The Mainstreaming of the Afghan Taliban

4 MINS READDec 20, 2012 | 08:09 GMT

The first-ever publicized meetings between representatives of the Taliban and their nemesis, the former Northern Alliance, beginning Wednesday in Paris represent a major milestone in the efforts to shape a post-NATO Afghanistan. If there is to be a power-sharing agreement that can bring an end to the insurgency before the departure of Western forces in 2014, much more has to happen between now and then. The three-day dialogue between the two sides and Afghan government officials organized by a French think tank, however, is a significant development.

The Taliban, a largely Pashtun force, came to power in 1996 after wresting control of Kabul from the Tajik-led coalition of minorities that came to be known as the Northern Alliance. Over the next several years, the Taliban continued to make advances against the alliance and captured most of northern Afghanistan. By the time the 9/11 attacks took place, the Taliban were trying to gain control of a tiny sliver of territory from the Northern Alliance near the Afghan-Tajikistani border.

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Two days prior to 9/11, the Northern Alliance's illustrious leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was assassinated by suicide bombers dispatched by the Taliban's allies in al Qaeda. But the 9/11 attacks dramatically reversed the situation, with the United States allying with the Northern Alliance to topple the Taliban regime. Within a couple of months of the U.S. military action, the Taliban regime fell and factions of the Northern Alliance gained a prominent position in the post-Taliban Afghan state — a coalition that has since come to be known as the Karzai regime, against which the Taliban movement has been waging a ferocious insurgency for more than a decade.

This history is what made Wednesday's meeting so significant. For a political settlement to be achieved in Afghanistan, the Taliban and the old Northern Alliance will need to come to terms with one another. But there are reasons why both sides have agreed to negotiate.

Both sides share a relatively common attitude toward the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Over the years, several key elements of the Northern Alliance have distanced themselves from the Karzai regime. In recent days, the Taliban (including statements attributed to the Taliban's official spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid) said that any meaningful negotiations — in addition to those with the United States — would involve the Northern Alliance as opposed to Kabul.

The question is whether the two rivals can agree on a power-sharing arrangement. The first step toward such a deal would involve the Taliban becoming internationally accepted as a legitimate Afghan political entity. For that to happen, the Taliban need to be rehabilitated, a process that would entail removing the group from international lists of terrorist entities — provided that the Taliban can demonstrate that they have cut ties with al Qaeda.

Still, entering the political mainstream requires much more than getting off the list of globally proscribed organizations. It would also require the Taliban to form a political wing that can participate in standard Afghan political life. Mainstream politics requires participation in elections. Indeed, Washington, Kabul and the Northern Alliance have an interest in the Taliban accepting as much of the Afghan political system as possible. But the Taliban are going to have a hard time doing so because it is not an organization that can easily form a political party and engage in electoral politics.

The Taliban are very different from Hezbollah or Hamas, both of which have maintained a civil society presence that has allowed them to build social support bases that can be compelled to vote. In contrast, the Taliban largely consist of insurgent forces that have operated clandestinely for many years. Only recently have they come to terms with the notion that a negotiated settlement could be the way forward. Thus, the Taliban will have to do much more than simply talk to their former rivals in the Northern Alliance.

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