Talking to 'Terrorists': Facilitating Dialogue with the Afghan Taliban

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 04 | pg. 2/5 |

2.2. Conflict History

Having identified the conflict parties as part of the present-day situation, it is important to understand history and to consider ICAR’s33 continuum of five relationship stages: from cooperation, competition, tension and conflict to crisis.34 This subsection interprets defining events and power dynamics of the past to create an understanding of today’s perceptions and identities. Due to the limited space of this paper, the analysis cannot go as far as mapping each past conflict or crisis as suggested by Bright. An important aim is to understand the primary parties’ past grievances and the psychological effects to identify the interests underlying current positions. It is suggested that in order to design a sound intervention, it is helpful to consider points in time where today’s conflicting parties were able to peacefully co-exist.

Afghanistan, as part of the ancient Silk Route, has a rich history, with influences from Macedonian Greek conquest under Alexander the Great (329 BC), Arab armies bringing Islam by 654 AD, Persian rule from 874 to 999 AD, Mongol conquest by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, and periods of Afghan tribes conquering Indo-Afghan empires to the east from the 16th century.35 This explains Afghanistan’s current ethnic make-up and the regional differences in language and culture.

The military coup against President Daud in 1978 set off the country’s disintegration36 and started fighting, which continued through the Soviet invasion, the Civil War and the NATO intervention. Throughout, national, regional and international actors have engaged in peace talks and attempted to broker deals largely driven by external motivations.37 The most important historical events are listed hereafter:

Figure 1: Major Events in Afghan History38

Figure 1

A history of fighting and systematic killing of one’s opposition (including civilians) after taking power, has led to major mistrust and conspiracy theories.39 Furthermore, external aid was often linked to military support and corrupt favouritism40, rather than to enable economic development.

Figure 1 shows the dominant power during given time periods. The mujahidin, strongly backed financially by outside actors such as the U.S. and Saudi Arabia41, emerged during the years of the Soviet invasion, and significant actors within today’s Taliban, including its leader Mullah Omar, fought fiercely against the communist regime of President Najibullah.42 Pakistan played an important role therein, giving shelter to mujahidin leaders in Peshawar, of which Tajik Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmad Shah Masud, who was targeted and killed by an Al-Qaeda suicide attack on 10 September 2001, and Uzbek General Dostum emerged victorious in 1992.43

Changing alliances and the emergence of powerful regional warlords divided the country and further increased mistrust. Jalalabad-based Pashtun mujahidin e.g. held three provinces in the east, Ismael Khan three provinces in the west and Pashtun Hekmetyar controlled small regions south and east of Kabul.44 In January 1994, the latter joined forces with General Dostum, who abandoned his alliance with then President Rabbani to lay siege to Kabul. Strong mafia-like structures and trafficking schemes stem from this period.

With the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996, strict application of sharia law, which had been implemented in Taliban-held provinces, quickly spread to large parts of Afghanistan, with the exception of provinces in the north and north-east held by the Northern Alliance. The Taliban systematically imprisoned or killed regional warlords and their supporters. During the Taliban reign opium production and trafficking was at a historic low, as a result of harsh measures for arrested farmers, such as the breaking of limbs.45 In the post-Taliban years heroin production and export exploded46, and the fact that the Taliban now accept trafficking as a source of income and “extra-legal war economy”47, makes it a priority issue for the security apparatus, but also for Iranian and Western health systems.

After the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, an Interim Administration (AIA) held power for six months before a Loya Jirga48, or “grand council,” appointed a Transitional Authority (ATA), with Karzai as President49, in order to satisfy the large Pashtun population, while drafting the constitution.50 Elections held in 2004 and 2009 were highly contested, especially in the south where some voting offices recorded turnouts of below 5%, due to intimidation by the Taliban, but announced over 100% of possible votes in favour of Karzai. Although Karzai was internationally pressured into accepting a re-count of rigged results, there were no further consequences, encouraging him to repeat similar procedures during 2010 parliamentary elections.51

2.3. Conflict Context

The aforementioned trafficking issue and Afghan history in general, display strong external influence and emphasize the importance of going beyond the local spheres and considering all four levels of conflict.52 Well before the rise of the Taliban in Pakistani refugee camps, the country had been at the centre of power-struggles.53 Today, Pakistan sees Afghan territory as adding strategic military depth in case of an Indian attack. For Europe, Afghanistan holds promise of energy diversification by installing pipelines to deliver largely unexploited Central Asian oil.

Firstly, given Afghanistan’s history of patriarchal leadership and its persistent lack of strong institutions, the individual or personal level is of significant importance. As a result of the early U.S. strategy of CIA-provided funding for regional strongmen54 and smallest possible military involvement, warlords quickly re-emerged after 2001, and they were further strengthened by granting them political recognition through diplomatic visits.55 This mistake, even though later addressed by good governance missions and increased provision of security by ISAF56 weakened the Karzai government, which had emerged from the 2001 Bonn Conference and the subsequent Loya Jirga. The result of this CIA strategy was the creation of multiple regional militias, each some 10,000 strong, and the erosion of central monopoly over the use of force. Additionally, powerful warlords have refused to share taxes and duties with Kabul57 adding to the weakening of state capacities.

Secondly, societal organisation of family, business and, most importantly, ethnic and tribal association dominate Afghan politics, and have to be given specific consideration when discussing power-sharing and the Taliban’s future role. It is at this second level that corruption and power-brokering between Karzai and regional warlords halt progress and allow for the increase in heroin production.58 Tribal divides arise from the history of Afghanistan, linguistic differences and different lifestyles - from nomadic pastoralism to sedentary farming. While some cities see multiple ethnicities, most parts of the country can be associated with one group: Persian/Dari speaking Tajik in western and Hazara in central Afghanistan, Turkic-language speaking Uzbek, Turcoman and Kyrgyz in northern Afghanistan and finally, Pashto-speaking Pashtun tribes south and east. This largely constitutes the dividing line between Dari speaking Shia and otherwise Sunni Muslims.59 All of these observations are strong arguments for the need of a decentralised, federalist structure. Yet, considering the individual level analysis all progress will fail if regional strongmen are unwilling to share power with Kabul and if the “inextricable link”60 between political and economic structures is ignored.

Thirdly, Afghanistan more so than many other countries has to be viewed from an international level. In recent history, after the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, Taliban became synonymous with al-Qaeda and international terrorism. The attacks demonstrated that Lakhdar Brahimi rightfully feared the dangers of disregarding Afghanistan as a “small and far away country”61. However, even after the establishment of ISAF, international priority was the dismantling of al-Qaeda, and the elimination of ‘terrorist cells’, rather than assistance for economic development. It took the UN ten years to distinguish between al-Qaeda and the Taliban on their terrorism blacklist in June 201162, thus preventing a more constructive approach towards the Taliban’s national agenda.

This initial analysis demonstrates the relevance of multiple levels, which according to Dugan demands a specific focus on structural violence, or discrimination by the system based on ethnic belonging.63

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