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How Taliban decision-making works
In recent months the debate about the Taliban’s ideology and whether it has changed since the 1990s has resurfaced. Enough evidence can be found to support both the view that the Taliban have moderated their views, and that they have not. In the original Taliban movement of the 1990s, different views already coexisted. At that time, this did not really matter because the Taliban Emirate was run autocratically by Mullah Omar, who was taking all the key decisions. This is no longer the case. In fact, Mullah Omar did not play a significant role in running the Taliban after 2001. Instead, the Taliban have adopted a collegial leadership model, with a leadership council (Rahbari Shura) endowed with significant decision-making powers. The leader – currently Haibatullah Akhundzada – is no longer an autocrat and has to seek the consensus of the Rahbari Shura for any major decisions he takes. When Haibatullah’s predecessor, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, tried to bypass the Rahbari Shura for talks with Kabul in July 2015, he almost wrecked the organisation and had to backtrack in haste.
Haibatullah does not have a very wide base of support within the Taliban and runs the organisation in coalition with a number of other top Taliban leaders. The so-called moderates, led by Mullah Baradar and Mullah Yakub, have been supporting his policy of negotiating the Taliban’s ascent to power, but Haibatullah also needs the support of some relatively hardline members of the Rahbari Shura to have his policies approved. For this reason, he has had to keep some of the less extreme hardliners on board by appeasing them from time to time. This helps to explain certain rigidities in Haibatullah’s negotiating tactics, despite the fact that he has invested a lot of his political capital in the peace process.
What do the Taliban want?
Haibatullah does want to negotiate a path to power and avoid the resumption of all-out war. However, he is a pragmatist, not a ‘liberal’ Talib. There are, in fact, no ‘liberal’ Taliban members. The Taliban will never accept the Islamic Republic and made that clear from the beginning of the diplomatic process, started by Zalmay Khalilzad in 2018. The farthest the Taliban will go in terms of concessions is a hybrid political system, mixing some elements of the Islamic Republic with others from the Emirate. This will allow them to claim that their jihad has resulted in the expulsion of foreign troops and a more Islamic system of government.
The Taliban intend to negotiate hard over every inch of ideological territory, but their main demand – already factored into Khalilzad’s proposed interim government – is a high council of the clerics, which they see as instrumental in gradually Islamising the Afghan state.
The Taliban’s leadership knows that it will have to accommodate other political forces and also that the Taliban do not represent the majority of Afghans, even if it will never admit this in public. The leadership also knows that it will not be able to run Afghanistan in the face of hostile neighbours (Pakistan’s support will not be enough) and without external aid. The Taliban have been working at a rapprochement with both Iran and Russia for many years. In practical terms, this means that the Taliban will have to accommodate some of Iran and Russia’s clients and allies inside Afghanistan. The Taliban have been communicating with several of the old (1980s) mujahedeen groups to seek some common ground. Some of these groups have responded positively (Hizb-i Islami, Mahaz-i Milli), while others are more sceptical.
The Taliban’s leadership expected Khalilzad to clear the main remaining hurdle for it to agree to a ceasefire and to start substantive intra-Afghan talks: the establishment of an interim government. However, President Ghani has been more resilient than the Taliban’s leadership, the Pakistanis (who have supported the Taliban diplomatically) and probably even Khalilzad seem to have expected. It is quite clear that Ghani does not intend to give way to an interim government. The conditions that he has put forward, such as having presidential elections first, have been rejected out of hand by the Taliban and are seen by many as unpractical.
The Taliban will not negotiate with Ghani for multiple reasons. First, the costly (for the Taliban) failure of the 2015 pre-talks is fresh in their mind, and they blame Ghani for that. Second, they see Ghani and his supporters as secularists who will never acquiesce to the Islamisation of the Afghan state. In their rejection of Ghani as a negotiating partner, the Taliban are supported by the Pakistani authorities, who see Ghani as a Pashtun nationalist and an ally of India.
By 13 April the Taliban's leadership was expecting the US to formally offer it an amendment to the US–Taliban agreement of February 2020, featuring a delay to the withdrawal of coalition troops in exchange for the release of Taliban prisoners and the de-blacklisting of the Taliban’s leaders. This would offer Haibatullah a number of key gains. First, he would be able to appease his nervous hardliners with the release of the prisoners, something they also prize. Second, it would drive a deeper wedge between Ghani and the US, as the US would have to lean heavily on Ghani to have the prisoners released. Finally, it would allow the US to leave on good terms with the Taliban, paving the way for further cooperation at the expense of Kabul.
The Taliban’s leadership was instead disappointed by Biden’s decision to withdraw unilaterally. Although Haibatullah can still argue that the US withdrawal is his achievement, he is not getting much credit from the Taliban’s hardliners. After Biden’s announcement there have reportedly been heated debates inside the Taliban, especially between the political commission, which advocates attending the Istanbul conference even if the Taliban do not obtain the concessions they have asked for, and the military commission, which insists the US–Taliban deal has been breached and the Taliban should retaliate. In all likelihood, the military leaders’ real target is the intra-Afghan talks, as well as the longer-term relationship with the US. By having the US leave on bad terms with the Taliban’s leadership, political talks would become all but impossible. Everything would default back to the battlefield. Moreover, links with Al-Qa’ida and allied groups, as well as with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, could be preserved or resumed – as some of the hardliners have been advocating.
The current conundrum
Haibatullah himself has reservations about the latest US proposals, which reportedly promise concessions on the release of the prisoners and on de-blacklisting only if the Taliban attend the Istanbul conference. In all likelihood, Haibatullah fears an ambush, in which he is offered the above concessions but with strings attached – most likely a ceasefire. If he were to refuse the deal, he would return empty-handed and his position vis-à-vis the hardliners would be weakened; moreover, his failure would be amplified by the international format of the conference. If he were to agree a ceasefire, he would face the wrath of the hardliners.
For Haibatullah, the safest option is to stay away from Istanbul while he tries to get some concessions from the US negotiators. The US and its allies will leave anyway, and even sooner than 11 September. He would receive some credit for the Westerners’ departure. The cosy relationship established with Khalilzad and the expectation of a future constructive relationship with Washington would likely not survive, however. The intra-Afghan talks would be doomed and, in the future, the US is most likely to support the Afghan government in an all-out conflict with the Taliban. The legitimate path to the Taliban’s return to power would be dead, or at least deep-frozen. For Haibatullah, a shrewd politician but no battlefield commander, that would also mean having to accept a shift of power towards the military leaders of the Taliban, which he could certainly do without.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Delegates attend talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha, Qatar, 12 September 2020. Courtesy of Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo