Negotiating the Non-negotiable: Taliban, Peace and Democracy – Afghanistan’s impossible triangle

31 July 2015

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On July 8th, the first official acknowledged ‘peace talk’ between the Afghan Taliban and the government in Kabul took place (Johnson/Zahra-Malik, 8.7.2015). Facilitated by Pakistan who are being supported by China, delegations of the two conflicting parties met in Murree, a hill resort near Islamabad (cf. Harooni, 8.7.2015). Besides Chinese officials, U.S. representatives were also present during the event (Ahmed, 28.7.2015). The peace talk is being praised by Pakistani authorities as a potential move towards the ending of 14 years insurgency -after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001-, the major outcome of the gathering was to meet again by end of July after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (Aljazeera, 8.7.2015).

However, besides all enthusiasm about the ‘warm’ and ‘positive’ atmosphere during this meeting there are severe reasons to doubt if this time the talks will determine “an important step toward advancing prospects for a credible peace”[2]. Whilst not much is known yet about the concrete agenda and the course of the discussions, the fundamental demands as preconditions for a negotiated peaceful settlement of the conflict are obvious: The Afghan government wants an immediate nationwide and strict ceasefire; whereas the Taliban is continuing to insist on the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil, removing the names of Taliban commanders from a US Department of State blacklist (including other sanctions against Taliban members), the exchange (rather release) of (Taliban) prisoners, and changes in the country’s constitution at the expense of rights and freedoms, particularly for women and the media (cf. Saifullah, 29.72015; Ruttig, 17.5.2015; Bezhan, 19.6.2013).

The removal of the Taliban from blacklists and a relief of sanctions might be easier to address than the release of all Taleban prisoners (approximately 15,000[3]) and changes in the constitution which are bitter pills to swallow for the Afghan government. But the demands for a withdrawal of all foreign troops and a strict ceasefire will be the main stumbling blocks towards any rapprochement (cf. ICG, 26.3.2012). Having this in mind, one can’t help feeling that by assessing the likelihood of a potential success of the ‘2015 peace talks’ one must ask the following questions: How far the parties involved in the new round of ‘peace talks’ do have any common base –in the form of shared interests and political willing- to enter a process of serious negotiation? And how sustainable can be such an arranged ‘peace deal’ taking the Afghan realities on the ground into account?

The conundrum of the total withdrawal of foreign troops

By assessing the trajectories of a former ‘peace initiative’ one must state that the current ‘peace talks’ can be described as ‘negotiating the non-negotiable’ (cf. Saifullah, 29.72015). Albeit a cease-fire is a ‘sine-qua-non’ condition for any peace talks in Afghanistan, a complete withdrawal of all international troops is absolutely incompatible with the interests of any serious stakeholder in the processes of reconciliation, reconstruction and democratic consolidation in the country. By having that, a total pull-out of US/NATO forces seems highly unlikely due to security related commitments and geopolitical interests in the region (cf. RFE/RL, 24.3.2015). It does not come as a surprise that some voices within Washington’s security circles demand a continuation of a higher troop level engagement, significantly more than just an embassy presence as envisaged by the end of 2016 (cf. Harooni, 8.7.2015). However, this will always serve as an argument and justification for the Taliban to continue their terrorist activities in the country (cf. Saifullah, 29.72015).

‘Peace talks’ as a political feint – preparing the war from within the system

The crux of the matter is (even if both sides would meet the demands and conditions) that the Taliban interpret the ‘talks’ as a broadening of the armed struggle rather than a ‘peace negotiation’ cf. Majidyar, 1.5.2014). The talks are seen as an extension of their militant activities into the political arena (cf. Shahamat, 15.7.2015). In other words, through the current round of peace talks the Taliban will get an additional opportunity to undermine Afghanistan’s democracy from within (cf. Majidyar, 1.5.2014) and to push their Islamic fundamentalist agenda in the political-administrative structure. The tremendous rise of highly radicalized Islamist clerics in state and society during the last years prepared the ground for the Taliban to regain political leverage (cf. Jalal, 25.4.2015).[4]Furthermore, looking at the development of previous talk initiatives (like the Doha process) as well as subsequent agreements and their ‘implementation’ it is legitimate to question the credibility of Taliban commitments (cf. Wolf, 28.6.2013; Majidyar, 1.5.2014). Taking into account that the Taliban were continuing their attacks besides getting the chance to open an office in Doha (cf. Clark, 19.6.2013) as well as the ongoing round of peace talks indicates that the current negotiation partners of the Taliban will have a similar negative experience (cf. Majidyar, 1.5.2014). Instead of starting with confidence building measures the Taliban responded by intensifying their attacks on Afghan and foreign forces: “They are attacking us and we are the attacking them, the attacking will continue parallel with the peaceful talks for peace”[5]. Also the case of the Pakistan Taliban’s shows the unreliability of Islamic fundamentalists when it comes to negotiation, since they have repeatedly reneged on peace agreements with the Pakistani army.

Talking or Fighting? The current dilemma of the Taliban’s movement

Besides the general unreliability of the Taliban on both sides of the Durand line, today it is justified to question the internal coherence of the Taliban leadership (cf. Ruttig, 17.5.2015). According to several unconfirmed reports (besides the fact that ‘leadership council’, Taliban political leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, and spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar gave their authorization for the ‘peace talk’), it seems that there is an increasing rift within the rank and files of the Taliban movement – whether to talk or continue fighting (cf. Khan, 29.7.2015). For example, top battlefield commander Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, objected to any talks with the government in Kabul and the Afghan High Peace Council[6], and will most likely continue its armed struggle with several thousand fighters under his sway (cf. Johnson/Zahra-Malik, 8.7.2015). As such, it remains uncertain if the Taliban delegation, after a successful negotiation, will be able to enforce any cease-fire worth the name. Additionally, even if the most significant sections within the Taliban movement (meaning those providing and controlling most of the fighters) are willing to negotiate a political solution to end the war, there is the severe threat that fighters loyal to the Islamic State/IS -which is persistently expanding its influence in Afghanistan (cf. Dawn, 14.7.2015)- will continue their fights to undermine any sustainable peace in the country (cf. Ruttig, 17.5.2015). In this context, one should not forget that most of the middle and lower ranks of the Taliban are just mercenaries and/or part-time fighters (cf. Giustozzi, 2010). They are fighting for money rather than for any religious creed, and are increasingly attracted by the success and large financial resources of IS. Any ceasefire in Afghanistan or changing towards another battle field of global jihad (like Syria) is not in their interests. However, “Taleban dissidents could attach themselves to it [IS], continue the insurgency and possibly even give it a new, internationalist-jihadi face” (Ruttig, 17.5.2015). The latest rumour of Mullah Omar’s death (DW, 29.7.2015; BBC, 29.7.2015), which authority and charisma functioned (increasingly) as a major ‘kit and glue’ of the Taliban movement by trying to bridge the gap between the ‘want-to-be-fighters’ and ‘want-to-be-negotiators’ might gain significance. It could not only give the hard-line militant wing an additional impetus and accelerate processes of fragmentation among the Taliban but also lead to enhance defection of Taliban cadres towards IS. It is also worth noting that the hope that the arrival of IS as a new actor in the Afghan imbroglio and the subsequent rivalry as well as armed clashes between IS and Taliban (cf. Shams/Saifullah 9.6.2015; Dawn, 14.7.2015), brings later one to the negotiation table might be a valid point (cf. Malik, 27.7.2015). However, one should be aware that peace processes based on a common threat will never last long in a country were alliances are changing like a Chameleon its colours.

Taliban, Peace and Democracy: an impossible triangle

Historically dialogue for peace is nothing new for the Afghans (cf. Majidyar, 1.5.2014). Being afflicted by decades of foreign military interventions, militant resistance, civil wars, and forced regime change Afghanistan has also witnessed several attempts for initiating peace processes. As such a sustainable peace process in Afghanistan which includes the Taliban is impossible, for several reasons:

First, there are no doubts that the Taliban categorically reject democracy and consensus-based political decision-making (cf. Haqqani, Hussain, 27.6.2013). Deliberative political processes which require finding of compromises and making of exceptions are out of the scope of a fundamentalist Taliban mind-set (cf. Haqqani, Hussain, 27.6.2013). Thinking and acting based on extremist ideologies do not allow any room for dissensions because disagreements and disputes, which are inherent to the democratic process, are seen as a threat that can weaken the power and efficiency of the ideology and collective identity that holds the Taliban movement together (cf. Raschke, 1985; cf. Eisenstadt/Giesen, 1995). Therefore, democratic contestation would deteriorate the movement’s coherence and give room for fragmentation. Hence, it is in the nature and a matter of survival for the Taliban to fight democracy. Therefore, the movement’s operational aim is to end any democratic system in Afghanistan by all means. This is due to the fact that the Taliban perceive themselves primarily an armed movement and its methods rely on physical force, not on peaceful negotiation (cf. Semple, 2014). If not, the more clerical-orientated and ideological radicalized sections of the Taliban will make sure that the movement’s leadership will not forget the overall goal of establishing region-wide Sharia law (cf. BBC, 29.7.2015). Having this in mind, they can’t share power with ‘infidels’ (meaning everybody who does not adhere to their narrow reading of the Koran[7] and oppose strict implementation of the Sharia) or seriously participate in democracy (the ‘system of infidels’) without undermining their own collective identity (cf. Semple, 2014). Due to their relatively loose network of individual factions, it is most important to keep their basic codes (building blocks) of identity construction functioning (cf. Raschke, 1985; Eisenstadt/Giesen, 1995; Eder et Al., 2002). Otherwise they would deconstruct their own ideological base and collective identity; consequently, they would lose the glue of their whole movement and fall apart in a bunch of unorganised (extremists) elements (cf. Raschke, 1985; Eder et Al., 2002). Therefore, they do not only oppose democracy but also identify it as an existential threat because this system’s norms and provide for diverging opinions which would allow the opportunity to question Taliban ideology. This undoubtedly marks an existential problem for the Taliban since their ideological foundation requires absolute adherence from the whole Muslim community (cf. Semple, 2014). In sum, in order to maintain its own identity and to hold the movement together, and as such to survive (cf. Raschke, 1985; cf. Eisenstadt/Giesen, 1995; Eder et Al., 2002), and not being absorbed by other extremist groups, the Taliban have to erase all structures and agents of democracy in their area of influence and beyond.

Secondly, one has to state that regarding their socio-political worldview, a system to organise human co-existence must not only be based on Sharia law but also structured by a strictly entrenched ‘leader’s principle’ as it was during the Taliban regime of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996-2001) (cf. Giustozzi, 2010). In this form of governance all significant decision-making is centralised in the position of the Amir ul-Momineen or commander/leader of the faithful (cf. Giustozzi, 2010). Needless to say, the concept of a religiously legitimated Amir ul-Momineen as the country’s highest authority recognizes neither elections nor an elected government with a (secular) head of state.

Thirdly, the ongoing terrorist attacks and human rights violations, like the executions of women, members of civil society organisations, and other cruelties must be interpreted as a sign that the Taliban continue to reject the Afghan constitution and do not accept basic principles of freedom and human rights, especially women rights (cf. Bezhan, 19.6.2013; Ruttig, 17.5.2015).

Fourthly, serious and constructive political negotiation and accommodation are alien concept to the Taliban. But a multi-ethnic state like Afghanistan -with its strong decentralised power structures- can only function when the respective national and regional leadership circles have the political skills and capacities to work out a ‘balance of power’ that is satisfying to all major actors involved (cf. ICG, 26.3.2012). However, there are no indications that the Taliban are interested to take on this task and will follow any deal they agreed on (Haqqani, 27.6.2013).


There are no ‘moderate’ or ‘good Taliban’ (Jalal, 2015)[8] since they are an anti-systemic and anti-democratic force which is trapped in its own fundamentalist ideology and, in order to keep the movement going, it has to reject Afghanistan’s current democratic system of governance, its constitution and any consensus based negotiated power-sharing (cf. Baqi, 8.5.2013; Haqqani, Hussain, 27.6.2013). In this context, the new active role of China in the facilitation of the current peace talks with the Taliban might help to convince them to agree to a negotiated peace settlement, at least for a limited period of time.

Even if the ongoing ‘peace talks’ lead to a political settlement, it will remain as another expression of hopeless ‘expedient optimism’. The main facilitators -Pakistan and China- should know best that the Taliban never stick to their promises. For example, until today the Pakistan Taliban broke each agreement with the country’s military. Likewise, despite giving Beijing guarantees that Afghan territory (during the Taliban regime from 1996-2001) will be not used for anti-Chinese activities, Taliban turned a blind eye towards their Uighur affiliates carrying out terrorists activities in order to destabilize China’s western Xinjiang province (cf. Pantucci/Schwarck, 2014; Wolf, 21.7.2015). The fact on the ground proves that, until now neither China’s nor Pakistan’s influence helped to reduce the level of violence in the country. Therefore, armed confrontation will remain the norm rather than an exception.


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[1] Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf is director of research at the Brussels based think tank South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) and senior researcher (member) at the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University.

[2] US White House spokesman Josh Earnest quoted in Aljazeera (8.7.2015).

[3] According to one source, quoted in Ruttig (17.5.2015).

[4] Dr. Massouda Jalal, former Minister of Women’s Affairs (2004-2006) and only woman candidate in the 2004 Afghan presidential election in an interview with the author, 25.4.2015.

[5] Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen quoted in Clark (19.6.2013).

[6] A body, initially established by former Afghan President Harmid Karzai to handle reconciliation with the Taliban (Waldman, 20.6.2013).

[7] Ahmed, Houriya, 3.5.2009. See in detail: Semple (2014) and Giustozzi (2010).

[8] Dr. Massouda Jalal, former Minister of Women’s Affairs (2004-2006) and only woman candidate in the 2004 Afghan presidential election in an interview with the author, 25.4.2015.

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Negotiating the Non-negotiable: Taliban, Peace and Democracy – Afghanistan’s impossible triangle