Many postmortems will be conducted about why the United States and the rest of the international community have struggled in their efforts to steer the Afghan conflict toward a negotiated settlement and left the country on the brink of a nasty, anarchic civil war. The answers provided are bound to cite missed opportunities, poor direction, and the work of spoilers. But underlying these and other explanations are the influence of three persistent myths, which created illusions about the Taliban and have guided much of our thinking about conducting peace talks. All three myths brought damaging concessions and false confidence in reaching an eventual agreement. While these myths may seem to have finally lost their hold, very recent developments in Afghanistan could see them revived.
The first of these myths has been our belief that since there is no realistic hope of a military victory over the Taliban, there necessarily had to be a negotiated political solution. It assumed that the Taliban had reached a similar conclusion, and that their leaders, having recognized a hurting stalemate, were ready for productive talks. That the Taliban were continuing to press ahead militarily and resisting a ceasefire agreement could be explained as mainly intended to improve their position in ongoing negotiations. It was also regularly argued that Afghanistan had changed too thoroughly as a society over the last 20 years to allow the Taliban to again monopolize power and impose an oppressive Islamic emirate. This view badly gauged the ability of the Taliban to shape the narrative and largely discounted the possibility of the conflict ending with the Taliban scoring an outright military victory or being a position to force a political agreement that effectively dictated the terms of surrender.
The second of the myths held that the only route to peace was through negotiations with the Taliban. It presumed the two sides would, after a period of hard bargaining, arrive at a political solution, very likely in the form of a power-sharing arrangement. Faith in the possibility of reaching serious compromise with the Taliban persisted despite the experiences of months of talks, first with U.S. representatives and then in intra-Afghan talks, that revealed the Taliban’s nearly complete unwillingness to budge substantively on any issue thought to violate their core beliefs or compromise on their goals. The Taliban also found that by standing firm on their demands, interlocutors, desperate to show progress, would eventually yield on virtually every point in contention. The U.S. long resisted concluding that the Taliban saw negotiations not as a process of give and take but as opportunity to trumpet their demands and beliefs and win international legitimacy. It has been most difficult to concede that the clashing visions of an ideal Afghan state might be so vast that any efforts to reach a true compromise with the Taliban would be a fruitless exercise.
A third myth has been that to be successful a peace process must be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led. It became a mantra for foreign powers eager to convince Afghan political elites that they had no intention of imposing a political solution on the country. More subtly, it was meant to encourage the parties to the conflict to come to an agreement. No doubt, without the buy-in of Afghans no agreement can be achievable or sustainable. But any suggestion that Afghans can by themselves resolve their differences defies recent Afghan history. At no time in recent Afghan history have Afghans engaging in armed conflict at the national level succeeded in negotiating a political agreement. Of the five distinctive stages of consecutive Afghan civil conflicts since 1975, every one ended or transitioned as a result of the intervention of outside powers. At the Bonn conference in 2001, only the combined pressure of the U.S., Russia, and Iran made it possible for the delegations of the various victorious Afghan factions to agree on the framework of a post-Taliban government. Following the collapse of the communist regime in 1992, when Afghans were left entirely on their own to sort out their differences, Afghanistan underwent its bloodiest civil war to date.
Dispelling these myths becomes especially important as the current conflict appears to be entering a critical new phase. With Taliban forces closing in on Afghanistan’s urban centers, the morale of Afghan forces and the wider public rapidly sinking, and Afghan powerbrokers scrambling to find a means to protect their interests in a rapidly changing scene, the Taliban leadership could be poised to embark on a peace initiative very much in sync with its military surge.
In a recent statement attributed to Haibatullah Akhundzada and echoed by others, the emboldened Taliban’s ordinarily silent leader announced that while his movement remains firmly committed to the establishment of an Islamic system, it also “strenuously favors” a negotiated political settlement. This is likely the prelude to a proposal to form an interim government in Kabul that, although appearing to share power, will be designed to pave the way for the constitutional changes intended to replace the current democratic Islamic republic with an Islamic emirate.
The Taliban’s well-crafted strategy does not count on an immediate payoff but rather is meant to lure Afghan negotiators into another round of talks on the Taliban’s terms that encourage divisions among Afghan leaders. It is also aimed at capitalizing on the longing of the international community and the Afghan people for an end to conflict. The danger is that the three myths, so prominent in the recent past, may facilitate the return of the country to the cruel, turbulent 1990s.