The South Asia Channel

A Signal or Noise? The Afghan Taliban’s Interest in Peace

Did Mullah Mohammed Omar just make an overture for peace? And is it a signal -- an indication of true intentions -- or just noise -- activity to gain attention?

Former Taliban fighters are photographed as they display weapons, prior to handing them over as they join a government peace and reconciliation process, at a ceremony in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, on November 20, 2013. NATO formally transferred responsibility for nationwide security to Afghan forces in June 2013. AFP PHOTO / Noorullah Shirzada (Photo credit should read Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

Did Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, just make an overture for peace? It is an interesting question that requires making distinctions between signal — an indication of true intentions — and noise — activities that gain attention but obscure intentions — something very difficult to do in such a complex conflict. The question may also appear to be an odd one given the recent spate of Taliban suicide bombings and attacks in Kabul. In fact, the idea of the Taliban extending an olive branch conflicts with conventional wisdom about them, too.

Yet on Nov. 19, a “Weekly Analysis” article on the Afghan Taliban’s website, titled “The Afghan People Want Peace; Their Enemy War,” offered a prospective way forward on a peace process with no demand for a Taliban return to power. The article, although not officially endorsed by the Taliban senior leadership, was likely not random or accidental.

In fact, it builds on earlier official statements, such as one during a Dec. 2012 conference in France that outlined policy positions more progressive than commonly expected, such as supporting a constitution that guaranteed civil, personal, and political rights; women’s rights, as defined by Islam, to include education and work; and friendship with the international community. Moreover this year, the July 25 Eid al-Fitr message attributed to Mullah Omar emphasized the importance of the Taliban winning Afghan and international support, and repeated assurances that the Taliban are interested only in Afghanistan and pose no threat to others.

Five days after the supposed November peace article, however, scores of civilians were murdered in Paktika province by a suicide bomber during a volleyball match. The Taliban have not taken responsibility for the incident, but the Afghan government has linked it to the organization’s Pakistan-based Haqqani branch. The attack is also in violation of repeated Taliban senior leader guidance to protect rather than kill civilians; the Taliban even claim to have established a Prevention of Civilian Casualties Commission.

Was this a pre-meditated act, or a pre-mature detonation at the wrong place, or a case of misplaced blame? Will the Taliban civilian casualty commission investigate the incident? Will anyone be held accountable? Or will the Taliban absolve themselves of responsibility, just as they did on Mar. 23, 2014, with the spurious statement that they staged the attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul, but were not to blame for the killing of a journalist and his family? And with the Pakistani Taliban’s attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, which killed over 100 children, will the Afghan Taliban, a separate organization, condemn the violence or remain silent and be perceived as condoning it?

Of course these questions make one wonder which acts are signals versus noise? Which truly represent Taliban intentions: the high-profile attacks and despicable deeds, such as the murder of children, or the more progressive and conciliatory statements the Taliban have made since 2009?

Given their brutal, tyrannical, misogynistic, incompetent, and intolerant history in Afghanistan, it is easy to simply dismiss their words as shambolic. We should, however, consider the possibility that signals are here, too.

Start-up Costs

In an ideal world, a peace overture would signal a willingness on the part of the militant organization to surrender its arms in exchange for good treatment by the government. That is, in essence, what the so-called three red-lines the U.S. and Afghan governments set in 2010 for Taliban reconciliation — cease violence, cut ties with al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan constitution — are perceived to demand. U.S. officials subsequently described these as “end-conditions” rather than pre-conditions.

In the real world, however, nascent signals would be more subtle. This is especially true in protracted conflicts where neither side has a significant strategic advantage. Hints at talks are not preludes to surrender, but about sensibly exploring options to achieve aims at potentially lower costs in blood, treasure, and time.

Yet, signals are not risk-free. Clandestine requests to begin talks could be hazardous, especially when neither side recognizes the legitimacy of the other. One side may leak the overture in an effort to undermine the petitioning party. For instance, when exploratory talks between the United States and Taliban began in late 2010, leaks occurred almost immediately. The talks nonetheless continued until they were suspended by the Taliban in March 2012 over a lack of progress and likely frictions within the movement. An attempt to revive the effort crashed spectacularly with the abortive opening of a Taliban office in Doha in June 2013. Then Afghan President Hamid Karzai was outraged, and Afghans expressed fear that a secret deal was being concocted.

An alternative approach to secret bi-lateral talks is to explore third-party support. A trusted custodian that has credibility and leverage with the warring parties can quietly sponsor exploratory conversations, while mitigating the risk of leaks. To date, no such party has emerged that is acceptable to both the Afghan government and the Taliban, although there are some reports that China could play such a role.

For now, the Afghan government and the Taliban may be sending subtle, and deniable, signals back and forth in an effort to inch closer to talks, while maintaining their military campaigns. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, for instance, made a peace process a key part of his platform, and has continued to emphasize it as a critical priority for his government, while the Afghan National Security Forces continue to take action against the Taliban.

A New Signal or More Noise?

What is potentially new about the Taliban “Weekly Analysis” article is its level of specificity. After the expected vitriol about foreign occupation and puppet governments, the Nov. 19 article stated:

  • Peace can be easily achieved in our beloved country compared to any other country or region because we Afghans have five shared values:
    • Afghanistan is an independent and sovereign state.
    • Afghans have not accepted foreign invasions and invaders in the course of their history.
    • Afghans do not accept a life of subjugation nor stooge alien governments.
    • Majority of people living in Afghanistan are Muslims.
    • Afghans want an independent Islamic government.
  • Keeping in mind the above mentioned points, the following three point agenda for peace should be seriously considered.
    • All foreign troops should withdraw from our country.
    • All agreements which are in contradiction with our sovereignty, integrity and Islamic Identity of Afghanistan including the security agreements should be declared null and void.
    • Islamic government should be established and Islamic Shariah fully implemented.

To be sure, much of the above would need to be debated and modified during exploratory talks. The suggestions that foreign troops withdraw first — does this also mean al Qaeda fighters, who are primarily Arab? — and security agreements be nullified seem to be cynical. Besides, real progress on peace is likely to require support from international peacekeepers. Of course, whose interpretation of shari’a law is accepted will be hotly contested, and the implications for Afghan women may be profound.

This is exactly why a deliberate peace process, along the lines discussed by Ghani, is needed. Suggestions by well-meaning people about the need for a “peace deal” are irresponsible. They conjure up visions of the Afghan civil war after the failed deals in the Peshawar and Islamabad accords in 1992 and 1993, respectively. The risks of Afghan women being sidelined and gross violations of human rights being whitewashed in an “elite deal” are too great to be ignored.

The issues dividing Afghans on all sides, the external dimensions of the conflict, and the blood that has been spilt over the past 35 years call for a deliberate and dignified effort that includes international, national, and local dimensions.

A Possible Way Forward

Such a process could begin with a broadly-framed set of principles or values discussed, adapted, and ultimately endorsed by both parties and key international actors. This step could be followed by initial confidence-building measures (explicit deeds, such as safe zones for administering polio vaccines, launching joint civilian casualty investigations, and/or declaring schools and health clinics to be off-limits for military activities) to show credibility. The process would iterate over time with agreements becoming more specific and confidence-building measures more substantive until both sides are convinced that conditional local ceasefires and more formal negotiations can begin. A similar process proved successful in Northern Ireland.

This is where the “shared values” portion of the Taliban article above may actually be helpful. Discussions resulting in agreed-upon language may be possible and could form the basis for a joint statement. This small step could be a game-changer.

Regardless of what steps are taken, a peace process will not be easy or quick. There are real questions about the sincerity of Taliban statements and intentions. A peace process would need to test those.

Whether the parties can make and keep agreements is another uncertainty. By all accounts, the Taliban have abided by their agreements in the exchange of five Guantanamo detainees for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who the Taliban held for nearly five years. Determining if that is the exception or the norm requires careful testing, too.

Spoilers — individuals or groups who use violence to undermine the peace process — are likely on all sides, and a serious strategy to manage them needs to be put into place. Combatants will often ride multiple horses — pursuit of decisive victory, quiet exploration of negotiations, diplomatic isolation of the enemy — to determine ways to achieve their aims. Violence is leverage, and parties will use it during early stages of talks.

Changing Afghanistan’s trajectory from conflict towards peace requires extraordinary leadership and vision, a coherent and credible strategy, and real political capital from key actors. Without that, no side will be willing to risk deviating from an uncomfortable, but comprehensible status quo.

Despite some recent battlefield gains, the Taliban is unlikely to overthrow the Afghan government in the foreseeable future. Likewise, the Afghan government is unlikely to compel a Taliban surrender. Both sides may recognize that a civil war, which could occur if international troops and money leave wholesale after 2016, would be detrimental to each. A deliberate peace process along the lines Ghani has advocated stands the best chance of success.

Christopher D. Kolenda is the senior military fellow at King’s College London, and the president and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, which helps NGOs maximize their impact in conflict zones. A former commander of paratroopers in combat and veteran of four tours in Afghanistan, he has been a key strategist and senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the U.S. Department of Defense, and has participated in exploratory talks with the Taliban.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Christopher D. Kolenda is the President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership. He commanded paratroopers and then served as senior advisor to the Department of Defense senior leadership and to three commanders of international forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan. He is the author of Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.