Taliban governance strategies and the Afghan peace process

by Emma van Santen

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Image via Pixabay

In February, Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, offered to begin a peace process with the Taliban as legitimate political actors. Ghani’s proposal for negotiations included a ceasefire, the release of Taliban prisoners, new elections with Taliban candidates, the reintegration of Taliban fighters and a constitutional review. The Taliban are yet to respond, indicating what many analysts perceive to be a serious internal debate regarding next steps. Ghani’s offer of political engagement signals a marked departure from dominant Afghan government narratives labelling the Taliban as drug traffickers or terrorists. Given that previous internationally led attempts at negotiations have stumbled over international security-related preconditions such as terrorism or foreign troop withdrawal, this move also shows unprecedented Afghan ownership of the peace process and prioritisation of the domestic political agenda.

The shift in the treatment of the Taliban from international criminals to domestic political actors coincides with a concerted Taliban strategy over the last five years to increase their legitimacy through improved governance of their territories. It reflects a small but growing consensus that successful peace-building rests on state acknowledgment of the Taliban’s role in the governance of Afghan society, particularly in rural areas where the state is largely absent or viewed as corrupt and ineffective. The Taliban have emerged as potential conduits between Kabul elites and some areas of rural Afghanistan.

This article outlines how Taliban governance strategies reflect local priorities for peace, and can inform a broadly inclusive negotiating agenda focused on areas where horizontal (elite) and vertical (societal) inclusion or interests intersect.

In the absence of effective state governance, the Taliban have employed four main governance strategies to obtain legitimacy. Firstly, the Taliban have exploited the rural­–urban divide in Afghanistan, showing an understanding of the multi-layered identities and interests of Afghans that do not always fit neatly into ethnic and tribal categories. Ethnic narratives are important in Afghanistan, but ethnic boundaries change over time as they are manipulated by elites for political purposes. Local political cultures tend to distinguish between communities with, and those without, access to power in terms of political geography and land ownership. Many of these fault lines divide rural communities from urban centres and the elite culture of the Afghan court.

The Taliban have engaged rural political cultures with a mix of Afghan nationalism, a universal Islamic ideology, the drug economy and discourse on urban oppression of the countryside that cuts across ethnic and tribal boundaries in its southern rural strongholds. They have made a point of aligning themselves with those who have been marginalised by the government. Taliban discourse has resonated strongly in the Pashtun communities excluded from state government. The Taliban have also legitimised their rule by adapting their Islamic ideology to make it appear appropriate to and in line with Afghan local culture.

The current power-sharing arrangement of the Afghan government, which provides elites from all significant minority ethnic groups with government positions and access to resources, does not adequately reflect the complexity of Afghan identities and social marginalisation. There is little to bind the government together as a cohesive identity with a unifying ideology. The exclusionary and elitist nature of state governance is one of the primary grievances of both the Taliban and the communities they represent. A sustainable and legitimate peace will require an overhaul of inclusion and power-sharing measures to connect the rural political cultures engaged by Taliban governance structures, with the urban elite Kabul administration.

Rivals for the presidency, Abdullah Abdullah (left), Chief Executive of Afghanistan, and Ashraf Ghani (second from left), who agreed to share power after Ghani was sworn in as President in September 2014. Image: UNAMA News via Flickr

Secondly, the Taliban have out-performed the state in public service delivery and security provision in their territories. They have established a shadow government system that includes its own provincial and district governors and civilian commissions. The shadow government system is guided by a code of conduct that outlines procedures for co-ordination with local leaders. They have actively listened to the population regarding their needs for education, healthcare and justice and have attempted to meet these needs. Taliban officials lobby international NGOs for assistance for hospitals, teaching qualifications and judicial training. Taliban justice provision is deemed more reliable than state justice and attracts litigants from urban centres to the countryside to resolve disputes. Although Taliban governance is at times brutal, many Afghans in the south indicate they would prefer Taliban rule, in addition to an end to the military conflict.

It is not yet clear that the Taliban or their communities are seeking inclusion in what they perceive to be a corrupt and inefficient system of government at the national level. Taliban strengths lie in rural, not urban, governance. The Taliban leadership conceded a lack of capacity for urban service delivery when they took the city of Kundus for two weeks in 2015. Some analysts believe the 2019 district elections could provide a back door for the Taliban, and rural interests, into government without disrupting the fragile elite power-sharing arrangement in place. Decentralisation through a peace process may also combine urban, Taliban and rural interests under a democratic system of government.

The third key Taliban strategy for building legitimacy involves protecting poppy fields from the eradication efforts of the Afghan government. Administration of the poppy fields will therefore be a key agenda item for any potential peace process.

Anti-poppy, pro-wheat growing campaign, 2009. Image: Todd Huffman via Flickr

Fourthly, the Taliban has championed Afghan nationalism against foreign troop presence. A peace process at the elite level must allow time for the Taliban leadership to garner local support regarding negotiation (as opposed to a military campaign) on the foreign troop withdrawal issue to avoid fragmentation of the Taliban position.  

An Afghan peace process will be challenging. Regional and international interests threaten to spoil it. There is also a lack of information regarding Taliban objectives for peace and a fragmentation of the Taliban leadership, which is split between Qatar, Pakistan and Helmand province. Multiple negotiating tracks may be needed to accommodate different Taliban factions. Careful analysis of local governance and legitimacy can shift the focus away from narrow elite pacts based on international security priorities of terrorism and troop deployment towards an inclusive, sustainable peace agenda that works with the grain of local authority and interests.

This article is based on field interviews with international and Afghan analysts in Kabul, Washington, New York and London.

About the author

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Emma van Santen is a PhD candidate at the Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge. She previously worked on climate change, humanitarian and peace-building policy for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs.
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