Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Engaging the Afghan Taliban: a short history
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.”