How the Taliban Negotiated its Path to Power?

Vasu Sharma
24th October 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

August 2021 marked the fall of Kabul and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The complete withdrawal of the United States was characterized by a projection of power and strengthened leverage proved by the Taliban. The events that unfolded are the outcome of the US-Taliban peace deal in 2020 and several unsuccessful intra-Afghan peace negotiations. However, there was a manner of how the Taliban negotiated with the US from 2008-09. Thus, it becomes necessary to assess the rise of the Taliban’s power in Kabul under the context of how the Taliban had affected the mindset and psyche of the US and how they negotiated from a position of strength.

The resurgence of the Taliban in 2005-06 was characterized by an increase in suicide attacks which ranged from a mere 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006. Meanwhile, the rise in armed attacks and remotely detonated attacks by the Taliban resulted in heavy military casualties for Afghan security forces and International Coalition troops. In 2009, the US forces accounted for 300/500 of ISAF forces casualties. Moreover, the Taliban began to catalyse the lack of governance and increased grievance against the Karzai Administration in rural Afghanistan. Along with this, with the use of radio and other media platforms, the Taliban began to shape the perception of rural Afghans against the ISAF forces and the Karzai Administration. Thus, the psyche of rural Afghans precisely in Southern and Eastern provinces was against the US and ISAF forces.

By 2009, the Taliban had affected the mindset of the US and forced them to realize that a military victory in Afghanistan against the Taliban was not a reality. This particular realization could have catalysed the decision of Washington to shift their strategy from fighting the Taliban to negotiating with them. With the Obama Administration coming into power in 2009, a new strategy to negotiate with moderate elements of Taliban was adopted. However, for the Taliban, affecting the US psyche also meant winning the war on the negotiating table, along with winning the war on the ground.

In November 2010, the US was able to conduct meetings with Tayyab Agha, the representative and close aide of Mullah Omar. However, by March 2012, these talks were observed to have failed. Despite the failure, this attempt was characterized by a crucial role played by a third player as well, Pakistan. Due to a safe sanctuary in Pakistan, negotiating with the Taliban was not possible without having ISI in the loop. In February 2010, Abdul Ghani Baradar was arrested by a joint operation between the US and Pakistan security forces.  From 2009 to 2012, there were some more arrests made by Pakistan security forces, but these involved those Taliban leaders who would have fallen out of ISI’s favour. During this phase of negotiations, it became important to revisit how the Taliban borrowed power and negotiated as a weaker party with a conventionally stronger state like the US. While the group’s inner legitimacy within rural Afghanistan was one factor, the role played by Pakistan had a much stronger role to play.

The link between the Taliban and Pakistan is the Haqqani Network, a subgroup on which the Taliban is heavily reliant for its transnational terrorist activities. For Pakistan, the network is important for deepening its presence and interests in Afghanistan. For instance, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Joint Chief Staff during the Obama Administration called Haqqani Network a veritable arm of ISI. Moreover, the US aid to Pakistan of around two billion was frozen since the aid was meant for Pakistan to crack the Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban, but decisive steps were not taken. During Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the security forces of Pakistan were selective in their killings and their targets, letting commanders and forces of the Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban flee away from the border. This patronage to the Taliban over the years by Pakistan helped them in their survival and culminated in a deepened strategic linkage between ISI and the Taliban.

Post the US-Taliban peace deal, all the diplomatic initiatives which focused on peace and stability through intra-Afghan talks harboured a seat for Pakistan. For the Taliban, the country across Durand Line is a necessity not only for its survival but also for its diplomatic prowess. For Pakistan, the Taliban is necessary for the strategic depth and interests it enjoys in Afghanistan.

With inner legitimacy and patronage from Pakistan, the Taliban along with never-ending suicide attacks and military victories forced the Obama Administration to change strategy and begin the peace negotiations. While there was great power on one side of the table and a mere 1.5 lakh strong non-state actor on the other, the latter had much-strengthened leverage. While the initial negotiations stalled in 2012, it was realised by Washington that withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was the only way to let the negotiations with the Taliban reboot.

While 2009-11 marked the presence of 1,00,000 US troops in Afghanistan, by the end of the Obama Administration the drawdown left mere 10,000 boots on the ground. This indicates the prowess of the Taliban of how it not only defeated the United States on the ground but also the table. It was the same country that denied negotiating with terrorist groups in 2001 but later on, signed a peace deal with them, without recognizing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Without even recognizing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the US demanded the Taliban to not let Afghan soil be used against US interests in any manner. Such elements signify the diplomatic leverage the Taliban had during and after the negotiation.

During the Trump Administration, the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as a special envoy for negotiations with the Taliban under the US-Afghanistan portfolio in 2018 proved as a catalyst in the peace negotiations. In 2018, Abdul Ghani Baradar was released on request of Qatar and an outcome of Khalilzad meeting the Taliban in Doha on November 18, 2018. Even during these negotiations, release of prisoners was a crucial aspect of negotiations along with the US delisting some leaders of the Taliban. The efforts since 2008 culminated in the US peace deal in February 2020.

The manner in which a structurally weaker player like the Taliban, post its resurgence, negotiated its way to power is an indication of the complex politico-security environment in Afghanistan. With safe havens and assistance provided by a neighbouring country like Pakistan, it became increasingly difficult to fight and defeat the Taliban insurgency. By gradually gaining ground on the military battle and exposing the inefficiencies of the Afghan government particularly in the rural areas, the Taliban was able to inject a sense of acceptance among sections of the Afghan populace. Gaining strongholds gradually in various parts of the Afghan territory, the Taliban was able to extract more and more concessions from the United States on the negotiating table. As the whole world debates and deliberates on the new Taliban rulers of Afghanistan and its widespread consequences in the country and beyond, it will be imperative to explore and learn lessons from understanding how the Taliban, despite limited relative capabilities, managed to negotiate its path to power.

*The Author is a Post Graduate Research Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education


Disclaimer: The views in the Article are of the Author