The recent offer by President Ghani to the Taliban to start reconciliation talks has received no positive answer despite containing a few new elements: some promise of the Taliban taking part in a future review of the Afghan Constitution, a Taliban political office in Kabul, with members being issued Afghan passports, and a ceasefire. The offer was widely reported in the media, but the Taliban essentially ignored it. The speculation flourished in the media as to why the Taliban did not take the offer, or at least engage with it.
A common explanation put forward to explain why the Taliban have so far shown little interest in engaging in reconciliation talks with Kabul is because they feel that they are gaining a military edge and that either they will win the war, or strengthen their negotiating position in the future (so why hurry?). However, this is not necessarily true. What we hear from Taliban contacts is that -- despite the gradual erosion of government influence and control in the rural areas -- the Taliban ‘elite’ is not happy about the way the war is going. The leadership council and the top military leaders had set for themselves ambitious aims (although they never announced them in public): such as taking and holding whole provinces, including the provincial capitals. These aims were set in 2014-15, when the Americans seemed to be bailing out of combat operations in Afghanistan. At that point, the Taliban had a serious chance of making a breakthrough, but despite coming close to it, they were never able to hold a province (Kunduz) in its virtual entirety for more than two weeks. From 2016 onwards the Americans gradually tip-toed into combat operations again, making it harder for the Taliban to completely seize cities, and even harder holding on to them. This failure is a source of much recrimination within the Taliban.
There are two other reasons why the Taliban leadership does not necessarily think time is playing in its favour. One is that the Taliban’s Amir, Haibatullah Akhund, is in a weak position at the top of the organisation and risks losing external and internal support if he does not start delivering more.
The other is that the cohesiveness of the Taliban, never very high, is getting much worse. The reintegration of the Haqqani network into the Quetta Shura’s chain of command in 2015 has only temporarily made things better; now Serajuddin Haqqani and Haibatullah are according to sources in very bad terms with each other. The reintegration of the Peshawar Shura into Quetta’s chain of command was another short-lived success: the Peshawar Shura has de facto disintegrated and the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan are at their weakest for years. Now even the leader of the Shura of the North, Qari Baryal, has broken relations with Haibatullah. In Quetta and in southern Afghanistan, Serajuddin Haqqani has now unprecedented influence, that he uses for contrasting Haibatullah; the Ishaqzai Taliban are not yet reconciled with Haibatullah and do not cooperate with him. Haibatullah’s only recent success has been the recent reconciliation with Abdul Qayum Zakir in an effort to pacify the Alizai tribe, to which Zakir belongs, and appointed him head of the logistics commission a few days ago.
But then, if the Taliban are not so certain of the bright path ahead, why are they not negotiating with Kabul?
First of all, the international relations and funding of the Taliban, which are generally poorly understood, represent a major obstacle. Despite a growing literature on the support that over the years has been accruing to them from Pakistan, Iran and the Arab Gulf, somehow commentators, observers and policy makers seem to assume that such support comes without strings attached, that constrain the freedom of manoeuvre of the Taliban leadership.
Second, as mentioned already, the Taliban are not a unified entity and there are multiple centers of power within it. In order for the official leadership of the Taliban to take a position on such a controversial topic it needs to consult all the different centers of power that to various degree recognize it as ‘the leadership’. Clearly, some of these centers of power fiercely oppose any idea of reconciliation: we can just mention the Haqqani network as the main example. The Haqqani directly control 15% of the Taliban’s manpower, and have influence of many other smaller Taliban fronts, which they support in various ways.
Third, when seen through Taliban eyes, President Ghani’s offers might not seem so attractive. The review of the Constitution might well boil down to a modest Taliban delegation joining the future Constitutional Loya Jirga. The Taliban for sure would like a review process in which they represented half or so of the ‘experts’ reviewing the Constitution. A ceasefire would benefit Kabul mainly, as the Afghan security forces have long lost the initiative in the conflict. The Taliban might agree to it at some point, but, as it stands, they are not going to view it as a concession from Kabul, but rather as a concession they might make to Kabul if everything else is satisfying for them.
Finally, an office in Kabul compares poorly with the office the Taliban have in Doha and that Ghani seeks to close down. Although Haibatullah is not himself an extremist, there are enough hardliners within the Taliban to mean that any rushed decision to sit at a table with Kabul and negotiate would badly split the Taliban. It might well deprive them of much of their funding as well. It is not clear what Haibatullah would get for that: the end state of the talks is foggy and the very fact that President Ghani’s offer was made in public probably arouses suspicions in Quetta and Karachi, where most Taliban offices are. After all, Haibatullah’s predecessor Akhtar Mohammad Mansur tried to negotiate, and split the Taliban for little concrete gain. The reward for his efforts to negotiate was a US drone strike that killed him. Haibatullah needs to consolidate his leadership position before he can even think of talks with Kabul, and to do that he needs to score better on the battlefield. The fighting season started early this year, with the campaign for Farah province, where Haibatullah is trying to earn his first great military success.