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Nov 11, 2009 | 23:19 GMT

6 mins read

Afghanistan: A Taliban Opening to the U.S.

The former foreign minister of the ousted Taliban regime, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, has said that one part of the Taliban movement is prepared to negotiate with the United States if Washington is ready to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, top Afghan Taliban commander in Kandahar Mullah Toor Jan said the Afghan Taliban movement has nothing to do with Pakistan’s main Taliban rebel group, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, that the Afghan Taliban only targets U.S. and NATO forces, and that al Qaeda has no influence over the Afghan Taliban. Though the statements suggest the mainstream Afghan Taliban movement is positioning itself for substantive talks down the road with the United States, a U.S.-Taliban understanding — assuming it can be achieved — would not suffice to solve all of Washington's problems in Afghanistan.
Part of the Taliban movement is prepared to negotiate with the United States if Washington is ready to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told CNN on Nov. 11. Muttawakil added that there is a huge difference between al Qaeda and the Taliban, as the former has an international agenda while the Taliban pose no threat to the world. He also said the Taliban are prepared to assure the world that Afghanistan will not be used as a launching pad for transnational attacks. Just one day before that, top Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Toor Jan (aka Abdul Manan) in the southeastern Afghan city of Spinboldak told Pakistani news channel Aaj TV that the Afghan Taliban movement has nothing to do with Pakistan's main Taliban rebel group, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Mullah Toor said that the Afghan Taliban only attacks U.S. and NATO forces, and that al Qaeda has no influence over the Afghan Taliban. The statements suggest the mainstream Afghan Taliban movement is working hard to distinguish itself from al Qaeda and from the Pakistani Taliban, and that the Afghan Taliban could be ready to negotiate with the United States. Many obstacles still lie ahead for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, however. Since Muttawakil's surrender to U.S. forces shortly after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and his subsequent release from detention at Bagram air base in 2003, the Afghan Taliban leadership has found him useful as a conduit for communications with the West. While Muttawakil does not hold major influence over the Taliban movement, he has been engaged in a number of efforts to connect the Taliban with the U.S. government; so far, these have not born fruit. In a July report, STRATFOR discussed how Mullah Omar would be willing to negotiate, but only for the right price. Though the Taliban have the initiative in the war, and the United States and its NATO allies are struggling to come up with a coherent strategy to deal with the Afghan insurgency, the Taliban realize the limits of their own power. This is not 1996, when the Taliban were able to take power in Kabul by force and later impose their writ upon as much as 95 percent of the country. The Taliban is not the same organization it was when it first arose in the mid-1990s, as the Taliban now is a moniker for a broad array of largely Pashtun Islamist militant factions on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border and Afghanistan no longer faces the kind of anarchy that allowed the Taliban to take power. The Afghan Taliban realizes that to successfully stage a political comeback, it will need broad international recognition as a legitimate stakeholder in Afghanistan. This requires losing its designation as a terrorist organization — no easy feat given the shelter it offered the masterminds of Sept. 11 — explaining the recent bid to sharpen the distinction between itself and transnational jihadism. While the Taliban are ready to deal on al Qaeda, they cannot accept a settlement that does not provide for a withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban are hoping they can exploit the sentiment within the West against a long-term military commitment to their advantage. Still, Western governments feel that at a minimum, they will need a limited military commitment in Afghanistan to guarantee the country does not once again become a safe-haven for transnational jihadists. By saying the things the United States is most interested in hearing, the Afghan Taliban are hoping to expand the advantage they hold in terms of the insurgency into a political one. The current statements seem to offer Washington just the opening it has sought. Washington's strategy calls for driving a wedge between pragmatic and more ideological segments of the Taliban as well as separating the Pashtun jihadist movement from al Qaeda. But the United States, assuming it can somehow get past the political hurdles of dealing with the leadership that harbored the group responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, still lacks the intelligence on the Taliban to be able to tell one faction apart from the other. The only actor that has any semblance of an understanding of the internal configuration of the Afghan Taliban is Pakistan. Islamabad, however, has its hands full with its own indigenous Taliban rebellion, and has lost a certain degree of influence over the Afghan Taliban. Nonetheless, given the Pashtun ethnic linkages between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamabad is the only player that can help connect Washington with the Afghan Taliban. But the growing rift between Washington and the Pakistani military has made such cooperation less likely. The multibillion-dollar Kerry-Lugar aid package has soured the Pakistani military on Washington, as have fears within Pakistani central command that the United States is out to denuclearize Islamabad. The gap between how Pakistan distinguishes between "good" versus "bad" Taliban and how the United States distinguishes reconcilable versus irreconcilable Taliban elements also will hamper such cooperation. Both sides' efforts to categorize the Taliban into two parts ignore al Qaeda's links across the entire Taliban landscape. And while the United States welcomes the Pakistani offensive against TTP rebels and their transnational allies, deep mistrust between the two sides remains, with Washington concerned about the scope of the offensive and Islamabad wondering about U.S. intentions with regard to Afghanistan (and troubled about an increased Indian role in Afghanistan and close U.S.-Indian relations). Even Pakistani assistance in Afghanistan would not suffice to solve the United States' problems there, however. Iran must also be brought on board if there is to be a settlement on Afghanistan, given Iran's influence among the anti-Taliban forces as well as certain elements within the Pashtun jihadist movement — something Washington has acknowledged. Tensions over the nuclear negotiations are preventing any U.S.-Iranian consensus on Afghanistan, however. With the nuclear talks in limbo and the risk of a U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran, any agreement on Afghanistan appears unlikely anytime soon. Meanwhile, U.S. relations with Kabul have hit a serious low point given the fiasco over the recent Afghan presidential election and the Obama administration's efforts to find an alternative to President Hamid Karzai. No alternative was found, and the effort ended up creating a rift among the forces previously united in their opposition to the Taliban. Ultimately, each major stakeholder in Afghanistan whose participation is critical to a settlement — Kabul, the Taliban, Pakistan, and Iran — has a problematic relationship with the United States. If there is to be a settlement in Afghanistan, Washington will have to deal with each of these issues.

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