Earlier this month, the United States restarted negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, in Doha, Qatar’s capital, where the Taliban has a diplomatic presence. This occurred three months after President Donald Trump stopped the yearlong process to find agreement with the insurgent group to withdraw U.S. forces and potentially enable inter-Afghan talks to end the civil war in Afghanistan.
Whether or not a new round of negotiations will succeed in finally bringing about a U.S. agreement with the Taliban or usher in a broader peace process, is still an unanswered question. If answered positively, such a settlement would entail the Taliban’s ceasing its two decade-long brutal insurgency and mitigating its ideological demands to establish a harsh Islamic state in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban was previously in power in Afghanistan, it hosted the infrastructure that made possible al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. This led to the American-led intervention to overthrow it. Much of the Taliban’s leaders and forces escaped into Pakistan, where they found sanctuary.
To understand the Taliban, and especially whether it has changed since 2001 to become capable of participating in peace negotiations, readers will benefit from Antonio Giustozzi’s highly informed and detailed book, “The Taliban at War 2001–2018.” It is based on extensive field work in Afghanistan by the author (a renowned expert on the region) and his Afghan researchers, who went to areas where it is unsafe for a foreigner to conduct their surveys and interviews with current and former Taliban officials. In the absence of insiders’ accounts of the Taliban itself, this is the next best thing.
The Taliban that emerges from this account is highly problematic. Following the killing in 2013 of Mullah Mohammed Omar, its brutally charismatic founding leader (which the Taliban finally acknowledged in 2015), his successors have been less effective leaders, with the organization, far from a monolith, incorporating multiple factions.
It is currently led by Haibatullah Akhund, of the powerful Quetta Shura, with his deputies Sirajuddin Haqqani (the son of the longtime leader of the Pakistani-based Haqqani network) and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob (the eldest son of the late Taliban founder Mullah Omar), who, as of late 2019, may or may not be alive.
What is the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan? In terms of its manpower, the author estimates that at its peak (around 2015) it was about 200,000, with about 25,000-35,000 fighters, and the remaining support personnel. It was also in 2015, the author adds, that the Taliban controlled between 55 percent and 60 percent of the country’s territory, amounting to about 10 percent to 20 percent of the country’s population.
Although these are higher numbers than reported by other sources, they still provide a baseline for understanding the magnitude of its strength in the country.
A significant problem highlighted by the author is that the Taliban’s backbone remains its supporting base of religiously extremist mullahs (clerical leaders) in Afghan society, especially in the countryside, where they preach jihadi sermons. As a result, the Maderi (Islamic religious schools) form one of the Taliban’s recruiting sources for its fighters and personnel. How this can be reconciled with the educational reform efforts of the Afghan government is thus another dilemma in reconciling with the Taliban in a peace process.
The Taliban is an indigenous, largely Pashtun-based, movement in Afghanistan. However, it is highly dependent on its Pakistani and, to a lesser extent, Iranian allies, who exert influence over its direction. The author details how both countries provide the Taliban an assortment of military materiel, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket launchers, mortars and night-vision goggles, while limiting access to more lethal weapons such as man-portable surface-to-air missile launchers.
The Taliban is also closely linked to the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency, which funds its various military programs. Interestingly, Iranian patronage has enabled the Taliban, according to the author, to send some of their fighters to Lebanon to be trained by the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah. In another type of foreign dependency, the largely Pakistani-based Haqqani network is extensively linked to al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Taliban funding is extensively dependent on often-forced taxation of areas under its control, foreign contributions, especially from the Persian Gulf, and numerous illegal enterprises. As the author explains, it exploits its control of poppy-growing areas to “tax” the drug revenues, amounting to several hundred million dollars. It is alleged that some Taliban leaders divert illicit drug revenues to fund their own personal wealth, including in the case of one leader cited by the author exploiting such revenues to fund business enterprises in the Gulf.
The terrorist attacks that led the United States to walk away from earlier negotiations with the Taliban appear to contradict the author’s optimistic conclusion that in the recent period the Taliban has “downscaled” its terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, providing them a “legitimacy to smooth their glide towards a political settlement.”
Nor does the author show whether the Taliban’s religious fundamentalism can be reconciled with the 18-plus years of social reform measures by the Afghan government. This account still is valuable in providing a context for understanding the extent and scope of the obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve a possible Taliban-Afghan government peace process.
• Joshua Sinai is a Washington-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.
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THE TALIBAN AT WAR 2001–2018
By Antonio Giustozzi
Oxford University Press, $65, 336 pages