Rhetoric and Decentralization

PAUL STANILAND — Uncertainty regarding internal Afghan Taliban politics limits options for leaders in both Kabul and Islamabad. 

Although Afghan officials announced in early February 2016 that renewed peace talks between the Taliban and Kabul would resume, on 25 April President Ashraf Ghani announced this effort’s failure. Following significant Taliban operations since January in Kunduz, Sangin, and Kabul, how have negotiating conditions and political climates changed to impact the way both sides conceive of and pursue such negotiations?

There are three overall dynamics that shape the negotiation climate in Afghanistan: first, the bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship, which is linked to ongoing US, Indian, and Russian presence; second, political development within the Kabul regime, and challenges the Afghan president has faced when building a robust governing coalition; and third, the fairly murky internal structure of the Afghan Taliban leadership.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have historically had a tense relationship, particularly regarding the status of the Durand Line — which cuts through the Pashtun tribal areas and further south through the Balochistan region — and the Pashtun minority in Pakistan’s northwest zones. Security officers in Islamabad have thus viewed Afghanistan as a potentially destabilizing force along Pakistan’s frontier, as well as an arena in which to exercise Pakistani influence and power in the region. These tensions were exacerbated by the Taliban’s 2001 collapse in Kabul, and the installation of the new, US-backed regime. Since 2001, Pakistani government and intelligence officials made repeated promises that they could deliver Taliban commanders to the negotiating table, although it remains unclear exactly what level of influence Islamabad has over the Afghan Taliban. Over the past decade, Pakistani officials have failed to fulfill these pledges.

Does Pakistan truly enjoy the high degree of influence implied by their promises in 2001-2002, and have since chosen not to exercise it on this issue? Or does Islamabad lack meaningful leverage on key diplomatic issues? There were efforts made by the Pakistani military after the 11 September 2001 attacks to broker some kind of compromise solution that would have kept the Taliban government in Kabul, which failed. Ultimately, it is important not to overestimate the extent to which Pakistani officials can control the Afghan Taliban’s broad strategic direction.

President Ghani’s recent declarations were born from this historical opacity and series of unfulfilled promises from Pakistan. He had hoped to essentially go over the Taliban leaders’ heads, to offer rapprochement with the Pakistanis. These efforts were handicapped by Ghani’s close relationship with American and, to a lesser degree, Indian governments. Pakistan is not interested in working in conjunction with either of these countries.

These diplomatic challenges have been deepened by Ghani’s failure to build a robust, consensus government that can act in agreement on key policy issues. This inability is born both from feuding in Kabul, as well as background threats of warlord mobilization and local-level resistance to any negotiating agenda, especially in northern Afghanistan.

Uncertainty and mystery regarding internal Afghan Taliban politics and succession further undermine Kabul’s ability to develop a meaningful negotiations platform with the insurgency. There have been recurring reports of internal Taliban feuding over leadership succession in the wake of the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death. There have also been emergent clashes over the issue of Islamic State mobilization — some Taliban commanders have defected, while others returned to the organization. Yet despite these challenges, the Afghan Taliban has been able to sustain major guerrilla operations as well as more audacious attacks in Kunduz or Kabul. For an organization that seems to have some degree of internal dissension, it appears surprisingly robust in terms of its operational ability.

Since NATO forces entered Afghanistan in 2001-2002, the Taliban’s battlefield strategy has increasingly been fused with an ongoing political effort — an attempt to “out-govern” Kabul. How have emergent movements like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (IS-K) constructed alternative political projects to rival Taliban efforts — does this process represent a failure of Taliban social and political mobilization?

The Islamic State has been most successful at attracting relatively marginalized, local and mid-level Afghan Taliban commanders. They have not been able to create major or severe splits and defections within the Taliban organization. The IS-K has acted strategically by not going after high-ranking Taliban leaders or powerful factional military commanders. This policy may reflect the impact of ongoing internal feuding within the Taliban itself. More importantly, however, it highlights the fact that the Afghan Taliban has been forced to decentralize following the 2009 American troop surge and re-focus on leadership decapitation.

These strategies never managed to break the organization, but they pushed Taliban authority down to the local level. Combined with uncertainty regarding Mullah Omar and top-level leadership, these developments create good opportunity for poaching by IS-K. However, the fact that the Afghan Taliban has been able to fight Islamic State incursion suggests that it still possesses serious resources, and commitment to resist encroachment. Thus it would be quite surprising if IS-K is ever able to replace or seriously displace the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The United States announced in November 2015 that it considers the Taliban an important negotiating partner in Afghanistan. Yet this label did not apply to the Haqqani Network — a critical stakeholder in the Afghan insurgency, nominally subsumed under the Taliban umbrella. Is it possible to pursue dialogue according to a seemingly patchwork process of engagement with the broader insurgency’s more “palatable” elements?

Both the Americans and the Indians hate the Haqqani network; the Pakistanis appear to love it. On the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan, there have been entire regions in which Haqqani units have been able to operate with relative freedom; they were not hit during Islamabad’s 2014 offensive along the country’s northwest frontier.

Any effort to negotiate a deal with one aspect of the Afghan Taliban insurgency may be spoiled by Haqqani elements, who continue their military operations despite — or to actively disrupt — any dialogue with Kabul. It might be possible for either the Afghan government, along with more moderate elements within the Afghan Taliban, to use negotiations as a tool by which to marginalize or outflank more radical factions within the organization, like the Haqqani Network. This type of strategy has been effective in other environments, most notably in Northern Ireland, but thus far failed in Afghanistan. As of 25 April, any sort of dialogue seems exceedingly unlikely. 

Although internecine conflict has undermined the Taliban’s reliability during negotiations, the Haqqani Network has demonstrated singular focus and ability — carrying out a series of attacks in and around Kabul. While settlement might be reached with Taliban commanders, what type of threat do cohesive subgroups like Haqqani represent both to a future peace deal and to the overall insurgency’s cohesiveness?

The Haqqani network is mysterious. In many ways, they can be considered as an entirely separate organization from the Afghan Taliban — even though they have formally placed themselves under the Taliban’s aegis. Haqqani leaders are more interested in northwestern Pakistan. They have been shown willingness to act as brokers between the military and other Islamist factions within the frontier zones. Thus the Haqqani network is viewed, within the Pakistani context, as the relatively more pro-state actors with whom Islamabad can do business. There is a radical difference in perspectives regarding the Haqqanis — while Pakistani officials view them as a more moderate group, policymakers in Afghanistan largely consider them as spoilers to any potential peace settlement with the Taliban. Ultimately, it appears as if the Haqqani leadership is only really interested in negotiating a deal that reflects the will of the Pakistani military and government.

On 25 April 2016 President Ghani declared that he would lodge a complaint with the United Nations Security Council if Pakistan refuses to take military action against Taliban leaders operating from its soil. His warning represents a hardening of Kabul’s tone and diplomatic strategy with its neighbor. How has Pakistan failed to meet Ghani’s expectations — why has Kabul decided now to sharpen its rhetoric?

The reason for Kabul’s sharpened rhetoric is simple: their previous strategy vis-a-vis Islamabad had failed. The military is growing more powerful in Pakistan — the Chief of Army Staff, Raheel Sharif, has been showing his ability to root out corruption within the military, pushing other sectors within Pakistan to engage in similar actions. The Pakistani military is not particularly vulnerable at this point, and is not really susceptible to any Afghan coercion efforts. Rumors have developed — along with a New York Times article last year — that the Afghan intelligence services have propped up anti-government insurgent forces inside Pakistan. These efforts have largely produced little positive leverage for Kabul. Rather, Pakistan’s military leadership will likely continue to follow its current trajectory in Afghanistan and in its restive frontier provinces — supporting the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.

Ultimately, the Pakistani army has become a more dominant political actor in recent years — its pattern of selective repression of various insurgent elements has not changed significantly. The military attacks those groups that are ideologically opposed to the state; it cuts separate deals with intermediate groups that have been known to adopt pro- and anti-government positions; and Pakistan’s generals largely leave alone those groups like the Afghan Taliban or Haqqanis who actively bolster Islamabad’s strategic position. 

Despite its links to al-Qaeda, Pakistani officials have been reluctant to consider the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan a terrorist organization. Yet the organization has evolved into a full-fledged insurgency that poses  challenges to Pakistani state and society. How has Islamabad’s consideration of and response to this insurgency evolved, especially since 2001?

The Afghan Taliban is focused on its operations inside Afghanistan, but nonetheless has significant presence in Pakistan — particularly in Quetta and Baluchistan. Also in Pakistan there is the Tehrik-i Taliban (TTP), which is primarily based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Since the early 1990s, the Pakistan state — both military and civilian — has been friendly toward the Afghan Taliban, considering them as both a force for stability in Afghanistan and as the promulgators of a favorable religious project compatible with that promoted by security elites in Pakistan. This position has not changed significantly since 2001.

There has been a much more chaotic and dynamic process underscoring the Pakistani state’s relationship with the TTP and its splinter groups. In 2002-2005, following spillover from the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military began to push into TTP-dominated frontier regions that had historically not been heavily governed by the central administration. These government efforts fueled mobilization by local, Afghan Taliban-influenced armed actors against Islamabad. In December 2007 these various groups aggregated into what is today known as the TTP. The Pakistani government responded to the TTP’s birth through a dual process, at once negotiating with individual factions under the group’s umbrella, and devising overall strategy to deal with the general TTP coalition as a whole.

Due to the TTP’s disorderly origins, the group’s organizational history has been heavily fragmented — it has always been a parochial group with different, local power centers. Between 2004-2009, there was real ambiguity regarding where each of these distinct factions stood vis-a-vis the Pakistani state and military. Since 2009, these elements have increasingly claimed distinguishable political positions. The politico-military landscape is thus much more complicated with regards to the TTP than the Afghan Taliban. Today, hard-core TTP elements are being targeted by the Pakistani military, while more palatable or friendly factions enjoy Islamabad’s support.

In the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPP), Pakistani officials have described their struggle in “existential” terms. How close do the threats Islamabad faces relate to those with which Kabul must grapple?

The clearest difference between the groups operating in these regions is that those organizations that are Kabul’s allies are Islamabad’s enemies, and, to a more limited extent, vice-versa. The manifestations of these conflicts appear on the surface to be quite similar: suicide attacks in major cities, strikes against security personnel on the periphery and in urban centers. While there does exist a nexus of conflict along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier region, the directions of violence are quite varied. The groups operating from this region do not pose the same kind of threat to the Pakistani and Afghan governments. The actors and sources of violence are quite different for Islamabad and Kabul. These differences are at the root of bilateral tension between the two countries. If they were both fighting the same elements — the Haqqani network, for example — the geopolitical situation would be radically different. Because there is no sense of shared threat, there are deep tensions and strategic disagreement over regional policy within these critical zones.

The ability of various armed actors to seize and hold territory, and to carry out dramatic attacks in urban areas, exerts a profound influence to shape the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategic nexus. Pakistani officials often complain of a tendency in Afghan media to blame any and all threats that Kabul faces on amplified Pakistani support for the Taliban. Yet if the Afghan government cannot counter the military effectiveness of Taliban insurgent factions on the battlefield, any consideration of Pakistan’s role may ultimately be of secondary importance.

Writing in 2001, Olivier Roy noted that “Taliban Islamic fundamentalism has become…too rigid, simplistic and oppressive to retain Afghan loyalties, and too closely associated with foreign methods” as well as “regional and ethnic loyalties.” Has the group’s early 2000s reliance on Pashtun support, centered in Kandahar, evolved meaningfully since — how does the Taliban leadership today characterize its role as an alternative national governing body?

The Taliban has made some attempts to learn from their past governance mistakes. The organization certainly still enjoys a strong Pashtun support base, although the group has made some attempts to expand its influence into traditionally non-Pashtun areas, including de-tribalized Pashtun communities in northern Afghanistan. In terms of Roy’s quote, it is ultimately very difficult to know ex ante how much rigidity or authoritarianism will prove to be too much in any given governance method. There have been many examples in Afghanistan and elsewhere of groups — Afghan Taliban, the TTP, or even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) —that practice incredibly strict policies, but manage to remain in power. Analysts often focus too heavily on “hearts and minds” and a group’s need to secure mass popular loyalty, at the expense of considering there ways in which armed groups mobilize and govern.


PAUL STANILAND is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he co-directs the Program on International Security Policy. He is the author of Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Cornell University Press, 2014).

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