Defying Peace Deal, Freed Taliban Return to Battlefield
A new confidential report concludes that a majority of fighters are resuming their “jihad” to overthrow the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
Taliban prisoners released by the Afghan government as part of a deal brokered by the United States aimed at ending almost 20 years of war are returning to the battlefield as commanders and fighters, in direct contravention of pledges made by the insurgents to the White House.
Confidential research obtained by Foreign Policy shows that the majority of Taliban prisoners released under an agreement signed by insurgent leaders and the United States are taking up arms to fight Afghan forces and continue their “jihad” to overthrow the U.S.-backed Afghan government and replace it with an Islamic emirate.
In an unreleased paper written for the Afghan Peace Dialogue Project at Queen’s University in Belfast, Norther Ireland, the Taliban experts Michael Semple and Felix Kuehn found that former Taliban prisoners were “participating in combat, being killed fighting, being taken prisoner and one case of an ex-prisoner being involved with revenge assassinations.”
A majority, 68 percent, of the 108 former Taliban prisoners profiled for the research “have already been re-integrated into the Taliban and have resumed active roles in the conflict, or are in Taliban groups intent on resuming fighting, or are occupying military or political positions which are fundamentally linked to the Taliban war effort,” Semple and Kuehn write.
“A number of ex-prisoners have been appointed to direct command positions since their release,” they found. “Two ex-prisoners have reassumed their former military command positions where brothers or sons had taken over temporarily. … A number have already assumed oﬃcial positions within the Taliban shadow administration. The appointment of ex-prisoners as uluswals—which are essentially in charge of military aﬀairs and oversee civilian matters at a district level—is now widespread.”
Another 8 percent of the interviewees wished to return to the battle but were “being held back by family opposition,” mostly by their wives. A further 27, or 24 percent, “will categorically not re-join the conflict” for various reasons, mainly because they wished to return to civilian life.
A senior Afghan official, who did not wish to be identified, said the report’s findings “comport with what we have observed.”
The research appears to confirm doubts about the value of Taliban promises to reduce violence, keep their men off the battlefield once released from prison, and comply with other conditions in their agreement with the United States, including renouncing ties with al Qaeda. Critics of the deal suspect the Taliban are interested only in a return to power that will facilitate their ultimate goal of establishing an Islamist government, hand in hand with al Qaeda.
The United States signed a bilateral deal on Feb. 29 with the Taliban in which Washington agreed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and end almost 20 years of war following the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In return, the insurgents agreed to cut ties with al Qaeda and stop attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The prisoner swap was seen as a precursor to direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Both sides are preparing delegations, and Afghan officials say the talks could start within weeks. The U.S. troop drawdown is proceeding at such pace military sources say it could be complete ahead of the deadline. But the Taliban have not cut ties with al Qaeda, and some experts say the two groups have become closer since the Doha agreement. The deal brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, makes no mention of drugs, which provide almost $500 million a year in Taliban funding, nor does it oblige Pakistan, which hosts and helps fund the insurgents, to curtail its support. The Afghan government was not included in the negotiations.
Khalilzad touted the prisoner releases as a trust-building exercise between the Afghan government and its enemy. Taliban leaders promised their released prisoners would not redeploy and instead return to their homes “peacefully,” with a cash stipend provided by the government of Qatar, which hosts the insurgents’ political office, and from Taliban coffers.
Initially, the swap—5,000 Taliban prisoners for 1,000 Afghan security forces—was to take place within weeks of the Doha agreement, but it has been drawn out by practical and political disagreements. Most recently, Australia and France objected to the scheduled release of Taliban implicated in the deaths of their soldiers. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani convened a Loya Jirga, or consultative council of community leaders, to gain national consent for the swap to continue. It was completed on Wednesday with the release of the final tranche of Taliban prisoners, the security official said, after the release by the Taliban of Afghan forces commandos.
With the swap completed, the two sides are expected to commence talks aimed at formalizing a peace, with the Taliban seeking a role in the governance of the country. Yet the Taliban—which styles itself as the government-in-exile of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Ghani’s government. Afghan, American, and international officials say the Taliban’s apparent failure to abide by all conditions of the agreement could scupper progress, though there appears to be no move to slow momentum.
Since Feb. 29, Taliban violence has escalated—with a brief cease-fire to mark Eid at the end of July. They have largely adhered to the commitment not to attack U.S. forces—though rocket attacks on bases in Helmand in July were blamed on the Taliban, a New York Times report said. The United Nations recorded 3,500 conflict-related civilian casualties, including 1,300 deaths, in the first half of 2020.
As doubts about the Taliban’s integrity in the negotiations finally rise to the surface, the new research for Queen’s University’s Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice has found that a majority of the Taliban prisoners released so far have indeed returned to the fight, or to previously held positions within the organization.
The Taliban’s public pledge that released prisoners would not resume fighting was seen by many of the interviewees as meaningless, with one saying it was “simply a deception, as part of a trick that we are playing on the foreigners. We ex-prisoners have to return to our place in the ranks of the jihad. I am obliged to fight against occupation until the coming of an Islamic government.”
The Taliban’s Prisoners’ Affairs Commission issued a statement on May 27 outlining guidance to released prisoners, urging them to “start a peaceful life with their families,” and to emphasize this in any media interviews.
Queen’s University’s Semple and Kuehn say there is no question of the prisoners “returning” to the Taliban as by definition they never left and are obliged to continue “jihad.” By sending released prisoners back to the battlefield, regional Taliban leaders were complying with a directive of their senior leader “to refrain from placing obstacles to the progress of the jihad. Preventing Taliban from willingly joining the ﬁght would be a classic example of such an obstacle, and is therefore prohibited,” they write.
“Some Taliban interviewed understood the stance, that prisoners should not return to the ﬁght, as a deliberate deception. … They understood that pretending that prisoners would not be allowed to return to ﬁght was a necessary price to be paid for ensuring that the prisoner release continued.”
Some senior American military leaders have expressed concerns that the Taliban have not adhered to conditions of the Doha agreement, though there does not appear to have been any halt to the drawdown of U.S. troops. Around 8,600 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, down from 13,000 ahead of the Doha accord. The next tranche of departures is scheduled for coming months—Trump said in a recent interview that the figure would be between 4,000 and 5,000 ahead of November’s U.S. presidential election.
Some U.S. military leaders have publicly raised the Taliban’s enduring links with al Qaeda. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said in June that the Taliban had not “fully met” the conditions of the Doha deal. “I think the Taliban needs to demonstrate they’re going to be faithful partners too,” he said.
The Kabul government official hinted, without detail, that the United States was dissatisfied with the level of Taliban compliance with the terms of the agreement.
He said the Queen’s University report showed that “the Taliban need to manage their internal policy inconsistency. Their struggle to manage the fighting force, which has borne the brunt of the violence, amid their rhetoric for peace will be an Achilles’ heel for any possible agreement.
“They have to demonstrate in action their rhetoric about wanting peace. And, of course, there is the expectation that the U.S. has to help them adhere to the letter of their deal, including commitments on the post-release activities of the convicts,” he said.
Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist, author, and analyst. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.