Paul Butchard is a graduate student in the Department of War Studies at Kings College London in the United Kingdom, where he is pursuing his master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Politics. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Options for a future strategy for the Afghan Taliban.
Date Originally Written: July, 12, 2017.
Date Originally Published: July 17, 2017.
Author and / or Article Point of View: This article is written from the point of view of someone with influence over strategic policy making within the Afghan Taliban, possibly a member of the Quetta Shura.
Background: The Taliban has seen continuous conflict for over two decades now and despite its overthrow in 2001 by the United States and the 2013 death of its founder Mullah Omar, remains a potent force within Afghanistan. The Taliban is currently estimated to hold more territory than at any time since 2001.
Significance: Given the territorial degradation being suffered by Daesh in Iraq and Syria and the presence of a Daesh affiliate in Afghanistan, the Taliban may once again find itself in the crosshairs of an international anti-terrorism coalition. There are also increasing levels of international training and advisory support being given to the Afghan government to counter the Taliban. These developments raise the prospect of United States and international re-engagement in Afghanistan. As such, the Taliban must constantly assess their future direction should they hope to survive and thrive.
Option #1: Enter negotiations with the Government of Afghanistan (GOA). Although announcing their intentions not to participate in peace talks, the Taliban, or factions within it, have previously indicated a willingness to engage in negotiations to achieve political goals. This is evidenced by their opening of a political office in Doha, Qatar and engagement in talks in 2014 among other events.
Risk: The Taliban risks giving up the 86 districts they currently estimate themselves to fully or partially control, potentially for few guarantees. This option risks the support afforded to the Taliban by Pakistan’s military, as identified by a recent United States Defense Department report, among numerous other sources. Pakistan would not approve a deal in which it loses influence or operational control over the Taliban or subsidiaries like the Haqqani Network. Pakistan would also oppose subsequent warming of Afghan-Indian relations. Military demobilisation of any kind leaves the Taliban potentially vulnerable to United States and allied forces reorienting to Afghanistan post-Daesh, a risk when the Trump administration centres its national security policy on the confronting of “[T]he crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
Gain: The GOA has continuously reaffirmed its willingness to enter peace talks with the Taliban and the pardon issued to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is evidence of a willingness to provide concessions. This option has the support, even if understated, of the British and United States governments. The Taliban enjoyed considerable military success against Afghan forces (ANSF) in 2015-16. Thus, it is in a strong position to push for concessions such as autonomy within its strongholds such as the Pashtun region. This option enables the Taliban to avoid the ire of the United States coalition turning toward Afghanistan after Daesh in Iraq and Syria are defeated. This option also points to the possibility of restoration of the notion of the Taliban as a sociopolitical not just militant movement. Should the right deal be reached, this option also provides chances to increase Pakistani influence in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and thus sustain or increase support from the ISI to the Taliban even against international pressure.
Option #2: The Taliban continues the insurgent war against the ANSF. This course of action is the one currently favoured and being pursued by Taliban senior command.
Risk: Although gaining considerable ground since coalition forces withdrew, the Taliban, like the ANSF, has been unable to break the stalemate in Afghanistan. The Taliban is unlikely to win back Afghanistan through force of arms alone. By continuing military operations, the Taliban risk attracting the attention of the United States military, which may soon turn to combating the Daesh presence in Afghanistan more directly after the Daesh territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria are eliminated. By persisting primarily with a military strategy, the Taliban remain somewhat hostage to the whims and machinations of their Pakistani patrons, should the future political environment change, due to domestic or international pressure, the Taliban could theoretically find themselves short on friends and overwhelmed by enemies.
Gain: The Taliban is enjoying a military resurgence since the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014. There are few prospects of an outright ANSF victory. Operation Mansouri, the recent spring offensive by the Taliban has combined guerrilla tactics, conventional assaults and an increasing number of suicide operations to devastating effect. The Taliban have also seemingly learnt from both coalition successes in Iraq and Afghanistan and from Daesh in their use of small, mobile special operations type units with advanced equipment carving inroads to populations centres and forming of human intelligence networks and sleeper cells, rather than full frontal attacks. The Taliban’s efforts have culminated in the appearance of the Sara Khitta, or Red Group, a Taliban commando force. Such successes display that the Taliban remain militarily capable and it may be unwise to sacrifice such capability. The fact that the Taliban have sustained a war of attrition against coalition and ANSF forces shows they have no pressing need to cease military operations, the poppy cultivation it protects, and the goal of conquering the Afghan government it is working toward.
Other Comments: None.
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