Peace Talks with the Taliban - Is the United States Negotiating with Terrorists?
On October 7, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, less than a month after the devastating attacks of 9/11. The invasion came after the Taliban, the group in power in Afghanistan at the time, refused a public demand made by then U.S. President George W. Bush for the group to turn over Osama bin Laden and expel the rest of al-Qaeda. Following the Taliban’s refusal to acquiesce, the U.S. invaded, with the public aims of destroying al-Qaeda and deposing the Taliban. The 2001 invasion would mark the beginning of the longest war in American history.
Over the next eighteen years, the United States has remained at war in Afghanistan, with troop deployment levels varying based on the military goals and political objectives of the time. For its part, the Taliban has continued to fight against both Afghan and American forces, employing the same tactics it had used against the Afghan population before the U.S. invasion. These tactics include suicide bombings against enemy forces, terror attacks against civilians, and guerilla insurgency to defend itself against the United States and maintain control over Afghan territories. The combination of continued U.S. engagement and relentless defense by the Taliban has allowed the U.S.-Afghan war to proceed to the present day without any plausible hope for its conclusion in the near future.
The Taliban was founded in 1994 by a group of Pakistani madrassa students supported by the Pakistani inter-services intelligence agency, the ISI. The group quickly came to prominence in neighboring Afghanistan as it moved through eastern and southern Afghanistan, establishing sharia law[i], and gaining power with the support of local Afghan mujahideen[ii]By 1996, the Taliban had established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and controlled the majority of Afghanistan. During its six-year reign, the Taliban was characterized by its brutal treatment of women, strict adherence to an austere interpretation of Islam, and violent mechanisms of control. Although ousted in 2001 by American-led forces, the group has continued to conduct violent attacks across the country, murder foreign aid workers, deliberately target civilians and promote instability throughout the nation. Despite participating in several peace talks since the U.S. invasion, the Taliban's violence has been relentless, with the notable exception of a ceasefire for the Eid al-Fitr celebrations in June 2018.
Although several efforts at peace negotiations with the Taliban have taken place since the beginning of the war, none have proven successful. Each negotiation has been hindered by U.S. interference, refusal on the part of the Taliban to engage with the Afghans, or suspected Pakistani efforts to subvert the peace talks. Despite this history of failed attempts, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a historic peace overture in the early months of 2018, offering the Taliban unconditional peace talks, as well as full recognition as a political party and the release of its prisoners.[iii] The Taliban refused to respond to the offer.
Though the overture did not move the Taliban into peace negotiations with the Afghan government, it began a process of diplomacy between the Taliban and the United States that appeared, superficially, to achieve historic results. By the summer of 2019, it seemed possible that the U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, led by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, might approach a successful resolution. Unfortunately, the death of an American soldier at the hands of the Taliban in early September 2019 led American President Donald Trump to call the negotiations “dead” and cancel all further negotiations with the group.[iv]
Although negotiations with the Taliban restarted in November 2019, the United States must learn a new lesson from this latest failed attempt. During all of the peace negotiations that have taken place between the U.S. and the Taliban, the Taliban has continued to carry out attacks against American and Afghan forces, showing either an unwillingness to curb violence during the peace process or, more likely, an inability to exert control over all of its forces across the country. The group does not intend to peacefully negotiate with any power, nor does it intend to uphold its end of any bargain. It is an extremist organization whose goal is to use guerilla tactics and terror attacks to bring about political change in Afghanistan.
The Taliban does not intend for that political change to be one that promotes democracy and freedom, but rather, one that returns Afghanistan to the state of terror in which it existed under Taliban rule in the 1990s. During that time, the Taliban was an authoritarian regime that massacred its citizens, practiced scorched earth policies, and denied basic rights to women. Consequently, the United States must cease its efforts to conduct peace talks with such an organization. Significantly, if the United States does at some point future, based on significant changes in the ideologies of the group, believe that peace talks with the Taliban could be beneficial, those talks must take place within the context of negotiating an agreement between the Taliban and the ruling government in Afghanistan – not as an individual agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
One of the primary arguments for continued negotiations with the Taliban is the idea that the Taliban is an indigenous Afghani movement and merely one in several factions that arose during the Afghan Civil War (1992-1996). This argument hinges on the conclusion that because the Taliban are predominately ethnic Pashtun, and ethnic Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, that the Taliban are predominately Afghan Pashtuns. However, this fails to take into account that while Pashtuns make up a larger percentage of the Afghan population than they do in neighboring Pakistan, there are actually more than twice as many Pakistani Pashtuns than Afghan Pashtuns. Consequently, the Taliban being predominately Pashtun does not actually indicate that it is an indigenous movement to Afghanistan but merely provides a descriptor for the ethnic composition of the group.
Importantly, an examination of the original division between Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns adds an additional layer of complexity to this issue of the role of the Taliban’s ethnicity. In 1893, British diplomat, Mortimer Durand and Afghan Emir, Abdur Rahman Khan, established the Durand Line to create respective spheres of influence in the area that would become Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Durand Line, drawn without input from the Pashtun and Baloch tribes that lived within the regions it would divide, created political division between the Pashtuns that lived on the Afghanistan side of the line and those that lived on the Pakistani side. However, although this political division has created some modern factionalization between ethnic Pashtuns on different sides of the Durand Line, they have several hundred years-worth of shared history and only a short century of manufactured division. Therefore, the idea that the ethnic Pashtuns of the Taliban are purely Afghani, uninfluenced by Pakistani Pashtuns, is severely misguided. Further, the connection of the Taliban to both Afghani and Pakistani Pashtuns significantly dilutes the “indigenous” nature of the Taliban movement.
As a result of the understanding that being ethnically Pashtun does not, by definition, make the group Afghani, the Taliban should not be treated as merely another faction in the latest civil war in Afghanistan. Rather, the group, at best, partially represents foreign interests, and at worst, represents the direct interests of the Pakistani government and ISI. Based on this analysis, the Taliban should be treated as a hostile foreign force, rather than a domestic resistance group, and the United States should not be allowing it to negotiate on behalf of Afghanistan.
In addition to and perhaps more significantly than its not being a purely indigenous group, the Taliban is also a terror organization. The Taliban's actions over the past two decades fit the definition of terrorism as unlawful, violent action, often undertaken against citizens. It commits indiscriminate acts of violence against civilians with the goal of achieving political change. Importantly, even if the United States is unwilling to label the Taliban specifically as a terrorist organization, the group has also actively involved itself with groups that have already been labeled as such.
Prior to 9/11, the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan allowed for the rise of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, providing the group sanctuary at a time when the international community was beginning to realize the potentially devastating impact of terrorist groups with global aims. Further, the Taliban’s relations with al-Qaeda have continued since then, with Taliban leaders regularly accepting fealty from al-Qaeda members and branches.[v] Given that the Taliban has both committed acts of terror and protected and aided other terrorists, the United States should not be willing to engage in any discussion with the group, let alone negotiations. The United States does not negotiate with terrorists, and that policy must extend to those who engage in acts of terror even if they are not formally labeled as terrorists.
As with most terror organizations, the Taliban has no intention of participating in a functioning democracy in Afghanistan. The group merely wants to convince the United States to withdraw so that it can regain the same level of control it enjoyed during its reign in the 1990s. It intends to establish an Islamic Emirate that operates under sharia law and seeks to expand the Muslim caliphate across the globe. Importantly, in addition to its desire to overthrow the current government and reestablish its totalitarian regime, the Taliban is also willing to "play the long game" with the United States to convince the U.S. to withdraw. It has not halted its violent attacks during peace negotiations because the peace negotiations are a cover from under which the Taliban can continue its war of attrition against American public opinion and patience. The Taliban has no intention of participating in a democratic political process, and the United States should accept this as reality rather than deluding itself into thinking otherwise.
It is also important to consider the impact of such closed negotiations on the Afghan government. The United States has committed thousands of American lives and more than $2 trillion worth of resources to establishing an inclusive political system in Afghanistan. Its democratically elected government can be lauded as a moment of success for the United States in a war that has been primarily comprised of moments of stalemate and alternating victories.
Afghan citizens have risked their lives to vote in the most recent presidential election and have faced violent threats by the Taliban against both themselves and their families in so doing. U.S. negotiations with the Taliban without the inclusion of the current Afghan government explicitly undermine the validity of Mr. Ghani’s democratically elected government. By negotiating without representatives from Mr. Ghani’s government, the United States gives weight to Taliban propaganda that the Afghan government is a “puppet” of the United States. Consequently, the United States cannot continue to negotiate with the Taliban without severely undermining its own efforts at stabilizing a democratic Afghanistan.
The United States has been remiss in its willingness to participate in negotiations with the Taliban, particularly without including representatives of the Afghan government. The Taliban is a terror organization with strong ties to Pakistan and al-Qaeda. It is not motivated by the best interests of Afghani civilians, but rather by the interests of radical Islamists. The group further intends to extend those interests through the establishment of a Muslim caliphate in Afghanistan from which to export additional Muslim extremism and anti-Western sentiment.
If the United States continues to engage with the Taliban, it will continue to be both betrayed and disappointed. The group’s members will continue to be disingenuous, and its violent actions will continue to cost American and Afghan lives while destabilizing the nation. Any progress that the United States and the Afghan government have made towards establishing a democratic political process or a society based on principles of human rights will be stalled or reversed.
It is reckless, self-righteous, and misinformed for the United States to believe that negotiations with the Taliban will resolve the war in Afghanistan and result in any semblance of peace or stability. It is futile to assume that the terror organization is either willing or able to end its members’ violence towards civilians and relinquish their extremist ideologies. In the future, the United States should avoid negotiations with the Taliban and focus instead on working with legitimate actors to establish long-term solutions aimed at benefiting the whole of Afghanistan’s population.
Faith Stewart studied military history and political science at Duke University. Since graduation, she has held internships with the Hudson Institute and the Counter Extremist Network, focusing her research on terrorism and grand strategy. She has published pieces on al-Qaeda, U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan, and the crisis in Yemen. Her current research focuses on the rise of terrorism in Afghanistan, spanning from the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979 and concluding in 2002 with the failure to capture UBL at Tora Bora.
[i] Sharia law is religious law derived from the Quran that forms a tenant of Islam.
[ii]. Technically the plural of the word mujahid, which refers to one engaged in Jihad. Often used to refer to Islamic guerrilla fighters engaged in conflict against non-Muslim forces.
[iii] “Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offers peace talks with Taliban ‘without condition,’” NBC News, February 28, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/afghan-president-ashraf-ghani-offers-peace-talks-taliban-without-condition-n851851.
[v] Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “New Taliban emir accepts al-Qaeda’s oath of allegiance,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 14, 2015. https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/08/new-taliban-emir-accepts-al-qaedas-oath-of-allegiance.php.