least, to substantially ‘reform’. The option of joining the half dozen other tanzims– whom they view as part of the enemy, the opposing ‘party in the conflict’ – does not appeal to them.

Practically, the Taleban must also be surely aware of the fact that political parties formally play only a marginal role in Afghanistan’s political system. Merely participating in elections as a political party would not satisfy their ambition to rule – as shown by their sticking to the Emirate title and related government-in-waiting status. Seats in parliament alone would not guarantee them much influence, as it is often sidelined and circumvented in decision-making. Moreover, no political party-based factions or groups are allowed to operate inside the house. Turning themselves into a political party would make them one among more than 70 others (see recent AAN report about Afghanistan’s political party landscape here), a status they definitely do not see for themselves. Participating in parliamentary elections, for both ideological and practical reasons (ie as a possible route to power) has no appeal to the Taleban. (14)

In the light of all this, including in the light of the Karzai government’s earlier readiness to support a UN recognition of the Taleban as a ‘political party to the conflict’, President Ghani’s latest offer looked like backtracking. The Taleban expected the Kabul government to use the same framework as the Karzai administration did.

For all these reasons, it is impossible to imagine the Taleban taking up Ghani’s offer to function as a political party and participate in the elections in the current political system. They want to be recognised as a ‘party to the conflict’, on a par with the US and – without saying so, as officially the Kabul government is for them just a ‘puppet’ of the Americans – the Afghan government. This role, they believe, gives them the option of playing their military hand, including their still expanding control of territory and population (AAN analysis here), in a future political deal that necessarily would include a sharing of power.

Edited by Kate Clark


(*) Khalilullah Safi, from Kama district of Nangarhar, has degrees in agriculture from Kabul University and International Relations from Peshawar University. Since 2003, he has worked as a peace activist in Afghanistan, including as director of the Afghanistan National Youth Organization (2003-04), Peace and National Unity Organization (2007-10) and Peace Research Society (since September 2014). During this period, he was also a consultant on the peace process with the Office of the European Union Special Representative for Afghanistan (2005-06), Public Liaison Officer with the High Peace Council (2011), Political Outreach Officer with UNAMA (2011-14), advisor to the UN Special Representative to the Secretary-General (SRSG) on the peace process (2014-15) and Country Director for Pugwash (January 2016-January 2017). 

(1) For Taleban attitudes, particularly at the lower commander and foot soldier level, on this, also see former AAN colleague Borhan Osman’s 2018 paper for USIP.

(2) The other important point that both sides agreed was that international mediation was required, preferably through the United Nations. They agreed on a shortlist of two former UN envoys as the best candidates. (This role never materialised, though.) The Taleban continued their contacts with the Americans in a separate track through a third country’s mediation, Norway.

(3) In this case, the third-party was Norway again, as became known from chapter 9 of the so-called Godal report, published in Norwegian in 2016 (here) and in English in 2017 (here). Read an AAN analysis of the report here.

(4) A source close to his son, Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqub, told one of the authors that Mullah Omar died in Afghanistan.On 25 January 2013, Akhtar Mansur informed some members of the supreme council of the Taleban about the death of the amir al-momenin and stated that it was the fourth day after his passing. On that day, the participants of the meeting agreed among themselves that the death of Mullah Omar would be kept secret. They deemed this necessary for the unity of the Taleban movement and the morale of Taleban fighters. In consequence, the members of the Taleban Political Commission (which had meanwhile relocated to Doha in Qatar where their office was opened on 13 June 2013 – read AAN analysis here), were kept in the dark about that fact. Tayeb Agha would step down from this position after the death of Mullah Omar became known in 2015, because Mansur had kept it secret from him.

(5) These initiatives included the Murree talks hosted by Pakistan in July 2015, that included Taleban representatives (AAN analysis here), and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China that tried to rekindle direct Kabul-Taleban contacts, which met without Taleban representation (AAN analysis here).

(6) See also Taleban expert Felix Kuehn, in a recent publication exploring ways to “Incremental Peace in Afghanistan” (also the publication’ title, see here, p37):

In contrast to how they were perceived externally as well as by some other Afghan factions, the Taliban did not consider themselves to be party to the civil war of the early 1990s.

Kuehn is co-author, together with Alex Strick van Linschoten, of the acclaimed book, An enemy we created: The myth of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda merger, 1970–2010 (Hurst, 2012).

The publication cited was reviewed by Kate Clark for AAN, here.

(7) Khuddam ul-Furqan – a pre-1978 Islamist group – was able to maintain its own network during the years of the Taleban regime (more about the group in this AAN paper).

(8) Mutawakel received 0.9 per cent and Khaksar 0.1 per cent of the votes in their province.

(9) Others are ready for the Taleban to be recognised as a political party. A source close to Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, the deputy leader of the Taleban splinter group, the so-called ‘High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate’, also known as the ‘Mullah Rasul group’ (background in this AAN analysis), told the author on 4 March 2018 that they would like to be recognised as a political party. The group had started with big ambitions, reflected in its name – namely presenting themselves as the ‘real Taleban’ – but it lost much of its initial strength and does not represent a significant current in the wider Taleban movement anymore.

(10) Shura-ye ahl al-hal wa’l-aqd means, ‘council of those who solve problems and make contracts’. According to some Islamic political theorists in medieval times, such a council would be composed of religious scholars and other influential, pious members of the community who were qualified to choose the best person as leader.

(11) There are, however, different ways to convene a Loya Jirga, and therefore there sometimes is controversy about this, the delegates competencies and the validity of their decisions – whether they are binding or advise only to the convener (see AAN analysis here and here). The 2002 and 2003/04 ones have been convened by the chairman of the subsequent interim and transitional authorities (both times Karzai) on the basis of the 2001 Bonn agreement. The institution of the Loya Jirga has also been enshrined in Afghan constitutions since 1923, including in the current one.

(12) Officially called the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, it is an academic network that is engaged in what it calls “dialogue across divides,” worldwide.It won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

(13) A five-member Taleban delegation consisting of Mawlawi Shahabuddin Delawar, Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi, Mawlawi Nek Muhammad, Shaikh Sayed Rasul Halim and Muhammad Sohail Shahin, also met a group of individual, non-party Afghan politicians in Dubai at least twice between July 2015 and January 2016 in meetings organised by the Peace Research Society, a Kabul-based civil society organisation, and the Pugwash Conference. The politicians’ group included Nangarhar MP Mirwais Yasini, former minister of mines and industries Wahidullah Shahrani and President Ghani’s uncle Dr Abdul Qayyum Kuchai. There were also meetings with Muhammad Omar Daudzai, a former interior minister. The Taleban have been in regular contact with these politicians since that time. (Daudzai confirmed to one of the authors in January 2018 that he also still has contact with the Doha based political office of the Taleban.)

(14) The Taleban might also be aware of the recent experience of the FARC guerrilla in Colombia which entered into a peace agreement, laid down arms and turned itself into a political party that only received a marginal number of votes in the recent parliamentary elections.




Elections Jirga Parliament peace talks Political Parties Qatar shura Taleban


Khalilullah Safi

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