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A young girl walks across rooftops against a scenic backdrop, in Herat, Afghanistan. Photo ID 519914. 08/10/2011. Herat, Afghanistan. UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein.

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Governance, violence, and aid: the donor–Taliban dilemma

In talks, the Taliban are engaging with international expectations of their approach to governance. But what might this mean in practice?

Published: 11 December 2020

Authors: Ashley Jackson, Rahmatullah Amiri

In the lead up to last month’s Geneva Conference, the EU ambassador to Afghanistan, Andreas von Brandt, lamented that the Taliban had failed to lower violence levels, and in doing so lost the opportunity to attend the donor gathering to ‘present themselves to the world.’ This was but the latest in various western donor attempts to use aid and recognition as an incentive with the Taliban. Once considered beyond the pale, many donors are now seeing the Taliban as a potential partner in a post-war Afghan state – so long as they agree to play by certain rules.

The international community’s openness could be a rare opportunity for a maligned political actor like the Taliban to rehabilitate its reputation and standing. For this to work, however, both sides must rethink their posture and strategy.

At present, the Taliban seems unaware of or uninterested in the opportunity laid at its feet, or unable to figure out how to exploit it fully. Despite agreeing to intra-Afghan dialogue, the Taliban has repeatedly demonstrated that it is unwilling to abandon the military path to achieving its objectives. Further, they have not elaborated their positions on critical issues such as human rights or inclusivity, which will determine any future international recognition or financial support.

Donors, by contrast, have not sent the right signals to the Taliban about what is expected of them. In the process, they have also unwittingly undermined the Afghan team in talks, fueling resentment and resistance from Kabul. This has enabled a series of harmful misperceptions to flourish inside the insurgency which, if left unchecked, could upend any hope for a diplomatic end to the war.

The Taliban leadership’s vision for Afghanistan—or lack thereof?

More than two years into political negotiations, the Taliban have said remarkably little about their vision for the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban have neither confirmed nor denied whether they want to reestablish an emirate – which would be unacceptable to most Afghans and much of the international community. Publicly, they have said they want a truly ‘Islamic government’ or an ‘Islamic state.’ Semantics aside, the Taliban have provided scant detail on their preferred political system. They have similarly responded to human rights concerns with platitudes about protecting Islamic women’s rights and supporting ‘inclusion.’ The longer they obfuscate on these critical issues, the more difficult it becomes to imagine them engaging in any productive discussion about them.

This vagueness masks a more significant weakness: that the Taliban’s leadership has not articulated a clear, coherent vision for the future of Afghanistan. When donors or experts debate whether the group will insist on re-establishing an emirate or curtailing girl’s education, for example, they mistakenly assume there is some internal consensus. To date, the Taliban has been almost entirely concerned with what happens on the battlefield. This is where much of the international community’s attention has also focused, most prominently through repeated calls for violence reduction.

While the Taliban’s extensive system of shadow governance tells us a great deal about their aspirations, it shouldn’t be mistaken as their blueprint for a post-war state. First, it relies heavily on coercion and intimidation, which will be challenging to maintain when the Taliban stops fighting across Afghanistan. Civilians might have low expectations of the Taliban now, but this will likely change once the fighting ends. After nearly two decades of international assistance, Afghans expect more of their government than what the Taliban can deliver at present.

Secondly, the Taliban’s shadow state is a parasitic one. The Taliban co-opts aid programmes in areas under their control without needing to solicit assistance directly. Current aid to Afghanistan – which funds 75 per cent of the national budget – is premised on a very different political and social order than one imagines the Taliban striving for. As improbable as it might have been for the Taliban to attend the Geneva Conference, it might not have been a bad idea. Witnessing the commitments donors imposed on the Afghan government in exchange for funding might have given the Taliban a wake-up call about the costs of securing the aid required to govern effectively.

Dangerous disconnects

Our conversations with Talibs in the field strongly indicate that they do in fact expect the outcome of Doha negotiations to be a return to the 1990s-style emirate. There is a vast difference between Taliban leaders that diplomats meet in Doha, and the Talibs fighting on the ground. The leadership have a greater grasp of human rights frameworks, understand why the movement is being pressured to endorse them, and appreciate the negative consequences of their refusal to do so. For the Taliban on the ground, freedom of speech and human rights are alien, un-Islamic concepts that they neither understand nor endorse. Even if Taliban leaders were to commit to rights and inclusivity, it would take time to build consensus on key issues (like a ceasefire) internally. The leadership cannot – yet – guarantee the rank and file will fully observe these values on the ground.

If Taliban leaders were to commit to rights and inclusivity, it would take time to build consensus on key issues

The problem is that Taliban leaders have communicated little to their commanders and fighters about what a power-sharing agreement would realistically entail. While the Taliban might be able to militarily defeat the Afghan government, it would be a pyrrhic victory. They would receive little international recognition or assistance and presumably remain at war with various non-Taliban factions in pockets of the country. The leadership, many of whom lived through the ill-equipped, poorly resourced pariah state of the 1990s, realise this would be a disaster. But with little internal consensus on the movement’s goals in intra-Afghan talks, more realistic and responsible Taliban leaders seem to feel that they cannot yet force these issues internally.

Another problem is that Taliban leadership and fighters seem to significantly underestimate the challenges of post-war governance. Intimidation and violence has effectively silenced opposition in areas they influence and control. Consequently, many Talibs interpret widespread calls for peace and discontent with the Afghan government as support for their insurgency. It is naïve to expect civilians to stay compliant – and uncomplaining – after the war is over. Some Talibs might long for a 1990s-style emirate, but they fail to understand that few Afghans are likely to settle for the deprivation, fear and isolation that it would bring.

Changing course

The group is being offered an unprecedented level of engagement and incentives by western donors, regional countries, and even former enemies such as Iran. For now, the Taliban can get away with vague signalling that they’ll eventually comply with key international norms. But as intra-Afghan talks move to substantive issues, they will be expected to clarify their positions and make firm commitments. The international community expects the Taliban, at that point, to demonstrate that they have changed – partly because the leadership has been playing along with this narrative for over a year now. That many Taliban on the ground still expect a military victory makes it more difficult for their leaders to make the compromises essential to end the war.

If the Taliban wants to participate in a legitimate, recognised government, they must strategically deprioritise fighting, and focus more on engaging their enemies and preparing for life after the war. The optimal time to start this shift would have been before intra-Afghan talks began, but it is still possible. But the longer and harder they fight while already at the negotiation table, the more challenging it will be for international community to accept them in a different role later on, for fighters on both sides to accept a deal, and for a dignified peace to hold.

There is some irony in the fact that the international community’s current approach is (unintentionally) enabling the Taliban’s self-delusions. The Taliban hasn’t really had to make tough internal changes because they have been forced to make so few concessions to date. If they faced more effective forms of external pressure, and were genuinely pushed to make concessions, the leadership (or more pragmatic elements within it) might have been able to leverage international engagement to change course.

To be clear, the changes the Taliban needs to make are not only about reducing violence but committing to a strategic shift in positioning and operations. The almost myopic international insistence on a ceasefire or sustained reduction in violence is part of the problem. It has not worked, and this single issue focus has unwittingly allowed the Taliban to evade pressure on other issues.

Continued offers of aid and recognition will not change the Taliban’s behaviour – unless accompanied by painful consequences for failing to change course. The fighters are motivated by winning on the battlefield and not – at present – concerned about aid or external recognition. After all, the Taliban have resisted far more attractive monetary incentives in the past.

Time is on the Taliban’s side – for now. They would do well to use it to focus on enacting the necessary internal changes to transform themselves from a winning insurgency into a political force capable of governing. That will require significant internal outreach to establish and shore up consensus on a clear vision and areas of compromise. This will also enable more productive engagement with the international community. Likewise, the international community should step back and re-examine their own strategy for dealing with the Taliban. Should they fail to do so, ordinary Afghans will pay the heaviest price for continued strategic miscalculation by both sides.

The authors draw on research that remains unpublished due to the sensitive nature of the material and to protect their sources.