In an essay titled ‘Taliban 2.0. – Have the Taliban really changed and learnt their lesson’ published in leading US think tank The Atlantic Council Asey argues, “With negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban under way, many in the West and Afghanistan are banking on the fact that the Taliban movement have changed and that, having failed to defeat them militarily, it is time to embrace them. Although the latter is indeed true – that we have failed to defeat the Taliban militarily – the former deserves more scrutiny. The Taliban movement is a heterogenous umbrella organization for various factions operating under the same name. Before embracing them, we must understand which part of the Taliban, if any, have actually changed and weigh the indications and evidence for this transformation.”
“Particular questions stand out as crucial to our examination at this pivotal moment as we seek to assess whether the movement has become acceptable to the Afghan people and the international community. First, has the Taliban movement cut their ties with Al Qaeda and other global and regional terror outfits? Second, how do they rule in the areas they currently control? Third, have their views on women’s rights, minorities rights, and the conduct of international relations evolved? And finally, how do Afghans feel about and perceive these changes?”
“As policy makers and foreign diplomats grapple with these questions, the Afghan people are experiencing two realities on the ground in Afghanistan. The first is the new Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic, underwritten and supported by almost two decades of US and Western support. The second is the newly emboldened Taliban, with their sympathizers and regional supporters who believe that they have finally prevailed and are on the verge of military and political victory. In the near future, these realities will somehow need to exist side by side in peace and tranquility as neither reality can override or erase the other in pursuit of a monopoly of power and resources,” pointed out Asey, adding, “The alternative is a full-fledged civil war and the continuation of the current Afghan conflict, with some even referring to it as the “Syrianization” of Afghanistan. With negotiations under way, those who represent the new Afghanistan have made it clear that the Republic is ready to accept the Taliban within the folds of a pluralistic and democratic future. The question that remains is whether the Taliban have changed enough to accept the new Afghanistan.”
Many Afghans, including members of the government’s negotiation team, do not believe that the Taliban have changed, noting that they still hold to their medieval, totalitarian, and dogmatic ideologies, Asey pointed out.
“There are two common interpretations of the fate of Taliban leaders and commanders after the fall of their regime. The first holds that Taliban leaders and commanders initially retreated to Afghan villages to pursue a peaceful and non-political life following their defeat, but that they were later forced to go to Pakistan and rearm in response to American and Afghan government raids on their houses and properties. The other view holds that the Taliban leadership proactively decided to retreat from cities following their defeat in order to prepare for a long guerilla war with the United States and its Afghan allies…With Taliban leadership based safely in Pakistan, they were able to pursue the long-game with considerable support from the Pakistani Inter-Service intelligence (ISI) agency and military.”
US Special Envoy for Peace Zalmay Khalilzad – in several of his interviews with local Afghan TV channels – has insisted that the Taliban have changed and have acknowledged their past mistakes with women’s education, their relations with the world, and in harboring of terror groups. There is, however, little evidence to support these claims, claimed Asey. According to recent studies by the Afghan Analyst Network’s “Living with the Taliban” and “One Land, Two Rules” series, the Taliban still rule through fear; heavily tax local populations; close down schools in areas that they control; have no representation of women; and provide few public services. The recent intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha also indicate clearly that the Taliban have not changed in critical ways, as their team did not include women or minorities and they implicitly objected to “Fiq Jaffari” (the Shia interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence), noted the former Afghan Minister.
“Importantly, the Taliban have also failed to spell out a specific vision for the future of Afghanistan, and are once again unable to present a program for governance, service delivery, or maintenance of rule of law. They continue to resort to vague and generalized statements, and have neither been able – nor willing – to clearly spell out their views on education, health, reconstruction, and beyond. The Taliban’s belief in a military victory, however, has made them more confident of their cause and ideology. The group currently sees itself as unique within the jihadist universe in having defeated the United States and forcing it to negotiate an exit. This has made them quite popular and a center of gravity within the jihadi world. At this stage, the Taliban do not believe that change is necessary and have no incentives to acknowledge the realities of the new Afghanistan.”
Asey is also the founder and executive chairman of the Institute of War and Peace Studies in Kabul.