As Afghanistan's civil war rages on, the Taliban are showing signs of pragmatism. On Nov. 29, the Taliban offered to guard several long-stalled energy projects in Afghanistan including the $3 billion Mes Aynak copper mine and the $10 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. Seeking to strike a populist chord, the Taliban said they are in favor of the projects because they promote national development and prosperity, two things Afghanistan sorely needs. Unemployment in Afghanistan is high and gross domestic product growth fell to 1.5 percent in 2015 from a high of 21 percent in 2009. Of course, the threat posed by the Taliban has contributed to the country's sluggish economy.
Offering the protection and actually providing it are two very different things. The Taliban today is a decentralized movement comprised of multiple actors including criminal networks, warlords and disgruntled villagers, meaning the leadership's announcement cannot be understood to reflect that of the organization as a whole. Still, that the Taliban felt compelled to make the announcement at all suggests that the movement is positioning itself with an eye toward politics. It is possible that any agreement reached to end the 15-year war might involve a power-sharing deal, granting the Taliban a governance role. In fact, Muhammad Tayyab Agha, the organization's former chief negotiator for its Qatar office, wrote a letter over the summer to Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban's leader, urging him to focus on transforming the insurgency into a political movement capable of governance. Yesterday's offer is likely a bid to do just that.
Projects such as TAPI are part of a long-running effort to link energy-rich Central Asia with energy-deficient South Asia. Afghanistan is a strategic bridge between the regions. The Taliban's announcement comes just after Afghanistan and Turkmenistan inaugurated another trans-national infrastructure project linking Atamyrat in Turkmenistan to Aqina in Afghanistan. The two nations plan to lengthen the railway once Afghanistan's security climate improves, and that requires the Taliban and the government to come to a peace agreement — not an easy thing to achieve.