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With U.S. withdrawal delay likely, and new peace proposal on the table, Taliban faces inevitable crossroads

Members of the Taliban delegation attend a joint news conference in Moscow, on March 19. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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DOHA, Qatar — For months, the Taliban has managed to both talk peace and wage war across Afghanistan.

The strategy appeared to appease the hard-liners within the militant group who want an outright military victory to end the 20-year conflict and moderate members of the movement who would accept a political solution.

But the new, aggressive U.S. push for a peace deal has brought the Taliban to an inevitable crossroads: Accepting a place in a power-sharing government, as proposed by the United States, would bring the group one step closer to its ultimate goal of retaking full control of the country and establishing an Islamic government — and yet any path to power that prevents Afghanistan from again being labeled a pariah state will require compromise at odds with the core beliefs of the militants’ rank and file.

A deadline looms. The Biden administration has until May 1 to withdraw troops from the country, under a U.S.-Taliban deal signed in February 2020, or negotiate a new arrangement. What the Taliban does could signal where the movement’s balance of power lies and what its vision is for Afghanistan’s future.

The leaked U.S. plan to end the war in Afghanistan

So far, the Taliban leadership has said little publicly to reveal the specifics of what kind of government it would accept, beyond one ruled by Islamic law.

“The intra-Afghan dialogue is progressing. There is no doubt there are some difficulties along the way, but this is the agreed framework,” Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s senior political leader, said at a meeting in Moscow last week.

Baradar appeared to push back against signals from the Biden administration that it may delay withdrawing troops, and the proposal of a power-sharing government in a leaked draft peace plan. Both moves would be departures from the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed last year, a document prized by the militants.

“The Doha deal is the best and most effective way to resolve issues and move forward,” he said. “The responsibilities of both sides are clearly written in the peace deal known by the entire world.”

The U.S. proposal also calls for talks in Turkey next month to supplement talks in Doha, the establishment of an interim government and the drafting of a new constitution to be followed by elections.

The Afghan government has said it will attend the Turkey conference. The Taliban has not yet commented. At the conference, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is planning to propose early elections to choose transition leaders, according to two senior Afghan officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media.

The role foreign countries played in the establishment of Afghanistan’s current government and the holding of elections — a mechanism the Taliban views as a Western-imposed construct — lie at the heart of its argument that the leadership in Kabul is illegitimate.

One senior Taliban commander said he would oppose any deal that does not hand the group absolute power over Afghanistan because he believes the current government is an extension of the U.S. presence in the country, a view echoed by other Taliban fighters interviewed by The Washington Post.

Within the Taliban, clashing views of Afghanistan’s future

“This fight is not to share power. This war is for religious purposes in order to bring an Islamic government and implement Islamic law,” said the commander, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“If we share power with the government in Kabul, what were we fighting for?” he said. “I wouldn’t accept this.”

The unity of the Taliban movement as a whole is difficult to gauge, but it is made up of networks that include hard-line elements and more moderate leaders. Taliban fighters on the ground have expressed opposition to peace talks with the Afghan government; instead, like the senior Taliban commander, they support taking power through military means.

The first significant test of the Taliban’s unity was the group’s ability to rally support behind the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal in February 2020 and to enforce a reduction in violence. Not a single U.S. service member has been killed in Afghanistan since the Doha agreement.

It is unclear whether the Taliban is seriously considering the new U.S. peace proposal. Mohammad Naeem, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Doha, said it remains “under review.”

“This proposal is forcing the Taliban to confront an uncomfortable reality,” said Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group. The international legitimacy that they say they want is “never going to come without engaging with the outside world and the international community in a way that could potentially be read by their own members and supporters as having been corrupted by foreign influence.”

The Taliban sees its fighters as the rightful leaders of Afghanistan, arguing that their legitimacy is drawn from restoring order during the civil war and from two decades of fighting against the United States.

The militants’ political leaders also understand that to effectively maintain power on a national level they need the support of the international community. Without formal international recognition, the Taliban would likely be cut off from billions of dollars in aid needed to keep the country afloat, and the group’s campaign to remove some of its top leaders from international sanctions lists would be shattered.

There is no way for the Taliban to integrate into international political or economic systems “without falling into the trap that they say the current [so called] ‘puppet administration’ fell into,” Watkins said, referencing a term the Taliban uses to describe the government in Kabul.

“This could be a put up or shut up moment for the Taliban,” he said.

The U.S. proposal would dismantle the current elected government in Afghanistan and offer Taliban leaders positions in an interim government in which the group would hold at least 50 percent of the power. These offers come despite little change seen from the Taliban to reduce violence, break with terrorist organizations and respect human rights, including the rights of women.

“The Taliban have a lot to gain from this peace deal,” said retired Pakistani Brig. Saad Muhammad, who served as Pakistan’s defense attache to Kabul.

Muhammad said that while some in the Taliban movement support ending the war through talks, he believes the high levels of violence in Afghanistan in recent months show that the more powerful commanders on the ground don’t “envisage a peaceful solution to the conflict.”

It took more than a year of negotiations between the United States and the Taliban to reach the Doha pact. Some fear that the Biden administration’s push for a peace deal between the Taliban and Afghan government within weeks is unrealistic.

An individual familiar with internal Taliban discussions said that if the United States does not withdraw all troops by May 1, the result would be “more killing and bloodshed.”

“But eventually [the United States] will have to come back to the table again,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to disclose thinking within the Taliban before an official decision has been issued. He predicted that any new round of negotiations would take longer to reach a settlement than the 18 months of intense talks that preceded the Doha agreement.

The longer peace talks take, the longer violence is expected to continue on the ground. While the United Nations recorded an overall drop in civilian casualties in 2020, the mission in Afghanistan found that the numbers began to spike in the last quarter of the year, as talks stalled.

Naeem, the Doha spokesman, said Taliban fighters reduced violence after the Doha agreement. And as long as the United States fulfills its commitments to the deal and peace talks continue, he said, “there is no reason why [the violence] should escalate.”

“After 40 years of war, negotiating is very difficult,” Naeem said. “There is no time frame for the Afghan negotiations, so it needs time to continue.”

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Aziz Tassal in Kabul contributed to this report.