Afghanistan: Is the Taliban ready for change?
Interview with Ahmed Rashid
“The peace-lobby in Taliban don’t want an ongoing civil war. They know perfectly well that if they continue fighting after the Americans and the other Western countries leave, then there will be a civil war that will go on and on and continue indefinitely. And this time the government, the Afghan army, the Northern Alliance, the warlords in the north and the non-Pashtuns will all play a role. Together these groups are much stronger this time than they were in the 90’s”. – Rashid
Interview by Bjørn Spandet Jakobsen with Ahmed Rashid, a widely used analyst on Central Asian Affairs and especially the Afghan Taliban. Rashid is a former correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. He worked for the Daily Telegraph for 20 years. Today he writes for the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, The Daily Times (Pakistan) and academic journals. He is the Author behind the bestseller books, “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia”, “Descent into Chaos”, “Pakistan on a Brink” and a number of other books [for a full list, see his website].
TQT: How would it affect the future for Afghanistan if the Afghan Taliban became an official part of a potential power sharing agreement or a coalition government?
RASHID: First we need to get the Taliban back to the peace talk table. We need a ceasefire, and we need to end the war. Then we will need to get the western countries to withdraw as well as the Americans to withdraw. And then down the road we will get a dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban related to a political settlement. However, as things look for the moment we are still quite far away from that situation.
TQT: When Afghanistan get as you say it: “down the road”. How ready do you think The Taliban is to change their ideology and take part in a political life in a democratic Afghan state?
RASHID: The peace-lobby in Taliban – by that I mean the leaders who are searching for a settlement – don’t want an ongoing civil war. They know perfectly well that if they continue fighting after the Americans and the other Western countries leave, then there will be a civil war that will go on and on and continue indefinitely. And this time the government, the Afghan army, the Northern Alliance, the warlords in the north and the non-Pashtuns will all play a role. Together these groups are much stronger this time than they were in the 90’s. So a civil war will not be in favor of the Taliban – in fact in will instead become a disadvantage for the Taliban. That is why I think that the sensible Taliban leadership or what I call the peace-lobby is trying to avoid a future of civil war.
TQT: What would a power sharing arrangement look like? For example will there be Sharia law in the Taliban controlled areas and Constitutional law in the Government controlled areas?
RASHID: It will probably be mixture of conceding power to the Taliban areas but also ensuring that the Taliban governors carry out the central government policies. This can get very tricky; because once you have a political settlement then you will need a constitutional settlement. As of now the Taliban have said that they want Islamic law and they don’t accept the current constitution.
The constitutional debate involves human rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities and so on. But eventually I think there will be a compromise. I think it will be pointed out that the constitution of Afghanistan is already a very Islamic constitution. And when Hamid Karzai steps down at the election in 2014, as I hope he does, this with bring fresh air to the negotiations as well.
TQT: So how has the Taliban changed since the 90’s?
RASHID: They have certainly changed a lot. I really do believe that in the last year or two they – if you would like it – have become more moderate. A lot of their jihadi rhetoric has been replaced by a more nationalist rhetoric. What they say now is that they are Afghans and not jihadists. They say that they want the foreign occupation to end and they want all the Americans to go home – but that they are Afghan patriots and they will do nothing traumatic against the country.
TQT: But where specifically do you expect that we will see the changes?
RASHID: We see a lot a change regarding education where they have allowed education at a fully even level for both boys and girl. This change has taken place both in their areas in the east and in the southern provinces. They are accepting to break their links to Al Qaeda. They are insisting that they will not be training foreign jihadists. For example they will not attack the Shia Muslims as we saw in the 90’s where they massacred the Shias because the Taliban believed in a very strict Sunni sect. Now they are actually trying to force better relations with all the non-Pashtun minorities and the religious minorities. But at the same time they are remaining an extremely conservative, very religious and very orthodox political force. And how this force will be able to find some space for compromise with the rest of Afghanistan will have to be debated and discussed before we can have expectations of some kind of agreement. Some of the issues they are concerned about are related to the autonomy of the provinces. A concern they share with many Afghans, as many Afghans are very critical about the centralized system of governance that for now is dominating the country. So in fact I think that many of the Taliban demands would fit in with the demands that we see are important for other Afghan public groups. So I think there will be enough space for the parties to find the necessary compromise that acknowledges the interests from both sides.
TQT: And as long the fighting continues will the parties get any closer to a compromise?
RASHID: First of all we need a ceasefire. It is important that we get a solid and sustainable ceasefire before the Americans leave. The ceasefire should include all parties in the conflict, the American forces, the Afghan forces as well as the Taliban forces. And that’s why I think the peace talks should take place before anything else. I hope the Taliban returns to the negotiation table and I hope that we as quickly as possible can get on to this subject of a ceasefire because I don’t think that the Afghan army can stand up for very long to a full Taliban force – especially not in the southern and eastern provinces.
TQT: In your books you have described this double role of Pakistan, where the Pakistan government distances itself from the Taliban but the Pakistan intelligence Service ISI and the Army keeps supporting Taliban groups. Will anything change in this matter with the election of Navaz Sharif?
RASHID: Since Navaz Sharif took over the Presidential office there have been huge problems domestically. We have had the economic crisis, the electricity crisis, the terrorist attacks etc. And his main foreign policy focus at the moment is towards India. But what happens between India and Pakistan is interesting as well, because the Taliban has said that India is not an enemy, which is of cause in a sense not what the Pakistanis want to hear but certainly what the Indians want to hear. The Taliban is sending a message that they want be have good relations with all the neighbors and especially all its near neighbors. I think and hope that there will be a new policy initiative by Navaz Sharif because if he wants to help the economy, then he has to deal the issue of extreme terrorism and that obviously also involves the Afghan Taliban.
Bjørn Spandet Jakobsen (born 1986) holds a BA degree in EU studies and Global studies from Roskilde University and a Master Elective course degree in Journalism at the Danish School of Media and Journalism. He has studied political science and Latin American history for one semester at Universidad Austral de Buenos Aires. He is currently a MA student at International Security and Law studies at Southern Danish University. His stories have been broadcast at the DR2 programme “Dagen”.
MURGHAB VALLEY, BADGHIS PROVINCE: Afghan soldiers and police officers supported by Spanish soldiers search for insurgents during the operation “Mazak 1”, April 5, 2013 [photo: the Spanish Army via DoD]