“Melian Strategy” Why did the Taliban fight and negotiate at the same time?

Irfan Yar (Originally published on Saturday، August 14، 2021)  As the US completes its troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban has seized the security vacuum to launch massive assaults. The group has unleashed violent chaos across the country and captured more than two-third of the territory, as per senior EU official estimates.[i] On one hand, the insurgents have tightened their grip on seizing the provinces through military means. On the other hand, the insurgents claim that they want to resolve the issue in peaceful ways. “We are committed to finding a diplomatic solution for Afghanistan; the US-Taliban Doha agreement and the Intra-Afghan dialogue are the proofs that the Taliban want to solve the issue through negotiations,”[ii] said Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader of the Taliban, on Wednesday, in Doha. Furthermore, Taliban leaders urge governors, military leaders, and other Jamiat Islami party leaders to surrender and put an end to the 40-years long conflict via negotiations. So, the question is, why have the Taliban fighters intensified violence and, at the same time, stress on making peace?   Why Taliban came to the negotiation table?   

Although the Taliban claims that it is committed to the Doha negotiations, it appears to have participated not as an alternative to its military efforts but to make some extra gains from it. 

  1. Taliban as a political actor: they wanted to demonstrate domestically and globally that Taliban is not just a militant group, but rather a political actor willing to negotiate through diplomatic channels. Besides, they used their offices as a platform to aggravate their propaganda, specifically through international media. In their speeches, the Taliban often claimed that they are committed to protecting human rights, women’s rights and minority rights. Such claims are well thought remarks to propagate themselves to the West as “relatively moderate.”
  1. Releasing their fighters: throughout the peace talks, Taliban was able to free  thousands of their fighters in Afghani prisons. This has boosted their popularity among their armed insurgents.
  1. The Doha agreement: The most significant achievement of Taliban’s negotiation seems to be the Doha peace agreement. Signed in February 2020, in this deal, the US agreed to Taliban’s most fervent demand—that foreign troops will leave Afghanistan. Signing such a deal with the US government appeased Taliban and gave them a strong sense of victory.
  1. Breaking Western isolation: Despite that the US peace envoy to Afghanistan, Khalilzad, “has warned the Taliban that any government that comes to power through force in Afghanistan will not be recognized internationally,” Taliban attempts to breakout the Western isolation and gain international legitimacy through stepping up its diplomatic efforts. The Taliban leaders’ recent visits to China, Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan demonstrate their thirst for global recognition.
  Why have the Taliban intensified violence recently?  While the two-decades US war in Afghanistan is now widely considered a failure, back in 2001, many viewed it as a successful war, as it dislodged the Taliban. The Taliban regime ceased to exist as a physical entity by the end of 2001. However, within a few years, the Taliban reorganized themselves as a brutal insurgency. They mounted a resilient challenge to the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Currently, as the US departs from Afghanistan, the Afghan military has started collapsing.   Since the US has begun withdrawing its forces, the insurgents have extended full control to more than two-thirds of the country. After sweeping victories in rural Afghanistan, the Taliban have marshalled their fighters toward major cities. The domino effect is underway—provincial capitals are falling one after another, some with hardly any resistance. On Wednesday, the governor of Ghazni handed over the city to the Taliban in a deal that the insurgent would not kill him.   The rapid conquests by the Taliban have increased the group’s leverage on the negotiation table. The ongoing talks between the Afghan government and Taliban now look more like the Melian Dialogue of the Peloponnesian war. Just like the mighty Athenians asked the weaker Melians to surrender or face death, the Taliban have put only one option on the table—that President Ghani must step down or they will capture Kabul by force. The Afghan government has nothing to gain and everything to lose. Thus, it rejects this demand and appeals to virtue and justice—ideas that an embolden-Taliban does not believe in, at least now when time is on their side.   What can happen in the coming weeks? 

In light of the recent developments, two key scenarios can occur in the coming weeks, as per the following:

  1. Taliban would take over the country by force: Taliban has inflicted heavy casualties on the Afghan troops. Realities on the ground suggest that the Afghan military will not withstand the Taliban assaults for longer. As Ali Ahmad Jalali, the former Interior Minister of Afghanistan, stated, “the rapid fall of one-third of Afghanistan provincial capitals within one week belies the much-hyped claims of the tenacity of the Afghan security forces as they fast crumbled in the face of advancing insurgent fighters.”[iii]According to him, poor leadership, logistical inconsistency and absence of operational and tactical coordination have plagued the Afghan security and defence forces.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Also, the loss of the strategic cities, including Spin Boldak, Islam Qala, Kunduz and Zarang, is a devastating blow to the Afghani government. Besides controlling massive amounts of arms and equipment, “the Taliban now collects an estimated 2.5 million dollars in taxes each day.”[iv]
After the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, on Saturday, the insurgents are currently rolling up their sleeves to capture eastern                        provinces and Kabul. Some US officials, initially, predicted that the Taliban may isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly                  overrun it in 3 months.[v]Yet, other diplomat sources indicated that one intelligence assessment “indicated that Kabul                could be isolated by the Taliban within the week, possibly within the next 72 hours, but stressed that does not mean the                militant group would enter the capital.”[vi]  
  1. Maintaining the “hybrid strategy”: The more likely scenario to occur is that the Taliban will continue its “hybrid strategy”—to fight and negotiate simultaneously. This is because the more military gains they make, the greater their leverage in the negotiation will be. The latest Doha talks, aiming to break the deadlock in negotiation, resulted in a statement calling for “a halt to violence and attacks immediately in and against provincial capitals and other cities, and urged both sides to take steps to reach a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire as quickly as possible.” However, the Taliban are less likely to stop its offensive, for it is paying off unprecedently.
  In a nutshell, the Taliban’s diplomatic talks and its military assaults are mutually reinforcing. Thus, while it is not guaranteed that the Taliban will capture the whole country by force, it is certain that the Taliban’s crippling military assaults will force the Afghan government to accept the insurgents’ demands and acquire the lion’s share in the county’s future.   This article was originally published by Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS).
[i] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/11/joe-biden-urges-afghans-to-fight-for-their-nation-as-taliban-advance-continues [ii] https://twitter.com/Zabehulah_M33/status/1425812820868820999?s=20 [iii] https://www.facebook.com/aajalali/posts/4525912010776243 [iv] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/taliban-afghanistan [v] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-fighters-capture-eighth-provincial-capital-six-days-2021-08-11/ [vi] https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/13/politics/afghanistan-embassy-72-scramble/index.html
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