Richard North, 11/09/2021  

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the subject of the situation in Afghanistan again climbs into prominence, and more so with an article in the Guardian by Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff.

Using that event of 20 years ago as a hook, he argues that the lesson we failed to learn from 9/11 is that "peace is impossible if we don't talk to our enemies". "We should", he says, "have engaged with the Taliban 20 years ago, but we thought the winner takes all", adding that this failure "undermined our own armed forces".

This is a thesis much favoured by prominent, US-based journalist and author, Anand Gopal, who asserts that, after the US invasion of Afghanistan, when the Taliban government was crumbling, some of the chief lieutenants of Taliban leader Mullah Omar secretly gathered and decided to surrender to the forces of Hamid Karzai.

Some of the Taliban members even saw the new government as Islamic and legitimate, and some senior Taliban officials even surrendered to Afghan authorities in early 2002.

But, Gobal records, Karzai and other government officials ignored the overtures - largely due to pressures from the United States and the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's erstwhile enemy. Moreover, some Pashtun commanders who had been ousted by the Taliban seven years earlier were eager for revenge and were opposed to allowing former Taliban officials to go unpunished.

Widespread intimidation and harassment of these former Taliban ensued. Sympathetic figures in the government told former members of the Taliban that they should flee the country, for they would not be safe in Afghanistan.

The men eventually vanished across the border into Pakistan's Baluchistan province, many later to become leading figures in the Taliban insurgency, playing an important role in rallying the scattered Taliban remnants to rebel against the Americans.

Thus, the narrative goes – picked up and amplified by Powell - if only the US had been disposed to talking to the Taliban, and perhaps offered key members of the movement places in the Karzai government, this would have nipped the insurgency in the bud.

As Powell puts it, "Instead of engaging them in an inclusive process and giving them a stake in the new Afghanistan, the Americans continued to pursue them, and they returned to fighting".

Seductive though this thesis is, and endorsed by many prominent members of the Afghan commentariat, the suggestion that insurgency would have been avoided is nonetheless entirely speculative. However, there is a tendency to play the "prestige" card, to the extent that the prominence of some of its advocates tends to afford it a level of credibility not warranted by its speculative status.

Much of the prestige attaches to members of the so-called Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), the go-to source by the media, for much of its information on Afghanistan.

However, while its members pronouncements are often treated on a level akin to papal infallibility, it is well to be aware that they too, on occasions, have feet of clay. One such is Kate Clark, former BBC journalist who was stationed in Kabul 1999 and has covered the country's affairs on and off, ever since, joining the AAN in 2010.

On 1 May 2021, Clark had published by her employer a paper entitled, "As US troops withdraw, what next for war and peace in Afghanistan?". There, she concluded:
… the US is leaving Afghanistan after 20 years, with a negotiated end to the war looking the least likely scenario. More probable is that the Taleban will, sooner or later, move to try to capture territory and attack Afghanistan's provincial capitals. Yet, the likelihood of the movement taking power through military victory also seems remote. The Taleban show every sign of having underestimated the ANSF. There is every prospect that any Taleban drive to intensify the violence will be resisted, with immense suffering to countless Afghans.
Then, on 1 August, as the Taliban were taking more and more provincial capitals, she was telling Channel 4 News: "It's by no means over … I would say the next few months are crucial". Two weeks later, the Taliban had strolled into Kabul and president Ashraf Ghani had fled the country.

Nevertheless, the AAN does produce some good analytical work, even Anand Gopal who, with Alex Strick van Linschoten, in June 2017 produced a paper entitled "Ideology in the Afghan Taliban". This augmented another report, written by Thomas Ruttig, written in April 2010, entitled, "How Tribal Are the Taleban?", with the sub-heading, "Afghanistan’s largest insurgent movement between its tribal roots and Islamist ideology".

This earlier report is particularly interesting because Ruttig writes, amongst other things, that in the Taliban, there are three different types of network: religious; political and tribal. In any given situation, he says, individual Taliban – leaders as well as fighters – can choose from these networks in any given situation, when mobilisation, support, solidarity, etc. is needed.

Gopal and his co-author stress that the Taliban is primarily a Pashtun-based organisation, with its structures and mores reflecting their tribal composition, overlaid by these political and religious influences.

From these and a galaxy of other authors we get reminders of the egalitarian nature of Pashtun tribesmen, the lack of a hierarchical structure, and the inability of tribal chiefs and elders to exercise control over their tribes, particularly when under the influence of religious leaders who have declared a jihad.

One wonders, however, whether the august authors of the AAN fully understand the practical implications of their own work, which tends to indicate that, amongst Pashtun and therefore Taliban leaders, there tends to be a strong element of followership. They either go along with their members or they may be ignored or, at worse, violently deposed and replaced.

The point that emerges from this is that, just because Taliban leaders agree to a course of action, that does not mean that members will follow them, or that the leaders have any way of enforcing their decisions. And, as we have so often seen in such tribal affairs, members who disagree with their leaders commonly set up or join rival groups – or form their own.

A propos the Gopal/Powell thesis, therefore, there is no good cause to argue that, if in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion in 2001 some Taliban leaders had sued for peace, their members would necessarily have followed – especially as the Taliban is by no means a homogeneous organisation.

Something of this dynamic we are seeing between the Taliban of today, and the ISIS-K, where any relaxation of the zealous application of the Sharia code is likely to be met by mass desertions to ISIS-K – most of its membership having come from the Taliban in the first place. The Taliban could find themselves deposed by their own bastard child.

Whatever does happen, in my view there is only one certainty – so complex is the situation in the region that any attempt to second-guess the outcome, past or present, is bound to be frustrated. Afghanistan has been called the "graveyard of empires". That is a disputable proposition but it is certainly turning out to be a graveyard of experts.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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