The Moderate Taliban


Yesterday, David Miliband indicated that NATO are considering political engagement with moderate sections of the Taliban.  He insisted that any military strategy must be combined with a political one in order for the Afghan mission to be a success.

The argument that there are sections of the Taliban who can be reigned in is based on the idea that many of those who fight for the Taliban do so not because they believe in the group’s global supremacist ideology, but rather for local and tribal reasons.  There are many villages and tribes that, for the sake of self preservation, will ally themselves with whichever side appears to be in the ascendency.  These people are often guaranteed security from the Taliban by either Afghan or NATO forces, who then leave the area only for the Taliban to come down from the mountains and execute anyone they deem to be a collaborator.  This happened when the British pulled out of Musa Qala in 2006, only for it to be overrun by the Taliban who reportedly did not even spare the children of collaborators.   

Miliband hopes that those who are not part of the Taliban ‘hardcore’ can be convinced to give up the fight.  He could well be right and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid has written a fascinating piece in today’s Evening Standard supporting Miliband’s strategy.  But in order to convince anyone to defect from the Taliban, NATO will have to guarantee their safety, and this will be very difficult.  Afghanistan is a huge country, and when the NATO Humvees move on to the next region, they will be too far away to guarantee any sort of rapid response were the Taliban to return to any settled region.

There is also the huge problem of identifying the moderates, and this is something which Pakistan under both Musharraf and Zardari has tried and failed to do on a number of occasions.  Before he was deposed, Musharraf attempted the moderate Taliban approach and his government signed numerous peace treaties with Pakistani Taliban groups which were deemed to be less extreme than the hardcore leadership.  In May 2007 Maulana Fazlullah, head of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM – the Swat Taliban) signed a deal with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal provincial government in which he agreed to, among other things, shut down all terrorist training camps under his control, allow polio vaccinations for girls, allow education for girls, support the district administration and stop interfering in government affairs. On signing the deal Fazlullah declared: “I have signed the agreement for the sake of peace as Islam teaches us peace.”

Within two months of the peace agreement, TNSM were in direct violation of a number of the agreements and they began carrying out attacks on soldiers and police in the region.  In July of the same year Pakistan’s Dawn news service reported that “In broadcasts on his FM channel on Tuesday and Wednesday, [Fazlullah] asked his supporters to take up arms against the government to avenge the action taken against Lal Masjid [Red Mosque] and carry out suicide attacks.”

Until recently, the Zardari government also favoured negotiating with people they identified as moderate Taliban.  This led to the now infamous Malakand Accord, which gave Swat over to the Taliban with the promise that all terror activity would cease.  As has been well documented, this plan backfired, with the Taliban instead using Swat as a base from which they attempted to take over the rest of the country.  The Pakistani government soon realised that they had failed in their search for moderates and reverted to a military operation which, although relatively successful, has cost countless civilian lives.

The Taliban leadership will never surrender or negotiate, they have repeatedly stated that they will not stop until both Pakistan and Afghanistan are under their control, and they have a significant enough support network to carry out suicide bombings in Pakistan and attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.  So far, most attempts to negotiate with so-called moderates within the Taliban have failed spectacularly, and NATO and the Afghan government will have to do a far better job of it than Pakistan has.  Muslim Khan, spokesman for the Tehrik e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), suggested to an interviewer in April 2009 that those seeking out moderates within the Taliban are wasting their time:

Interviewer: Does a moderate Taliban exist?

Muslim Khan: [laughs] No difference between moderate Taliban and the Taliban, they are the same.

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