From Islamic Emirate to Nationalist Insurgency: Reckoning with Afghanistan’s Taliban Irreconcilables

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 28

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, left, campaigning against Hamid Karzai in Daykundi Province with the Afghan Airforce in August 2009. Credit- Derek Henry Flood.

Though the concept of Afghan and Western reconciliation with the Mullah Mohammad Omar-led Taliban has gained much momentum, the consequences of some kind of ad hoc settlement between the Islamists and the government of President Hamid Karzai have not been clearly defined. Opposition is growing within some quarters in Afghanistan to a settlement that would give the Taliban access to power. Much of this opposition is being led by heirs to the late anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, particularly former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and the former head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security Amrullah Saleh. As Saleh recently told a rally in Kabul: “We have not forgotten the burning of our homeland and the humiliation of the men and women of Afghanistan…But you [Karzai] are still calling these people [the Taliban] ‘brother’" (AP, May 5).

A Bitter Legacy

Since the Taliban were ejected from central Kabul in November 2001, the movement has transformed itself from a mostly unrecognized government to a Pashtun ethno-nationalist insurgency with its roots in the anti-Soviet jihad that consumed the country throughout the 1980s.

In Dr. Abdullah’s recent open letter to President Karzai, the former foreign minister states emphatically, “In the reconciliation process, one of the clear red-lines for any negotiated settlement has been that the reconcilable Taliban must accept the Constitution.” [1] Abdullah, by drawing such a red-line, has been interpreted by many as rejecting the very notion of reconciling with a movement whose raison d’être is the implementation of a brutal interpretation of Islamic law at any cost.

Dr. Abdullah’s colleague, Amrullah Saleh, is one of the most ardent anti-Taliban figures in Afghanistan and is outraged by Karzai’s overtures to senior Taliban leaders, making no effort to hide his disdain after serving alongside the President for years. Saleh, now in opposition to Karzai after an abrupt departure from his post in June 2010, has formed a nascent movement based on his Panjshiri Tajik power-base calling itself the Basij-e-Melli (BeM). Saleh is keen to insist that his movement is not solely a Tajik one as it also contains a number of Hazaras and anti-Taliban Pashtuns from eastern Afghanistan. The bedrock belief of BeM, according to Saleh, is that the Taliban are not simply misguided Afghan “brothers” (as Karzai has been known to term them), but a nefarious group directly controlled by the Pakistani state, with which it seeks to control Afghanistan by proxy when NATO-ISAF forces finally depart.

Together, Adbullah and Saleh represent a sector of the Afghan population that does not want to see a decline in the gains made by women and ethnic and religious minorities since the Taliban’s ouster. While there has been much made of the idea of bringing Taliban leaders in from the cold, Afghans directly affected by the former regime’s vengeful ethnic cleansing of Tajiks in the Shomali Plain and Hazaras in Mazar-e-Sharif have no desire to see these men brought back to power in even the most modest fashion. In a June 2011 op-ed, Amrullah Saleh countered Karzai’s dubious overtures to the Taliban’s Quetta shura [consultative council], stating that Karzai risks creating a “Hezbollah-type entity” out of the Taliban if they are not entirely disarmed in southern Afghanistan (Bloomberg, June 15). Skeptics of American and British intentions for the future of Afghanistan suggest that the delayed drawdown of a large-scale foreign troop presence coupled with the co-opting of certain amenable Taliban elements is part of a convoluted ruse to establish permanent military installations in Afghanistan (Pakistan Observer, July 7; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 30). With the killing of Osama bin Laden and the decoupling of the UN’s al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctions list, some in Afghanistan believe the Western powers want to get out of the business of war-fighting and into the business of energy, using a rump occupation force as a hammer-like guarantor of their interests.  

The Role of Energy in Reconciliation

The Taliban have once again become an important player in the seemingly unending regional competition between two large-scale natural gas pipeline proposals. The competing projects, known as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) and the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (IPI), have been the topic of much speculation in this fitfully integrating mega-region for years. Both proposals are fraught with inherent security dilemmas. TAPI has been affected by a resurgent Taliban throughout much of its planned route in Afghanistan while IPI is plagued by the unending Balochi nationalist rebellion in the Pakistan section of its route. The transit countries that would be involved are experiencing constant energy shortages in their major urban centers and both TAPI and IPI have promised to relieve these fuel gaps. Recently, a rapprochement of sorts has taken place between Kabul and Islamabad with the signing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, which one commentary described as holding “great promise for the prosperity of the whole region” (The Frontier Post [Peshawar], June 30).

Though enthusiasm for TAPI has appeared to be outpacing that for IPI concurrently with the talk of Taliban reconciliation, Tehran is far from leaving the playing field. Iranian officials told their Indian counterparts that their plan only runs into one insurgency; that of Pakistan’s restive Balochis, and that TAPI, beginning in Turkmenistan’s Dauletabad gas fields and terminating in the Indian state of Punjab, is much more vulnerable to attacks by non-state actors. Iranian government officials have tried to sell IPI as the less dangerous of the two projects, stating that Balochistan will, over time, reap the benefits of transit fees which will eventually calm the insurrection there as the local inhabitants see improvements in their quality of life (The Hindu, June 17). The role of Pakistan as the swing state between the two proposals is both critical and complex. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari is viewed domestically as being under immense pressure to implement TAPI and abandon IPI, thereby further isolating their neighbors on the Iranian plateau. Taut bilateral relations already exist between Pakistan and Iran from years of sectarian Sunni-Shi’a proxy conflict and the anti-Shi’a pogroms conducted by the Sunni-chauvinist Taliban during their five years in power in Afghanistan.

A retired Pakistani army brigadier suggested that for TAPI to leave the drawing board and become a ground reality, the project’s planners would require the “cooperation and support of the Afghan Taliban” to secure a route through the volatile provinces of Helmand and Kandahar (The Nation [Islamabad], December 19, 2010). Though Islamabad is officially supportive of TAPI, it has not entirely abandoned IPI as an option should the former project collapse (Khabrain, July 4). At times, Islamabad’s precise position can appear ambiguous; Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani said that both TAPI and “joint gas and electricity projects with Iran were in [the] pipeline” (Geo TV, July 4). The elusive notion of Afghanistan becoming an energy corridor began in the mid-1990s, as interest in Turkmenistan’s natural gas reserves set off a largely unrealistic competition among Western companies to court the Taliban led by the reclusive Mullah Omar in Kandahar. Today, the natural gas dream has been set alight once again by a host of indigenous political actors across the region.

Deep Divisions over the American Military Presence

In a joint March press conference with former Interior Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar, Amrullah Saleh stated that the Taliban were an unrepentant organization that, if given the chance, would renew its scorched earth policy without hesitation. Saleh said that if the West were to pull out of Afghanistan entirely following some kind of settlement with the Taliban, Afghanistan would once again suffer in the throes of a proxy war (, March 5).  Saleh’s rhetoric is seen as increasingly divisive by the pro-talks camp in Kabul which views his opposition to all things Taliban as a stumbling block on the road to a cessation of hostilities.

Those allies of Karzai who are pushing for increased contacts with the Taliban leadership believe that former Afghan government officials now embittered with the president are purposefully sabotaging the very concept of peace talks because they are unfavorable to their personal agendas (Hewad [Kabul], March 5). Saleh and Atmar stressed the need for a continued U.S. military mission in Afghanistan beyond the scope of Operation Enduring Freedom, likely as a means of keeping meddling neighbors at bay (Weesa [Kabul], March 5). Atmar believes that Kabul would do better to keep the U.S. military in the country guiding it towards an Afghans-first policy rather than have them abandon the country altogether, thereby turning it into a regional battleground (Pajhwok Afghan News, March 5).

There has been intense debate in recent months in the Afghan media over the future role of the United States inside Afghanistan contrasted against what some see as the overwhelming leverage of the Pakistani state among both the Afghan polity and the Afghan Taliban. The Saleh-Atmar narrative paints the continued U.S. presence, if carried out with increasing sensitivity to local desires, as a means of emancipating Afghanistan from the influence of neighboring states that seek to dominate it while delicately avoiding being subsumed by an American agenda. If Afghans can get Washington to commit to certain obligations that will guarantee a balance between sovereignty and security in their country, then many believe that the benefits of an entrenched U.S. presence there would far outweigh its potential negative impact domestically (Hasht-e-Sobh, March 5).


As the ill-defined concept of Taliban reconciliation moves forward in fits and starts, those who were once part of a comparatively hopeful, if ineffective, unity government in Kabul are now disaffected with one another in a terribly unproductive fashion.

All the elements of the web of interlocking and competing interests at work in Afghanistan today will be impossible to satisfy simultaneously. Domestic political and economic pressures within the United States are making a never-ending military commitment in Afghanistan unsustainable while a host of Coalition allies are looking for the exit, such as Canada, which formally declared an end to its combat mission on July 7 (Globe and Mail [Toronto], July 6). Pakistan seeks to hold a tether on the Afghan Taliban even as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other domestic insurgent groups are shredding the social fabric of Pakistani society with each suicide attack. Iran is loath to see the re-emergence of the Deobandi Sunni Taliban in any form that may threaten its Shi’a and Persian-speaking Afghan clients even though it has been asserted Tehran provides military assistance to some Taliban elements along its border in southwestern Afghanistan to act as an irritant to foreign troops there (AP, March 9).

The Taliban continue to vigorously deny claims that they have entered into direct talks with either the United States or the United Kingdom as doing so would contravene their oft-stated condition that negotiations may only take place once all foreign troops have departed. As a Taliban spokesman said, “It is clear as the broad daylight that we consider negotiation in [the]  presence of foreign forces as a war stratagem of the Americans and their futile efforts” (Reuters, July 6). President Karzai has created a series of initiatives aimed at courting or co-opting the “reconcilable” Afghan Taliban.  Karzai, along with former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, has established a Joint Peace Commission with the Pakistani government. Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani stated, “I fully endorse that statement [in which Zardari] said that a war in Afghanistan can destabilize Pakistan and it is vice versa so the war on terrorism is directly affecting Pakistan not only in [the] form of casualties but in [the] form of economy as well” (Tolo News, April 17).

Karzai has also formed the High Council of Peace as a multi-ethnic mechanism to facilitate talks with his adversaries. The council has become a controversial effort for including several notorious Taliban figures, including Maulvi Mohammed Qalamuddin, the former head of the Islamic Emirates religious police (see Militant Leadership Monitor, June 2011).  Other reviled officials in the Taliban regime have been included in the peace building body by Karzai in order to lend credibility to those still following Mullah Omar and the original shura leaders. Over the course of the last several years, talks between the Karzai government and the Afghan Taliban have been reported in various locales including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and somewhat incongruously, a stunning holiday resort in the Maldives (AP, February 17, 2010). In each instance, Taliban spokesmen consistently deny they have made such contacts, perhaps for fear of losing the confidence of active guerillas engaging in contact with Afghan security forces and ISAF troops. When former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani confirmed that talks were indeed taking place with certain Taliban factions, Taliban commander Doran Safi shot back, “I confirm that none of us will lay down arms even if he is paid mountains of money; none of us would abandon the right path” (al-Jazeera, January 30, 2010).

The earlier strategy of a hammer-and-anvil approach of defeating the Taliban – with the U.S. military and the Afghan National Army as the hammer and the Pakistani Army on the other side of the Durand Line as the anvil – was a failure. Pakistani village-flattening military incursions in the tribal regions led to the further Talibanization of large swathes of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa Province, resulting in a series of suicide attacks in many of Pakistan’s major urban centers. The current strategy of assassinating mid-level Taliban field commanders while reaching out to those willing to talk to Kabul and Washington was promulgated by now former Defense Secretary Robert Gates as the only means of ending the war (The News, July 5; USA Today, June 27). However, defining the “end of the war” as the withdrawal of Western troops ignores the fact several very prominent Karzai opponents do not appear ready to accept the return of the Taliban in any form. This may take the war in a new direction, one in which ethnic and religious factions are reconstituted along barely dormant fault lines, leaving no end in sight to this decades-long power struggle in the heart of Asia.


1. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, “Upholding Constitutional Principles and Rule of Law in Afghanistan,” Open Letter to President Hamid Karzai, July 5, 2011.