Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Engaging the Afghan Taliban: a short history

March 17, 2010
(The niche that once held a giant Buddha, in Bamiyan. Picture by Omar Sobhani)

(The niche that once held a giant Buddha, in Bamiyan. Picture by Omar Sobhani)

For those pushing for high-level political negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to bring to an end to the eight-year war,  two U.S. scholars  in separate pieces are suggesting a walk through recent history  The United States has gone down the path of dialogue with the group before and suffered for it, believing against its own better judgement in the Taliban’s promises until it ended up with the September 11, 2001 attacks, says  Michael Rubin from the American Enterprise Institute in this article in Commentary.

Rubin, who is completing a history of U.S. engagement with rogue regimes, says unclassified U.S. State Department documents show that America opened talks with the Taliban soon after the group  emerged as a powerful force in Kandahar in 1994 and well over a year before they took over Kabul. From then on it was a story of   diplomats doing everything possible to remain engaged with the Taliban in the hope it would modify their  behaviour, and that they would be persuaded to expel Osama bin Laden who had  by then relocated from Sudan.  The Taliban, on the other hand, in their meetings with U.S. diplomats, would stonewall on terrorism  but would also dangle just enough hope to keep the officials calling and forestall punitive strategies.

Over a five year period of engagement, the United States gained little while the Taliban grew even more radicalised and the threat from al Qaeda more serious. Rubin details how State Department officials were repeatedly misled by Taliban officials harbouring bin Laden even after two U.S. embassies were attacked in Africa in  1998.  They even told them they would protect the Buddha statues in Bamiyan which were subsequently destroyed.

“The Taliban had like many rogue regimes, acted in bad faith.  They had engaged not to compromise, but to buy time. They had made many promises, but did not keep a single one. The Taliban refused to isolate, let alone, expel Bin Laden , and al Qaeda metastasized,” says Rubin. The Sept 11 attacks were plotted at a time when U.S. engagement with the Taliban was in full swing. 

Some of the logic and even the language used at the time is eerily similar to the current push for a political settlement with senior Taliban figures.  There was a difference between al Qaeda and the Taliban and it was possible that the latter could be peeled away,  U.S. officials and political commentators said at the time.  Second, Pakistan with its close ties to the Taliban was a key player offering advice to Washington, as it seeks to at the present time.

Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation says on  both counts America ended up making grievous mistakes and warns the Obama administration against repeating them as it seeks an exit strategy from the region.  The U.S. had misread the intentions of the Taliban and underestimated the strength of their bond with al-Qaeda when it sought to engage them before 9/11 attacks, she says.  And much of this was because U.S. officials were acting largely on “inaccurate advice” from Pakistani leaders whose interests did not converge with those of Washington.

The  question to ask now is can the Taliban and al-Qaeda really be split apart after supporting each other on the battlefield for the last eight years ? Without a doubt, the Taliban have benefited significantly from their relationship with al-Qaeda, receiving strategic direction and ideological inspiration, access to international financial networks, and recruits and training for suicide attacks inside Afghanistan, Curtis says.

“Some indications point to a Taliban leadership that has become so fused with al-Qaeda and its virulently anti-West, pan-Islamic ideology that it would be nearly impossible for the leadership to break those ties without losing its raison d’etre.”


I most emphatically agree with the assessment that neither the Taliban nor the al Qaeda are going to change spots. It amazes me that there are people who actually believe Mullah Omar when he says that this time round he will not permit terrorists and militants to use Afghanistan to launch attacks on another country. Shades of Musharraf’s promise to India? Surely sometimes, at least, people will learn lessons from the past? Or will they?

Just goes to show that people, when in a fix, will believe what they wish to and pray that their wishes becomes horses.


Who armed the Taliban- remember the Russian occupation of Afghanistan…The US never seems to learn its lesson. Pakistan can never become a strategic ally for a fight against Taliban or Al- Qaeda as long as Pakistan has strategic interests in Afghanistan. India’s proximity to Kabul is a sore eye for Pakistan, they only way they can control the region is by supporting and aiding the Taliban or the al-qaeda covertly. The billions dollars aid given to Pakistan to help the US campaign in the region has gone in buying and upgrading it military armament for a confrontation with India. It is time for the US to analyze its past history of engagement with Pakistan, Afghanistan and India and accordingly come up with a workable strategy and stop wasting tax payer’s fund which could have been put to better use.

Posted by Jay | Report as abusive

It seems to me that the problem in dealing with the Taliban is in altering the nature of its inflows of men and money. There appears to be a near endless supply of young men with no realistic prospect to establish a stable life in their homelands. From Palestine to the Swat valley there are a lot of people who are very unhappy with the American presence. I dont’t think that any shift in the position of the leadership of the Taliban could come unless the position of the young men joining changed first. For that to happen either a new enemy would have to establish itself in the general conciousness, or the American presence would have to diminish. I think that the Taliban leadership is aware of both this and the reluctance of the Americans to establish a permanent presences in the area. With the situation as it is, there doesn’t seem to be any point in the Taliban negotiating in any other way than the one they are are.

Posted by max | Report as abusive

If you people think taliban has the brain to hoodwink international community then you are at fault..
By believing that taliban’s actions are of its own, you are proving that you are no match for Pakistanis.. every action of taliban is based on ISI guidance.


Posted by Dcarlos | Report as abusive


It is a grave mistake to be legitimizing the Taliban. It was not that long ago that they were flogging women, beating men for not wearing beards and lopping off hands and heads.

This Taliban creed embraces backwardness and engaging with them will bring nothing good. Sure it may bring stability through fear, tyranny and oppression, but is that what the civilized world wants? concede and allow oppression and tyrrany to bring stability to the masses? Even Red China has stability on its masses through tyrrany, control and oppression, but the spirit of the people will always be broken.

A hybrid governance of democracy and tribal manners should be setup in Afghanistan, with Pakistan kept out of Afghanistan, nothing good will come of Pakistan meddling there, only mold, fungus and terrorism and the next 911 upon the U.S.

Posted by G-W | Report as abusive

Self-serving historical revisionism, how sweet!

Posted by babyjee | Report as abusive

To negotiate or not. A couple of interesting pieces, one in the Wall Street Journal that says the current pressure for an Afghan government-led “reconciliation” process can only lead to a temporary resolution of the conflict. The long-term strategic objective of denying space to violent Islamist groups will remain unfulfilled. Here’s the link : 052748703909804575124040217173382.html?m od=googlenews_wsj

Ahmad Rashid, on the other hand, argues in the Washington Post that the longer the United States and its NATO delay talks with the Taliban, the greater will be the risk to the broader region. Here’s the link to his article in the Washington Post : ntent/article/2010/03/16/AR2010031603302 _pf.html

Posted by Sanjeev Miglani | Report as abusive

India needs to accept that Pakistan did the right thing in helping US to throw the communists out of Afghanistan. Communism and socialism are more evil than all the fanatics of the world put together. We also need to accept that the US did the wrong thing in abandoning the Mujahideen fighters once the communists had been defeated.

Any normally moral and grateful country would have granted a life long pension to these honest brave fighters who had gone through a period of lot of personal sacrifices during the 10 year war.

Since the Afghan youth had learnt no other skills than fighting gorilla wars, and they had to do something for a living, they got transformed into the Taliban….

Pakistan of course cheated all the way. First it cheated the US by stealing a lot of supplies meant for the Afghan communist war to instigate insurgency in India, then it cheated by helping the Taliban to take over Afghanistan and now is again cheating by helping the US to fight the Taliban….I doubt if even Pakistan knows whose side it is on any particular day….

Posted by Sanjay Negi | Report as abusive

@The question to ask now is can the Taliban and al-Qaeda really be split apart after supporting each other on the battlefield for the last eight years ?”

Sanjeev: All I can give you is a smile over this? See the picture above that you posted. This is by Taliban.

Taliban will pretend to split with A-Q to gain power after which it will again be chocolate and water with A-Q at the earliest possible time. Why this will not be the case is not understandable.

Everyone is trying to paint a nice face on Taliban–call them Pushtoons and hence need to be part of the system. This has arisen not that what they think is true. It is because they have to defeat the monster and now they are ill defining the monster. It may not be black, but it is very very grey—not white at all–the face of Pushtoon Taliban. This is nothing to do with “Pushtoon” package. It is their ultrafundementalistic ideology that does not even align with the culture in the poor nation Afghanistan.

Some erroneously or in denial or on need, call Taliban as Pushtoons. This is just the same way Indians will call LeT as Pakistanis. True in both cases. If Taliban represent Pushtoon face, then LeT represent Pakistani face? Sorry to say one can dig one’s head and expose ignorance.

There will be a deal in the end but I hope at least those who shake hand would be graceful enough to tell the truth to the world and not pack of lies on which future problems will be based. Sweetening agent and lies are different.

Hands will be shaken and consolatory victory will be achieved by labeling Taliban as no more the hosts of A-Q that attacked the USA.

I heard regime change but they are kicking it up a notch by changing the mentality of the regime!!!

Posted by rajeevk | Report as abusive

Correction to my earlier post:

“It is because they have FAILED to defeat the monster and now they are ill defining the monster.”

Posted by rajeevk | Report as abusive

BEST it would be if U.S. is having modified its own behaviour ESpecially economics patient dirivative tax

Posted by Problem solved | Report as abusive

And no more GALBraithian Forest

Posted by Problem solved | Report as abusive

Taliban is a puppet moving with the strings manipulated by Pak military. By dealing with the puppet, the US is simply fooling itself. Pakistan has been cheating the US and it is blatantly obvious to everyone other than the Americans and their blind allies. Taliban cannot survive with Pak military’s support. The US would have been wiser to spend its energy in taking out the Pak military criminal infrastructure. Taliban is a lifeless dummy without Pak military. It is a big waste of time negotiating with a puppet. The US should be dealing with the Pak military, forcing them to fight the Taliban head on. Even there the Pak military has dodged everything. It has danced around South Waziristan and did nothing at the end. All the TTP leaders have been knocked out by the US. Haqqani, Hekmatyar networks are still alive. All these are puppets controlled by the ISI and Pak military. Until this sinister establishment is taken on directly by the US, there will be no resolution in Afghanistan or the entire region. Pakistan is waiting out the US.


Any analyst with a wrong premise is very likely to end up with a wrong prognosis and hence a wrong solution. The american think tanks have to forget their university lessons and the given texts if they realy wish to understand the so called Talibans. The Talibans are Pashtoons as a start they should therefore drop the label of ‘students’ for the group which is now the resistance force and let us try to obtain the key features from the history before dealing with them;
1. The Pashtoons do not negotiate with foreigners but simply specify demands. Under no circumstances they would tolerate the foreigners’ presence in their land, unless they give them assylum.

2. The are made up of several tribes, each being independent of the other but having a common culture and tradition.
Ofcourse the current Afghanistan also has non Pashtoon citizens who call themselves as Afghans. The US invaded the country with their aid and this act of aggression is not forgotten in the land.

The Rubins of the US should come out of their illusary world by making demands.In my opinion the interest of the US are not very different from the interests of the Pashtoos. Both Nations cherish their freedom and want peace. This objecive is not difficult to realise. The rest is all humbug.

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

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