Despite widespread recognition that the only way toward ending the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is a negotiated settlement, understanding of the Taliban’s thinking on the subject is remarkably scant. This report attempts to fill this gap by drawing on face-to-face interviews with Taliban foot soldiers, field commanders, and supporters to better understand the movement’s views on why they are fighting, what issues are negotiable, whether they have faith in negotiation as a way to peace, and what a peace process might look like.

Summary

  • The Taliban emerged in 1994 as an army of volunteers without a formal hierarchy under a founder who led by charisma as an absolute spiritual leader until his death.
  • Since 2015, two parallel trends have unfolded, an increased emphasis on centralization and increased power in the hands of local commanders, but it is too early to interpret this as fragmentation.
  • The rank and file are driven by an abhorrence of the post-Taliban government—which they see as a product of its foreign supporters and as defined by corruption.
  • The United States is seen as imposing Western ideals on Afghan society under the cover of democracy at the expense of traditional leaders and independent religious scholars.
  • The Taliban see themselves as fighting a war imposed on them, leading a popular resistance to liberate their country and restore its sovereignty through jihad.
  • Negotiation is now considered a valid pathway to an Islamic state. At the same time, Taliban say they should be the ones to offer peace talks, especially when it comes to intra-Afghan reconciliation—and jihad remains an option.
  • The government’s invitations to talks have so far been perceived as limiting the Taliban’s options to a single undesirable path: ceasing jihad in return for integration into a system they abhor.
  • Even as they assert faith in negotiations, however, Taliban fighters think that ousting foreign troops by force is the most realistic strategy. Only then, they believe, can they negotiate with the government in Kabul and other Afghan groups.
  • Foot soldiers express no sense of urgency for ending the fight and say that their obedience to superiors is now condition based.
  • In all, the Taliban rank and file are not enthusiastic about peace talks. No single explanation accounts for it.

About the Report

This study is a rare attempt to systematically survey rank-and-file Taliban on the question of a nonmilitary end to the conflict in Afghanistan. It draws on in-depth interviews the author conducted from June 2017 through January 2018 with thirty-two Taliban members and supporters. The project was undertaken by the author (who is now International Crisis Group’s Afghanistan senior analyst) in his previous capacity as an independent researcher and was supported by the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author

Borhan Osman is a senior analyst for Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group and a long-time writer for the Afghanistan Analysts Network. A leading expert on the militant networks operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, he has researched the Afghan conflict since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and has written extensively about the Taliban insurgency and militant groups in Afghanistan.

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