By Jesse Hembruff (in Waterloo)

As the war in Afghanistan continues, leaders are taking the view that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban will be necessary for long-term stability in Afghanistan.  However, despite nearly ten years of fighting, the organizational structure of the Taliban remains opaque, with important implications for the negotiation process. 

Would the Taliban be sufficiently organized to carry through on a settlement negotiated on behalf of the entire movement, or are they so decentralized that individual commanders can be lured away from the movement?  These are the issues addressed in a recent report by the Century Foundation, Negotiating with the Taliban: Issues and Prospects.  The author, Antonio Giustozzi, finds that the Taliban movement is a decentralized network, with small groups organized around charismatic leaders reporting up the command chain.  However, efforts to peel away commanders from the broader movement are a direct threat to the Taliban, and are likely to provoke a response from its leadership.

The various groups that make up the Taliban vary widely in their ideology, allegiances, and closeness to the Pakistani ISI or Al-Qaeda.  In many groups, fighters are loyal to their commanders first and foremost, however there exist some radicalized groups committed to broad ideological factors.  There are also groups such as the Haqqani network – closely linked to the Taliban but distinct – which are believed to be in close contact with Pakistan’s ISI.  The Taliban also maintain contact with a variety of local militia or Islamist groups, with varying degrees of control.

Giustozzi identifies three crises that highlight the decentralized structure of the Taliban and its internal divisions.  First, in 2007 Mullah Omar gave commanders discretion on whether to impose social edicts, such as the unpopular ban on music.  Second, as the Taliban were expanding from their base in Kandahar there was a sharp drop in discipline, and looting became rampant.  The Taliban leadership was able to restore its image by punishing and sometimes executing the commanders responsible, but it highlighted the diversity among the lowest levels of the Taliban.  Finally in February 2010, several high-level Taliban (including Mullah Omar’s deputy) were arrested by Pakistani security services.  This followed rumours of divergences within the leadership circle, especially over the question of negotiations (which the arrestees supported).  The dynamics of this arrest, and the motives of Pakistan’s ISI, was also examined by a recent LSE report, covered here

The Taliban’s stated demands for a negotiated settlement are well known by now: the removal of foreign troops and the recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate (non-terrorist) organization.  However, even if these goals were met, there would be some doubt as to whether the Taliban leadership would follow though.  Aside from group divisions over the question of negotiation mentioned above, many Taliban also feel they have gained the upper hand and would be unlikely to negotiate until they have exhausted their military options.  And if negotiations were to move forward, the Taliban would almost certainly demand a rewrite, or an extensive modification of the Afghan Constitution.  Fears that the security forces may retaliate after disarmament may also lead the Taliban to demand integration into the ANSF, and similar fears that Karzai may renege on political appointments may lead to demands for a power sharing arrangement.  Finally, the Taliban is almost certain to demand some sort of financial compensation since they would have to give up their current revenue streams, such as illegal taxation.

The author contends that Taliban leadership would be antagonistic to the idea of groups negotiating individually.  Not only does this risk fracturing the movement, but it would be difficult for the Taliban to negotiate military integration and financial compensation for the movement as a whole unless there was a unified negotiating platform.  Arrests of commanders seeking individual negations seem to validate this theory, and the author also cites reports that Pakistan is trying to bring together the Taliban and other Islamist groups for unified negotiations with the Afghan government.  However, despite Karzai’s rhetoric he has an incentive to negotiate only with small groups, which he can control and manipulate.  A negotiated settlement with the movement as a whole would compromise Karzai’s power if it included power sharing and military integration agreements, and so is likely to be unpalatable to Karzai and the international forces. 

This contradiction highlights the difficulties of the negotiation process.  The international forces and the Karzai regime have an incentive to attempt negotiations with individual commanders, but doing so is likely to provoke retaliation, and harden the group as a whole against negotiation.  On the other hand, the Taliban have an incentive to negotiate together to generate the greatest benefits, yet coordinating with disparate commanders is difficult.  Local commanders may believe they have the upper hand, or that they could generate the best individual outcome by negotiating individually, or may be too committed to ideological goals to accept negotiation.

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