The Taliban Moderates on Politics, Hardens on Intolerance


Taliban fighters train with their weapons in an undisclosed location in Afghanistan July 14, 2009. (REUTERS/Stringer photo)

The Times of London landed an impossibly rare interview recently with two members of the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban’s top leadership circle. If the ideas expressed during the interview were genuine, and not a rouse, then the Taliban’s platform has undergone a significant transformation.

The two Taliban leaders indicated that Supreme Leader Mullah Omar is willing to hold peace talks. He has dropped his longstanding precondition that all foreign troops must leave Afghanistan before peace talks can begin.

The interview’s biggest shocker is that Omar no longer aims to rule Afghanistan or be involved in the government. This announcement is a giant step towards an eventual reconciliation because Omar claims significant authority: he believes himself to be the successor to the prophet Muhammad.

If Omar remains the Supreme Leader in his own mind and among his followers, then Omar seems incompatible with the new Afghanistan. After all, how can the “Supreme Leader” take a back seat in Afghan society to President Karzai or any future president?

The Taliban needs to clarify what it believes is Mullah Omar’s authority going forward. Will Omar recognize Karzai’s authority as president of the Afghan government? The Times’ interview noted that the Taliban continues to view Karzai as an illegitimate ruler and a Western puppet.

Another finding in the interview is that the Taliban now recognizes the horrendous administrative failure that characterized its rule from 1996 to 2001. The new recognition infers a humbling of the Taliban and a deflating of its ego.

One of the Taliban leaders interviewed stated, “We didn’t have the capacity to govern the country and we were surprised by how things went. We lacked the people with either experience or technical expertise in government.” The Taliban’s village-like leadership style is well-documented in Ahmad Rashid’s “Taliban”.

The two Taliban leaders stated that the Taliban had become too political after it seized power in the 90s. Prior to that period, the men who would lead the Taliban worked in local religious schools. The Taliban became a political and a military movement from 1994 as a reaction against the insecurity of the Afghan civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. One of the Taliban leaders stated, “Now all we’re doing is driving the invader out. We will leave politics to civil society and return to our madrassahs.”

While the interview could be part of a subversive strategy for the Taliban to re-enter Afghan society peacefully in order to take it over from the inside, there is evidence supporting the authenticity of the transformation.

For instance, the Taliban’s official website has been updated to reflect its platform shift. Also, according to the Times’ article, a “senior US military source” confirmed that there is “evidence from many intelligence sources” that the Taliban is ready for “some kind of peace process”.

In fact, anyone following the events in Afghanistan and Pakistan closely since January 2010 will note that the Taliban’s moderation on some points today makes sense, in retrospect, due to the group’s many setbacks over the last four months.

However, while Omar’s moderation on some issues is a positive development, his stance on other issues remains troubling. For starters, the two Taliban leaders interviewed stated that Omar wants to “repair” the Afghan constitution. In contrast, one of President Karzai’s demands on the Taliban is that it accepts the constitution. Omar wants to repair the constitution while Karzai wants Omar to accept it.

The two Taliban leaders should have elaborated more on why the constitution needs repairing and exactly where the constitution is broken. The Taliban is under the erroneous impression that Afghans as a whole do not support the government and would like to see change.

Clearly, Afghans of all backgrounds would like to see improvement in the country but poll after poll, including the Asia Survey, indicate that the overwhelming majority of Afghans support the general direction of the country, despite being unhappy with the economy, the rampant corruption, and the insecurity.

Why the disconnect between Afghan public opinion as it actually is and the Taliban’s perception of it? The reason is likely due to which segment of the population the Taliban associates with, or the pro-Taliban tribes among the ethnic Pashtuns. The Taliban needs to understand that largely only fellow Taliban and Taliban sympathizers share its opinion of the direction of the country.

If Mullah Omar and the other members of the Quetta Shura could take a bus tour of the rest of Afghanistan, they would learn that most Afghans have a different worldview than they do. Afghanistan is not a monolithic Islamic culture. Afghanistan is a country rich in cultural diversification within a broad Islamic tradition, and to govern it effectively, the constitution must not force any one interpretation of Sharia Law on all the people.

Undoubtedly, repairing the Afghan constitution will be an uphill climb for the Taliban. How does one repair what others do not consider broken? Most Afghans believe that their constitution is legitimate. For them, it cannot be “repaired” but it can be amended according to the procedures in Articles 149 and 150.

Perhaps part of the Taliban’s disagreement with the constitution is its recognition and protection of women’s rights. For example, Article 44 of the constitution speaks of the state’s responsibility in promoting education for women. The Taliban disagrees on this point and goes to great lengths to keep women secluded from society.

Another problem that the Taliban has with the constitution may stem from the Taliban’s belief that it (the Taliban) holds the monopoly on Islam. Consequently, the Taliban would like to impose its own harsh interpretation of Sharia Law on all Afghans. This is likely a large part of what the Taliban has in mind when it talks of repairing the constitution. Taliban intolerance for the religious views of the other Afghan ethnic groups is a central feature of its movement.

In reality, the only Afghans that support the Taliban’s version of Islam are segments of the Pashtun ethnic group. The non-Pashtuns, which make up 58% of the population, are unanimously opposed to the Taliban’s take on Sharia Law as are many Durrani Pashtuns. The Asia Poll even indicates that a quarter of Afghans are secular.

Another unsettling Taliban position is its take on foreign troops. While the eventual exodus of foreign troops is a goal that all Afghans (and Americans) support, it is a goal that first requires Afghanistan to stabilize and its security to improve.

In Iraq, for instance, US troops levels are gradually decreasing as the country stabilizes. Only 50,000 US soldiers are expected to be in Iraq by summer’s end. This is down from almost a 100,000 in January.

Mullah Omar can request a timetable for foreign troop withdraws but this must be understood as dependent on the conditions on the ground. Omar may be willing to accept a six-month timetable but he needs to understand that six months is not enough to guarantee the Afghan government’s long-term survival.

In Iraq, the security situation dramatically improved from the fall of 2007. Today, two and a half years later, the US troop drawdown is evident. Afghanistan’s situation is more difficult than Iraq’s because a modern government structure had to be erected from almost nothing and this following nearly 30 years of war. The bottom line is will Mullah Omar be willing to accept foreign troops in Afghanistan for up to ten years or longer if conditions warrant it?

If reconciliation in Afghanistan spreads to all anti-government groups and security were dramatically established as a result, then you could see a sudden and rapid reduction in international forces. Afghanistan’s success is up to the Afghan people.

It remains to be seen if the shakeup in Taliban ideology is ongoing. If it is then we might see a national reconciliation with the Taliban. The members of the Afghan Taliban are Afghan citizens and as such are an important bloc in Afghan society. Nevertheless, the Taliban needs to realize that its views are not representative of the majority of Afghans. Taliban views represent the Taliban.

The Taliban’s Quetta Shura should be welcomed to the upcoming peace talks. At the least, all sides will be able to exchange their ideas and views on Afghanistan. Such an exchange will permit the Afghan and US governments to take the Taliban’s “pulse” and learn a lot about where the Taliban is on a range of issues. The Taliban representatives will also receive an earful and reflect on what they have heard.