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What Does the Taliban Want? - Event Summary

The Wilson Center's Asia Program, in partnership with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, recently held an online event, ‘What does the Taliban Want?’ The October 6 discussion hosted Ibraheem Bahiss (Independent Analyst), Malalai Bashir (Senior Journalist, Radio Azadi, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Afghan Service), Dr. Orzala Nemat (Director, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit), Andrew Watkins (Senior Afghanistan Analyst, International Crisis Group) and Rahimullah Yusufzai (Resident Editor, The News International), with Michael Kugelman (Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia) as the moderator.

Malalai Bashir, in her opening remarks, characterized Afghan’s public perceptions of the Taliban’s intentions and goals. Despite the increased attacks in different parts of the country, the Afghans only want an end to the bloodshed, conflict and violence. They want peace and security, with greater access to employment, schooling and political processes. Bashir further highlighted the plight of women in Afghanistan, who fear that they will lose their hard-earned rights at the hands of the Taliban. She elaborated that Humans Right Watch has said that the Taliban remain deeply misogynist, and are not allowing education authorities to build schools for girls in thirteen districts of the Ghazni province. During the peace process, there is also more demand from the human rights activists to have women at the negotiation table, as the peace process should be victim-centered and around those who are affected most by it.

Andrew Watkins underscored the Taliban’s recent public messaging and the vagueness of their views. He observed how the Taliban have moved from two decades of consistent messaging of armed struggle and violent resistance against the government, to a message of peace. It appears, he said, that the Taliban have begun to see the benefits that may arise out of peace talks with the USA, although they remain clear that they will not cease armed struggle until they get what they want. Andrew highlighted the vagueness and ambiguity of Taliban on various topics in the negotiations, and he said he hoped to see more clarity in the future.

Ibraheem Bahiss spoke about the Taliban’s preferred type of political system, and the Taliban’s view of Al-Qaeda and other international terror groups. He highlighted how there is a common misconception that the Taliban want an Emirate, when in reality they want an Islamic political system. Historically, the Taliban used to govern through the ‘shura’, which then expanded to a consensual decision-making mechanism. He elaborated how the Taliban are more comfortable with this new mechanism, as it is conducive to preventing fragmentation and still lies within the framework of Islam. However, should the talks fail, Taliban might retain the Emirate system, even if it might not be their first preference.

Ibraheem also highlighted the flexibility of the Taliban which we can see in three ways: their experience as a political movement and the lessons they derive, the local pressures and popularity of policies as viewed by their base, and whether their policies can be justified as Islamic. Furthermore, he considered Taliban’s relations with Al-Qaeda a liability, with little to offer for the Taliban. He elaborated that the Taliban dread Al-Qaeda, where Mullah Umar referred to Al-Qaeda as a bone stuck in his throat that he could neither swallow nor spit out. The only question that remains is whether Taliban will ever publicly disown Al-Qaeda as a result of the peace talks.

Dr. Orzala Nemat highlighted the need for more women in the public sphere. The Taliban have been extremely exclusive in restricting women’s access to public spaces, where a woman is only allowed outside with a male companion from the family. Given how millions of men died during the Soviet war, and countless women were widowed, the troubled plight of women only increased. Dr. Nemat commented on the ambiguity of the Taliban’s current position regarding women’s rights. The Taliban cleverly avoid answering for or against women’s rights, and instead keep highlighting the fact that they are there to protect women according to Islamic traditions. The reason that the Taliban do not have women representation in negotiations is simple: They do not believe in the idea of women’s political participation. She elaborated that there have been many talks with Taliban in which they refuse to engage with political models where women can be in power (e.g. the system in Indonesia).

She added that the Taliban have taken not only an Islamic position, but also a traditional one. They portray the average Afghan as a traditional, practicing Muslim from a village. This is problematic because Afghan society is no longer traditional—owing to various Western interventions, to media, to migrations, and to direct access to public spaces. This represents a problem for the Taliban, as they are trying to represent people who are no longer traditional.

Another topic at the event was Taliban’s relations with Pakistan moving forward. Rahimullah Yusufzai mentioned how it is difficult to know the Taliban’s plans, as they are outwardly vague and only reveal their plans once the time comes. He emphasized that the Taliban’s ambiguity should not be mistaken for a lack of clarity, as they are more strategic than that. Rahimullah further characterized the Taliban-Pakistan relationship as difficult.

He said that senior Pakistani military officials have noted how the Taliban do not listen to Pakistan’s requests and instead always respond vaguely. They follow a system of asking their Ameer and Shura, who are situated mostly in Qatar, for their opinion on various issues, which takes a lot of time. Rahimullah also emphasized Pakistan’s false sense of importance and misguided self-praise regarding its role in the peace process. He noted how Pakistan believes it was instrumental in persuading Taliban to hold peace talks with the Afghanistan government. Pakistan believes that the Taliban should join the Afghan government, as a political party which fights in the elections. However, in reality Taliban want to maintain distance from Pakistan, while still keeping good relations. In light of this, they are happy that most of their leaders have shifted out of Pakistan and into Qatar.

The discussion then moved on to potential leadership models that the Taliban could take inspiration from. Andrew Watkins noted how the Taliban have never referenced Pakistan’s systems of governance despite the similarities to the Islamic doctrine. This is due to the Taliban’s intense desire to not be seen as Pakistan’s puppet. Watkins added that the Iranian model of theocracy, with one supreme leader, could have served as inspiration, but the Taliban want to emphasize their independence from neighboring states. Furthermore, the Taliban believe the Iranian model is too revolutionary, and they instead want a traditional model which runs like an oligarchy with high councils and deliberative leadership. Furthermore, Watkins added, Saudi Arabia’s monarchy is not a source of inspiration for the Taliban, but the Taliban do admire Saudi Arabia’s rules on personal freedom, human rights and its relationship with Western countries. They appreciate the level of trade between Saudi Arabia and Western countries, even while maintaining the purity of Islamic law. However, Rahimullah Yusufzai said that no Islamic country can serve as an inspiration for Taliban. They have their own model of an Islamic emirate, and they appear happy with it.

Another question was raised regarding the institutional challenges to integrating the Taliban into the current Afghan government. Ibraheem Bahiss suggested that there is no viable way for the Taliban to exercise power while merging with the Ghani government. In his opinion, the gap between what the Taliban want, and what the Ghani government is prepared to offer is so large that it is difficult to imagine it being bridged. According to Ibraheem, the Ghani government is not offering much to the Taliban. Furthermore, he believed the Ghani government has set a bad precedent, and has not proven to be very credible in following with previous commitments to Hikmatyar or Abdullah in 2014. The Taliban in response have started sidelining Ghani by establishing their own interim government.

In response to a question on the Taliban’s view on international assistance and the drug trade, Dr. Orzala Nemat suggested that although during Taliban rule drug production fell significantly in some areas, we cannot say this was because of the Taliban. The Taliban are not the sole benefactors of drug trade; therefore, their views are anti-drugs. In her opinion, the Taliban would never support the drugs, but there is evidence of the Taliban taxing local production of poppy. They have also taken their share of international assistance. Watkins added that even if the Taliban’s intention is good and the peace process moves forward, they will have much to learn about how international assistance is delivered and the way it is monitored.

In response to whether there has been a shift in views among Taliban fighters, Watkins observed how there has been a small increase in permissions granted by the Taliban to permit media outlets to come into their territory and speak to the fighters. With this glimpse in open source reporting, the net result is that we see many different opinions among Taliban fighters, even in one single district. Malalai Bashir further observed how the Taliban fighters are now wary of war, and the Taliban has had a difficult time convincing its foot soldiers to keep fighting while it negotiates with the US government. This is because the Taliban are failing to provide a legitimate reason to the soldiers on why the fight should continue now that negotiations have begun.

Overall, the event highlighted critical points of concern regarding the future of women’s participation in Afghanistan, the relationship of the Taliban with Pakistan, and the apparent ambiguity of the Taliban’s views and strategy.

Hibah Sheikh is an Asia Program intern and a graduate student at the University of Maryland.

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