The Afghan Government Needs Reconciliation with Its People, Not with the Taliban

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Former Afghan President and "National Consultive Peace Jirga" Chairman Burhanuddin Rabani (L) watches Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at the conclusion of the consultations in Kabul on June 4, 2010. (Photo: Massoud Hossaini / AFP / Getty Images)

For the past several months, reconciliation with the Taliban has emerged as a key pillar of the American exit strategy. A political end to the insurgency, combined with a strengthened Afghan security force, better governance and enhanced economic structures were supposed to pave the way towards the dignified withdrawal that is essential for America’s international standing, and, perhaps, a beleaguered American president’s hope for reelection. Yesterday’s assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the council tasked with bringing the Taliban to the table, not only undermined hopes for talks, but called into doubt the entire premise.

At best, a negotiated solution is a complicated undertaking. It involves not only the Afghan government, the United States and Pakistan, but also a poorly understood and rapidly evolving insurgency that has often been compared to a multi-headed hydra. Only in this case, each head speaks for itself. There is no doubt that a member of the Taliban killed Rabbani. But which Taliban? Did the assassin come from the Quetta Shura, nominally headed by Taliban founder Mullah Omar, and based in the Pakistani city that gives it its name? Or did he come from the Haqqani Network, the more radical branch affiliated with al Qaeda that has been blamed for last week’s assault on the U.S. embassy in Kabul? What about the group headed by former mujahidin commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar? The fact that a Taliban spokesman fumbled his account, including the name of the assassin, when he took responsibility on behalf of the Quetta Shura in a call to Reuters points to a significant schism in the Taliban movement, one that has been growing over the past year. It is quite possible that there is a segment of the Taliban willing to reconcile, while there is another that will do whatever it takes to sabotage the whole process.

This is something I saw first hand last fall, when, over the course of several months I attempted to figure out what the Taliban wanted from peace negotiations. I spoke with Taliban commanders via telephone, met with captured soldiers in jail, sat with former members and interviewed political analysts with intimate connections to the insurgency. I was hoping to get a better understanding of what Afghanistan’s future looked like through Taliban eyes. Instead I came to the conclusion that there was not one insurgency but several, united by common cause, but ultimately independent in their goals and demands.

To be sure, there are Taliban interested in reconciliation and the rewards (economical, political) that it brings. In the north and east, where the insurgency has gained momentum, non-Pashtuns are joining the movement in greater numbers, galvanized by an inept and predatory government, frustration with the slow pace of development, and a U.S.-led campaign of night raids  that often kills or detains innocent civilians in the process of netting Taliban leaders. They too may eventually reconcile. But there are also ideological Taliban who are fundamentally opposed to joining a government that they perceive to be corrupt and anti-Islamic. Rohullah Noori, a 27-year old Taliban soldier detained at Kabul’s notorious Pul-i-Charkhi prison, was one of them. Reconciliation, he says, is out of the question because he doesn’t recognize the Afghan government as legitimate. “The Taliban want peace, not violence. We will fight until we have Islam. Because without Islam, there will be no peace.”

Noori, clearly, would be considered one of the irreconcilables. But no one is really sure how many irreconcilables there are, what kind of influence they have, or what percentage of the overall numbers they make. Even Umar Daudzai, President Hamid Karzai’s closest advisor and special envoy to Pakistan, a man who has about as much knowledge of the reconciliation process as Rabbani did, isn’t sure. “We don’t really clearly know how it works within the Taliban,” he told NPR in an interview earlier this month. “With Taliban, our information about their structure and about their decision-making mechanism is not good enough.”

It’s a rare admission, one often overlooked in the hope-fueled and ultimately naive pronouncements that a political solution will set Afghanistan on the long road to recovery. If anything, reconciliation is more likely to be the result of fixing Afghanistan’s other problems, not the silver bullet, according to Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “When Afghans were saying that the conflict needs to be solved politically, I don’t think many of them were thinking of a high-level deal between the Taliban leadership and the government,” she says. “They were rather talking about the people who didn’t really want to fight, but who had been pushed into it because of grievances; because they were badly treated, abused and insulted by members of the government and the security forces. The point they were making is that this is solvable, if we rein in the power of abusive commanders and officials and relatives.” If, however,  reconciliation becomes an euphemism for a deal between armed political elites, then it is unlikely to stop the fighting for the long term. It’s not so much reconciliation between the Taliban and the government that is needed, but between the government and its people.

Even then, there are fundamental differences that will keep a core group of ideologues at bay. A Taliban commander in the northern province of Kunduz who goes by the nom de guerre Zar Qawi, told TIME by telephone that the Koran, in his interpretation, does not accept democracy because it allows both the literate and the illiterate, the good and the criminal, to have a say in who governs them. “When we say Islamic government, it means we don’t want democracy.”

What he does want is the enforcement of Islamic law. “Our ultimate goal is God’s will and a government that implements Sharia,” he says. Sharia, to Afghans, is largely understood to mean the firm, swift and fair dispensation of justice according to the Koran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad. In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, fundamentalist interpretations included stonings, amputations and executions for crimes ranging from theft, murder and adultery. In negotiations, the Taliban are unlikely to compromise on the implementation of Sharia, largely because a significant number of Afghans, disillusioned by the failure of the formal justice sector over the past ten years, also support it. “The government now is not Islamic. If the government practiced Sharia we wouldn’t have the problems with drugs and corruption that we see today,” says Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, a cleric who served as foreign minister under the Taliban but defected in 2001.

Women’s rights, too, would have to be addressed. Muttawakil argues that the Taliban never opposed women going to school or working, just that they frowned on women mixing with unrelated men. Economic conditions during Taliban rule made it too difficult to establish separate schools, however, so women’s education was postponed for better times. “I think the Taliban leaders now understand that was a mistake,” he says in an interview in his Kabul compound. “Now, I think women would be given more rights.” But don’t expect women under a post-reconciliation government to abandon their burqas, he told me. “You cannot give the rights to women here that you give to women in France. That is against our culture.”

Even if a progressive Taliban leadership were willing to compromise on issues like women’s education and rights, the ongoing insurgent campaign against girl’s schools and working women indicates that many in the movement wouldn’t agree. “We don’t want women to be as free as they are today,” says fighter Kochi, interviewed by phone. “This is against Islamic values, and is very disrespectful.”

The widening chasm between the Taliban leadership hiding in Pakistan and the movement’s foot soldiers, such as Kochi, has many observers worried that it may even now be too late for comprehensive negotiations. The ongoing American military campaign has driven the political leadership out of the country and removed several high-level commanders from the battlefield, leaving in place a younger, more fanatical cadre that is less likely to accept compromise—or direction from above.

This younger generation, says Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Kandahar-based analyst who has interviewed more than 40 Taliban solders and commanders in the course of research on how to separate the Taliban from al Qaeda (see the PDF here), has never known an Afghanistan at peace. Many were indoctrinated in fundamentalist madrassas across the border in Pakistan, and their radicalism is exacerbated by continuous war. Unlike the older generation of Taliban, many of whom fought a nationalist uprising against the Soviet Union, the young “have no vision,” says van Linschoten. “For them it’s the endless jihad.”  And that may be at the heart of the Taliban divide, and the mystery over Rabbani’s assassination.  There is a risk that the leadership interested in pursuing talks will begin to lose control of its young radicals. Many are already beyond reach. “It doesn’t matter if the Ameer ul Momineen [an honorific for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, meaning ‘commander of the faithful’] makes a deal with the government,” says Noori. “We follow the Koran, not Mullah Omar.”

Mullah Omar, in his address to the Afghan people last month, acknowledged for  the first time that there had been direct talks  between the Taliban and the U.S., though those talks, he indicated, were limited to discussions of prisoner releases. Talks about conditions that might lead to talks about talks, so to speak.

Still, he appeared to be laying out something resembling a stump speech, calling for “a real Islamic regime, which is acceptable to all people of the country.” He also appealed to Afghanistan’s business elite, declaring that the a Taliban regime would invest in Afghanistan’s mines, agriculture and energy sectors, and  “that strict measures will be taken to safeguard all national installations, government departments and the advancements that have been occurred in private sector. Professional cadres and national businessmen will be further encouraged, without any discrimination, to serve their religion and country.”

It’s hard to see how a man appealing to the private sector and government cadres would want to sabotage reconciliation talks before they even got off the ground. So if Mullah Omar’s Taliban wasn’t behind Rabbani’s assassination, the question isn’t so much ‘who dunnit,’ but rather, how much influence over the movement does he have?

With reporting by Ali Safi/Kabul

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.